By Robin Gomes
The next apostolic visit of Pope Francis will be his fourth to Asia, after South Korea in 2014, Sri Lanka and the Philippines the following year, and Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017.
The first and the last Pope to set foot on the soil of Thailand and Japan was Pope Saint John Paul II over 35 years ago.
St. John Paul II’s 9th foreign visit was an 11-day trip that took him to Pakistan, the Philippines, Guam, Japan and Anchorage in Alaska in February in 1981.
The Pope, who was 61 then, dedicated 3 days to Japan, February 23–26, 1981, during which delivered some 18 discourses. Among his engagements were meetings with the religious, clergy, bishops, representatives of Christians Churches, the diplomatic corps and young people.
A highlight of the trip was his visit to the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, devastated by 2 nuclear bombs by the United States on August 6 and 9 respectively in 1945, triggering Japan’s surrender and the subsequent end of World War II.
“War is the work of man. War is the destruction of human life. War is death,” St. John Paul II had resounded in a prophetic voice while visiting Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial on February 25, 1981.
“Nowhere do these truths impose themselves with as much force as in this city of Hiroshima, at this Peace Memorial,” he said mentioning the two cities, adding they were a reminder of how “how man is capable of incredible destruction”. “Their names will always stand out as the names of the only cities of our time that have been chosen to warn future generations about how war can destroy human efforts to create a world of peace.”
The following day, February 26, he visited Nagasaki, where he met the survivors of the nuclear blast at the Hill of Mercy Hospital.
“What you suffer also inflicted a wound in the heart of every human being on earth,” he told the victims. “Your life here today is the most convincing appeal that could be addressed to all men of goodwill, the most convincing appeal against war and for peace.”
In Nagasaki, St. John Paul II also paid homage to the faith of Japanese Catholics when he visited the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum and Monument on Nishizaka Hill, built in memory of the Christians who were killed for their faith in 1597.
The Jesuits were responsible for planting the seeds of Christianity in Japan, through the missionary efforts of St. Francis Xavier, one of the founding members of the Society of Jesus along with St. Ignatius of Loyola. Xavier and the Jesuits landed there in 1549, establishing several Jesuit communities. A steady stream of Jesuits, mainly Portuguese, continued to arrive in the country through the 1570s.
As a young Jesuit, Pope Francis dreamt of working as a missionary in the country, but was unable to realize it due to health reasons after a part of his lungs was removed due to a serious infection when he was a teenager.
The schedule of Pope Francis’ Japan visit is still being planned. He is likely to follow the footsteps of his predecessor, visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and paying tribute to the Japanese martyrs.
The theme of his Japan visit is “Protect Life”, that focuses on caring for life and Creation. The theme is particularly relevant to Japan where the nuclear threat is quite palpable.
St. John Paul II visited Thailand for the first time in 1984 during his 21st apostolic visit, which also took him Fairbanks in Alaska, South Korea, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
In Thailand, he delivered 5 discourses, visited a refugee camp and met the clergy, religious, laity, government authorities, the diplomatic corps and the bishops of the country.
Pope Francis is visiting Thailand, formerly Siam, to mark the “350th Anniversary of the Apostolic Vicariate of Siam Mission 1669-2019”. And as the theme is, “Christ’s Disciples, Missionary Disciples”.
The establishment of the Apostolic Vicariate of Siam formally marked the beginning of the local Church in the country. Through the past 350 years, it has grown into 11 dioceses today with about 300,000 Catholics.
“I pray that you may grow in holiness and continue to work in the spread of Christ’s kingdom by fostering solidarity, fraternity and the desire for goodness, truth and justice in your beloved country,” Pope Francis had written in a message to the Church in Thailand when it marked the 350th anniversary on May 18.
And as the theme of the visit suggests, when he is in Thailand in November, he will encourage Thailand’s Catholics, who make up a little over 1% of the country’s predominantly Buddhist Population, on the path of missionary discipleship of Christ.