Pope Francis meets the Buddhist Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, Ariyavongsagatanana IX. (Vatican Media)

In Thailand, Pope Francis wins hearts by breaking the mold

BANGKOK (RNS) — In Thailand's highly formal society, Pope Francis’ relaxed approach has already had an influence. He has brought political and religious leaders together to help those left behind in the country's increasingly commercial and fast-paced culture.

“In some things, the pope breaks the mold, even though he is respectful of other people’s traditions," said Father Matteo Bruno, who for the past 20 years has worked as a Catholic missionary in Northern Thailand, in an interview with Religion News Service on Friday (Nov. 22). "He helps us understand that the mold must be broken with love, with welcoming.” 

During Pope Francis’ Nov. 20-23 apostolic visit to Bangkok, songs could often be heard in the city repeating the motto of the trip “Let Love Be the Bridge.” For Bruno, no image from the visit so far has been as powerful as that of Francis holding hands with the Supreme Buddhist Patriarch, Ariyavongsagatanana IX, following their meeting on Thursday (Nov. 22).

Francis gifted the Patriarch with a copy of the Abu Dhabi Declaration on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.” The document, signed by the pope together with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar during his visit to the United Arab Emirates this year, stands for interreligious cooperation and dialogue.

“Thai society is very hierarchical, meaning that whoever is on top is the leader,” Bruno said about the South-Asian monarchical state. “If the leaders hold hands, that means everybody holds hands. When the pope shook hands with the patriarch, when he shook hands with the king, it meant that all of us — Catholic or Buddhist — can hold each other's hands.”

Pope Francis, left, and his cousin, Sister Ana Rosa Sivori, visit the Supreme Buddhist Patriarch at Wat Ratchabophit Sathit Maha Simaram Temple, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, in Bangkok, Thailand. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Bruno spoke to RNS amidst the crowds that gathered to see Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Parish, a town known for its rich Catholic community about 35 minutes north of Bangkok. He explained that every Pad Thai or noodles joint around the area hangs pictures of Saint John Paul II’s meeting with the Thai king. “For them,” he explained, “these are the two most important people in the world.”

John Paul’s historic visit in 1983 was the first time a pope came to Thailand, and he strongly spoke on behalf of immigrants escaping war in Vietnam and Myanmar, as well as meeting with Buddhist and state representatives.

Protocol is a serious subject in Thailand, especially when it comes to royalty. When in the presence of the king, all Thai subjects must lie on the floor making sure that their heads are never too high. Some diplomats in the royal household, an inside source told RNS, wear kneecaps due to the large amount of time they spend kneeling down.

During John Paul’s visit, Bruno said, the debate around town was on whether his chair would be higher or lower than that of the king during their meeting.

Pictures of the historic encounter show them sitting on the same armchair even though footage of the meeting is very hard to come by. The video of Pope Francis’ private audience with King Rama X has been edited before being distributed to the journalists following him on the papal flight.

But what people were allowed to see of the meeting was still remarkable, observers said. Francis shook hands with the king in what seemed like a relaxed setting. The pope’s cousin, missionary sister Ana Rosa Sivori, even stayed behind to speak to the king alone for a while. At the end, the queen invited the king to salute the pope while he was in his car, which he did to the surprise of many Thai viewers.

In this photo released by The Royal Household Bureau, Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, left, talks to Pope Francis, his cousin Ana Rosa Sivori, and Thai Queen Suthida at Dusit Palace, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, in Bangkok, Thailand. (The Royal Household Bureau via AP)

"In Thailand, the monarch pays respect and reverence to religious leaders,” said Warawudh Chuwiruch, former director-general of Consular Affairs of the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a message to RNS on Nov. 22, adding that many Buddhists would not be aware of whether the pope’s attitude was informal or not.

Images such as these “were unthinkable” when he first arrived to the country, and the resonance that they have had on the local media outlets alone makes the entire trip worthwhile, according to Bruno.

Francis invited the local Catholic community to be inspired by the missionaries who first stepped foot in Thailand and worked with everyone, including those who were discarded or left behind.

“The Gospel is a gift to be shared with and for everyone: doctors of the law, sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes,” Francis told Thai bishops on Friday. “With and for all sinners, then as now.”

The pope’s message implied that following the rules is less important than having a personal relationship with Christ, according to missionary priest Nicolas Lefebure of the Missions Étrangères de Paris who has been living in Thailand for the past 14 years.

“We are in Asia, and they love rules,” he told RNS in an interview on Friday. “But the purpose of the pope’s teaching is to meet with god’s mercy. Even though your life is not perfect, and you don’t adhere to the rule, you can still restore your inner life, stand up and walk forward.”

Rapid economic development in Thailand has led to a growing income divide. Urbanization has increased the number of poor and marginalized, who are exploited and often turn to drug addiction, which Bruno described as a “social plague.”

Immigrants and refugees have no legal status in the country as they await reallocation, making their “conditions very, very difficult,” and NGOs struggle to negotiate with the government for better conditions on their behalf, Lefebure said.

The contradictions of Thailand’s growth are best represented by an unfinished skyscraper, the Ghost Tower, located smack in the middle of Bangkok. Its exposed infrastructure and gaping windows are as much a testament to Thailand’s vertiginous economic development in the 1990s as of the unexpected downfalls of a consumerist society.

“Our world faces complex challenges such as economic and financial globalization and its grave consequences for the development of local communities,” Francis said during a meeting with representatives of Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist denominations at the prestigious Chulalongkorn University on Friday.

“Now is the time to be bold and envision the logic of encounter and mutual dialogue as the path, common cooperation as the code of conduct, and reciprocal knowledge as a method and standard,” he added.

By holding and shaking hands, Francis “has planted a seed that will surely bear fruit in the future,” according to Bruno, but it’s now up to the Catholic community in Thailand to take this forward. Whether the pope’s attitude breeched protocol or not, it’s likely to have a powerful impact on Thai Catholics and the way they interact with their society.

“His visit underlines the importance of Catholicism to Thai society,” Chuwiruch said, and “has elevated the image of Catholicism in Thailand to a higher level, which will result in more acceptance in the country.”