FRANCIS PAUL SIAH
COMMENT | Pope Francis will be in Thailand on Nov 20-23, after which he will visit Japan until Nov 26.
It has been nearly four decades since a pontiff visited Thailand and Japan.
The late Pope St John Paul II went to Japan – where Shinto and Buddhism are the main religions – in 1981, and he travelled to Thailand three years later, where he met with the late King Rama IX and the Queen Mother.
Within Southeast Asia, John Paul also visited Singapore in 1986 and the Philippines in 1995. Pope Francis was also in the Philippines in 2015.
In 1989, John Paul brought a message of Roman Catholic kinship and loyalty to Indonesia as he paid a diplomatically delicate visit to the world’s most populous Muslim country.
In 2017, Pope Francis also visited Myanmar.
So the head of the Roman Catholic Church has visited all our closest neighbours – Singapore, Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar and Indonesia – but has never set foot in Malaysia.
It will not be surprising if Catholics here start to question whether they will ever see their Supreme Pontiff in Malaysia.
The first-ever poser on that to reach me came from a Catholic chat group in Kuching last month.
A friend posted: “Pope Francis will be visiting Thailand and Japan in November. If Thailand and Japan with such a small Catholic population are able to get the Pope to go there, what about us, Sarawak with 550,000 Catholics?
“Can the Malaysian Ambassador to the Vatican, who is a Sarawakian, look into the matter? A papal visit to Malaysia is long overdue.”
Indeed, I can readily agree that a papal visit is long overdue and I’m glad that the subject has been broached.
I recall bringing up the papal visit in an ex-classmates reunion in Kuching in 2016. At that time, I suggested starting a petition to Wisma Putra to invite Pope Francis to Malaysia with a special stopover in Sarawak.
I also had this peculiar idea that all those baptised or named ‘Francis’ in Sarawak initiated the petition. My namesake and dear friend of 50 years, Francis Ling, who is now in Canada, would remember my proposal then.
I can also recall mentioning the papal visit petition to a Catholic priest, Rev Father Gregory, in Petaling Jaya at around that time.
Perhaps the time is now right to appeal to Putrajaya to invite Pope Francis for the first-ever papal visit to Malaysia.
We established diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 2013, with former Sabah chief minister Bernard Dompok as our first ambassador to the Holy See.
Today, Kuching-born Westmoreland Edward Palon is the new envoy, succeeding Dompok in June this year.
The Vatican has also established the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See to Malaysia at Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, which is the diplomatic mission of the Holy See to Malaysia, equivalent to an embassy.
The nunciature was established in 2013, when Malaysia became the 179th state to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See. The Pope’s representative to Malaysia is Archbishop Joseph Salvador Marino.
On Nov 19, 2016, Malaysian Catholics also rejoiced with the news of the appointment of Kuala Lumpur Archbishop Emeritus Soter Fernandez as a cardinal – the first Malaysian to be made a Prince of the Church.
Two days later, Soter, then 86, was in Rome to receive the traditional biretta hat from Pope Francis during a consistory ceremony to install 17 new cardinals.
Let us now take a look at the Catholic population of the two countries Pope Francis will be visiting next week.
In Thailand, the small Catholic community represents less than 0.5 percent of the mostly Buddhist population. Catholics in Japan make up less than 0.5 percent of the country’s population.
By comparison, as of 2010, there are 1,007,643 Catholics in Malaysia – approximately 3.56 percent of the total population. Christianity in Malaysia is practised by 9.2 percent of the population. In Sarawak, about 40 percent of its 2.8 million people are Christians.
Already, many Malaysians have made plans to travel to Thailand for the visit of Pope Francis and to attend a special mass at the Supachalasai National Stadium in Bangkok, on Nov 21.
Malaysia’s Ambassador to Thailand Jojie Samuel said that in addition to the mass on Nov 21, a second mass for 1,500 Christian youths from across Thailand will be presided over by the Holy Father at the Assumption Cathedral in the Thai capital on Nov 22.
“The mass on Nov 21 is open to visiting Malaysians,” Samuel told the New Straits Times.
I believe many Malaysians, Christians or not, will feel most blessed to see Pope Francis in the country. Catholics will surely welcome the Holy Father with open arms for his first historic visit to our homeland.
As a Malaysian and a Catholic, I sincerely and earnestly appeal to Wisma Putra to place an invitation to the Pope high on its list.
To be able to see the Supreme Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on our own soil will mean the world to many of us.
FRANCIS PAUL SIAH heads the Movement for Change, Sarawak (MoCS) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.