Pope Francis leaves today for a grueling week-long tour of Sri Lanka and the Philippines, during which he is expected to encourage peace and reconciliation, console victims of a catastrophic natural disaster, and promote interreligious harmony.
Francis’ 7th and longest apostolic visit outside of Italy will also include the canonization of Sri Lanka’s first saint, three open-air Masses and possible references to the dangers of climate change.
The apostolic voyage comes exactly 20 years after Pope St. John Paul II made a similar visit to the two countries. Pope Paul VI also visited both nations in 1970 — a visit overshadowed by an attempting stabbing of the late pontiff which left him with superficial wounds. Security for this visit, like any other papal visit, is expected to be tight.
The Pope will leave Rome Monday evening and take an overnight flight to Colombo, arriving at 9 a.m. Tuesday. He will be welcomed by President-elect Maithripala Sirisena who surprisingly won last week’s presidential elections. Defeated President Mahinda Rajapaksa had gambled on calling for an early election, a decision which upset the Holy See as it had already confirmed the papal visit and prefers to avoid election periods to minimize political exploitation of the Pope.
Sri Lanka is a very religious country and has suffered in recent years from tensions between Buddhists, the country’s largest religious group, and Muslims. Francis will plead for dialogue and peaceful coexistence at a meeting with interreligious leaders Tuesday, attended by Buddhists, Hindus, as well as Muslims of Sinhalese and Tamil ethnicities.
The Pope will also visit the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary in Madhu, the most-visited Catholic site in the country, located in the heart of where a bloody 30-year civil war between Tamils and Sinhalese was fought until its violent end in 2009.
The church played “an important role” in helping to end the hostilities, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters Wednesday, stressing that Catholics belong to both Tamil and Singhalese ethnicities. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, told me last week that bringing a “true spirit of reconciliation” between the two sides is one of Sri Lanka’s “main challenges” as “signs of intense suspicion and fear” remain.
“It is compounded on the one side by the lack of a clear plan to engage in a process of dialogue between them and to seek a mutually acceptable solution and, on the other, through a spirit of fear on the part of the Tamils, that their traditional habitats are being deprived to them,” he said.
He added that the Tamils’ aspiration to live in peace “is being eroded, while the majority-Sinhalese community, too, feels fearful that there is an international conspiracy to divide their homeland, their only little corner of the earth, and to throw them out — a conspiracy that they feel is being fostered by the former LTTE guerilla group [Tamil Tigers] now living in exile in the west and enjoying the support of the powerful Western nations.” Ranjith believes a “spirit of give and take” is required of both sides as well as a need to “strengthen interreligious harmony and cooperation.”
A further highlight of the Sri Lanka trip will be Pope Francis’ canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz a 17th-century missionary from Goa, India, who saved the Sri Lankan Catholic Church from destruction at the hands of Dutch colonial rulers.
Ranjith has high hopes for the visit, noting that Francis is “much loved” by the people. His non-European nationality helps them to detach the papacy from the colonialism of the past, and view him as “one of their own,” he said.
After a six-hour flight, Francis will arrive in Manila on Wednesday evening and face an intense program the next morning that will include a speech to diplomats, a visit with bishops and clergy, and a meeting with families.
The following day will be devoted to visiting Tacloban, a region devastated by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013 that cost 7,000-8,000 lives and affected 15 million people. More than 100,000 people are expected to greet the Pope who will celebrate Mass there and dine with some 30 survivors of the typhoon.
The Pope is expected to make remarks about the environment, ahead of his encyclical to be published later this year which is address the subject of climate change among other issues.
On Jan. 18, Francis will have a brief meeting with the country’s religious leaders, followed by a meeting with up to 30,000 young people. The day will end with an open-air Mass at the same location where Pope St. John Paul II celebrated World Youth Day in 1995 and attracted between 4 and 5 million faithful.
Pope Francis has a keen interest in Asia, a continent Benedict XVI was unable to visit during his pontificate. Addressing diplomats today at the Vatican, Francis said he was making the visit “as a sign of my interest and pastoral concern” for the people of the continent.
“To them and to their governments I wish to voice yet again the desire of the Holy See to offer its own contribution of service to the common good, to harmony and social concord,” he said.
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