On Wednesday evening following his scheduled events, Pope Francis made a brief, unplanned visit to a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka in a gesture of interreligious dialogue, the Holy See press officer has said.

Fr. Federico Lombardi explained Jan. 14 that after his visit to the Marian shrine at Madhu, Pope Francis met political leaders at the nunciature in Colombo, and then went to archbishop's rectory hoping to meet the Sri Lankan bishops since he missed them due to scheduling delays the day prior.

The bishops, however, had not yet arrived, and so Pope Francis went to Mahabodhi Viharaya, a nearby Buddhist temple to which he had been invited, Fr. Lombardi recounted. He saw a statue of the Buddha and two other Buddhist holy men, and he was invited by the monks to see the temple's stupa, a bell containing relics. The stupa is opened only once a year, but a concession was made for the Pope, and he was allowed to see inside the bell. The monks sang a prayer as it was opened, and Pope Francis "was listening with great respect."

Francis was only able to stay at the temple for some 20 minutes "because the Pope had to to back to meet the bishops," Fr. Lombardi explained, adding that it was "a great occasion to continue and to foster dialogue with the Buddhists."

Fr. Cyril Garmeni Fernando, a local priest, said that it is a common occurrence in Sri Lanka for Catholics to visit Buddhist temples: "There are many temples around, many temples per parish. We go to their celebrations when invited, they come to ours when invited."

Some 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists, while Christians account for seven percent of the population.

Pope Francis' gesture, he added, is "a strong message for our people – not only for Catholics – which will show his good will toward other religions. Therefore we are grateful for this, also, this nice, and very strong gesture."

Fr. Lombardi put the impromptu visit in the context of recent papacies: "I have seen that to visit a mosque or a synagogue was not normal for the Popes until a certain time; now it's still not normal, but it happens."

"It means that interreligious dialogue is going on … practices of this are developing, and also this visit is one of them."