Pope’s private meetings in Thailand, Japan focus on ordinary people

Pope Francis at the general audience in St Peter Square Feb 22 2017 Credit LOsservatore Romano 2 CNA Pope Francis at the general audience in St. Peter Square, Feb. 22, 2017. | Vatican Media.

Among Pope Francis' scheduled meetings during next week's visit to Japan and Thailand are a series of encounters with ordinary Catholics, including the sick and disabled, which will mainly take place away from the spotlight.

These quiet encounters, especially with those on the margins of society, have become a hallmark for Francis, known for his gestures of humility and love of spending time with ordinary people, removed from cameras and media.

Besides meetings with heads of state, which are always reserved in nature, Francis' trip to Thailand Nov. 20-23 will include personally greeting 40 sick and disabled people, who will be brought to the hall of the St. Louis Hospital in Bangkok Nov. 21.

Friday Nov. 22, after Mass with young people in Bangkok's Cathedral of the Assumption, the pope will also greet 10 employees of the curia of the Church in Thailand.

As customary during the pope's trips, he will also spend time with Thailand's Jesuits.

In Japan, Pope Francis will greet the wife and son of deceased American photojournalist Joe O'Donnell, who photographed the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombings in Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945 and 1946.

He will also spend a little time in Tokyo with about 20 young people who take part in the activities of the pontifical foundation Scholas Occurentes, which Pope Francis founded in 2013.

The pope's final morning in Japan, Nov. 26, will be spent at the Catholic Sophia University, where he will celebrate a private early morning Mass with Jesuits in the university chapel. After breakfast, he will visit elderly and ill priests of Japan.

According to Vatican statistics, there are about 1,400 diocesan and religious priests in Japan.

One symbolic encounter, which could possibly take place in Tokyo, is a greeting between Pope Francis and ex-death row inmate Iwao Hakamada.

Hakamada, 83, was released from death row after 48 years. A boxer, he had been convicted in 1966 of a quadruple murder but was released in 2014 when new DNA evidence led to a suspension of his sentence. He is currently awaiting retrial by Japan's supreme court.

Hakamada was baptized in prison on Christmas Eve 1984. His sister wrote to the Vatican in May asking for Francis to meet her brother when in Japan.

Holy See press office director Matteo Bruni said Nov. 15 that no meeting between the two is on the program, but that the bishops of Japan have invited Hakamada to take part in Francis' final Mass in Tokyo Nov. 25.

A meeting between the two could take place on the sidelines there, especially fitting as the theme of the pope's trip in Japan is "Protect all life."

Francis has also been vocal regarding his opposition to the use of the death penalty. In 2018, the Vatican changed the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the issue, calling it "inadmissible."

Both of the pope's translators for this trip are also personal choices.

In Japan, Francis' interpreter will be an Argentine Jesuit sent to Japan by Pope Francis when he was the Jesuit provincial in Argentina.

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While in Thailand, the pope will have his second cousin, a Salesian missionary, at his side acting as translator.

Sister Ana Rosa Sivori, Pope Francis' second cousin, has been a missionary in Thailand for over 50 years.

Pope Francis' six-day journey to Asia will focus on the themes of peace, especially nuclear disarmament, dialogue with other religions, and defense of the environment, Bruni said Nov. 15.

Another motivation behind the trip is to encourage the small Catholic communities, which in Japan have deep historic roots.

In both countries, Catholics make up less than half a percent of the population.

In a video message sent Friday to the people of Thailand, Pope Francis said that during his trip he will "have the opportunity to meet with the Catholic community of Thailand to encourage them in faith and in the contribution they make to the whole of society."

"I trust that my visit will contribute to highlighting the importance of interfaith dialogue, mutual understanding and fraternal cooperation, especially in the service of the poor, the needy and in the service of peace: at this moment we need to work so hard for peace," he added.

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