BANGKOK (UCAN) -- As Thai Catholics prayed for newly installed Pope Benedict XVI, some religious leaders voiced hopes the new pontiff will further Pope John Paul II's work in promoting peace and compassion.
Catholics all over Thailand prayed for Pope Benedict on April 24, the day he officially began his ministry as pope and presided at his installation Mass in St. Peter's Square.
That day at Assumption Cathedral in Bangkok, Bishop George Yod Phimphisan of Udon Thani, vice president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Thailand (CBCT), presided at a thanksgiving Mass for the new pope. The CBCT president, Cardinal Michael Michai Kitbunchu of Bangkok, was in Rome where he attended Pope John Paul's funeral and the conclave to elect the new pope.
Concelebrating were Archbishop Salvatore Pennacchio, apostolic nuncio to Thailand, Bishop Joseph Sangval Surasarang of Chiang Mai and Bishop Louis Chamniern Santisukniran of Nakhon Sawan. Hundreds of Catholics attended. Archbishop Pennacchio remarked during the Mass, "I wish to sincerely thank the Church in Thailand for offering a special prayer at Mass for the new pope in churches throughout the country today, just as you have gathered here with Bishop Phimphisan and other bishops."
Bishop Phimphisan remarked in his homily that the papal transition, from the lingering illness of Pope John Paul and his death on April 2 to the election of Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, attracted great interest in local mass media. Media's interest in the Catholic Church, he said, was an opportunity to proclaim the "truth and the Gospel."
The Redemptorist bishop also observed, "Today is a special day for us to come together to thank God in this Mass to pray for Pope Benedict XVI so that he can carry out his ministry according to the will of God."
United Broadcasting Corporation, Thailand's leading satellite and cable TV operator, televised Pope John Paul's funeral and Pope Benedict's election.
Many religious leaders, including Imam Sanya Deleelaw, a Muslim prayer leader in Bangkok's Klong Toey, and Buddhist monk Venerable Kittisak Kittisopano, learned of the papacy's transitions through extensive media coverage. They spoke to UCA News about Pope Benedict and his predecessor.
Imam Sanya said he hopes the new pope will follow the tradition of Pope John Paul in calling for peace and compassion in places where conflict and suffering prevail. "No matter who instigates the violence in southern Thailand," he said, "I am convinced they will do it to benefit themselves instead of the common good of society." Muslim insurgents have been blamed for violence since January 2004 that has claimed more than 700 lives in four provinces of Thailand on or near its border with Malaysia.
"If it is possible," the imam said, "I wish the new pope would speak to the people in southern Thailand, regardless of their religion, and ask them to build peace and have compassion for one another."
Venerable Kittisak said he learned from media that the new pope is "an extremely qualified person who held a high-ranking position with a great deal of important experience." The Buddhist monk said he believes Pope Benedict will continue the legacy of Pope John Paul.
"Though we come from different religious traditions, we have great respect for Pope John Paul, who showed a fine example in becoming the voice of the voiceless and suffering," he said. "We respect him for standing for peace, justice and compassion," added Venerable Kittisak, who directs Sekiyatham, a community of Buddhist monks engaged in social and environmental concerns.
The monk, who has actively worked with the Catholic Church and Muslim groups on social issues, said that as a Buddhist, he wants Pope Benedict to encourage Catholics to engage with people of different faiths in grassroots activities that help build a peaceful society.
Father Chumpha, pastor of St. John Church in Bangkok and TV commentator for the special broadcasts, pointed out to UCA News that before becoming pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger worked for 24 years as prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, so he "closely collaborated" with Pope John Paul.
The priest, who studied theology in Rome for seven years and now teaches at Saeng Tham College, the national major seminary near Bangkok, said he has no doubt Pope Benedict will continue Pope John Paul's legacy since the new pope stressed unity and peace among all people during his installation Mass.
Father Chumpha also noted that the new pope has already met with leaders of other religions, a gesture that "seems to show the new pope wants to reach out to other religions." Father Chumpha said this shows the pope wants Catholics in Thailand also to reach out to people of other religions.
More than 90 percent of Thailand's 63 million people are Buddhists, but four southern Thai provinces have Muslim majorities. Government statistics put the number of Muslim Thais at 3 million, but some Muslim bodies speak of as many as 6 million. There are an estimated 300,000 Catholics in Thailand.
According to Father Chumpha, many Thai Catholics are happy to have a new pope and want him to follow the path of Pope John Paul, especially in working to promote peace and building unity among people of other religions.
Siriporn Matulongphitak, a parishioner of St. Nicholas Church in northern Thailand's Phitsanulok province, agrees. She told UCA News she wishes Pope Benedict will visit Thailand and meet with the Buddhist patriarch to show that, despite their religious difference, they respect one another as members of the same human family.
"Though we are a minority, Thailand has given us freedom to practice our religion," the mother of two added. She also expressed hopes Pope Benedict will bless Thai Catholics so that they can live as witnesses to their faith.