By Jose Kavi
New Delhi: Pope Francis on November 27 expressed his love for India as the world’s most respected religious leader flew over the country on his way to Myanmar.
“I love India,” the head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics said when George Kallivayalil, the only Indian among 75 accompanying media persons, greeted him inside the special flight from Rome.
The aircraft flew above New Delhi, Lucknow, Varanasi and Kolkata before arriving at Yangon, the largest city of Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority nation.
Pope Francis is on a six-day tour of the Asian countries of Myanmar and Bangladesh. He will conclude the visit on December 2.
Kallivayalil, the New Delhi-based resident editor of the Deepika newspaper, says the Pope Francis walked to him and hugged and shook hands inside the flight. “Pope Francis gave me special love when he was told that I am from an Indian newspaper, Deepika. Pope then said, ‘I love India,’” he added.
The Pontiff had last year expressed his desire to visit India, where Christianity arrived in the apostolic times. The visit could not materialize mainly because of the difficulties in adjusting the dates of the Pope and the Indian leaders, media reports indicated.
Kallivayalil, who flew to Rome from New Delhi, to join the papal entourage, said the only question fellow journalists wanted to know from him was why the Pope did not go to India. “Why is the Pope not going to India? Pope Francis himself had assured that he would be visiting India this year. What happened then?” a journalist from Portugal asked him. The question was repeated by scribes from Argentina and the United States, Kallivayalil added.
Most scribes then concluded the current political scenario in India was the reason for canceling the papal visit to the country. They then turned to the top officers of the Vatican Press Office. “They too did not give any clear answers. They said they hope the Pope would visit India soon,” Kallivayalil explained.
India was the first Asian country visited by a Pope in the Catholic Church’s two millennia of history. Pope Paul VI visited Mumbai in 1964. Later Pope John Paul visited India twice in 1986 and 1999. Pope Benedict XVI never considered an India visit during his eight years of pontificate.
India has more than 19 million Catholics who live in 174 dioceses, the largest in Asia. The country also tops in the number of Catholic priests and religious in the region.
Pope Francis arrived in Yangon, the largest city of Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority nation, at 1:30 pm. Catholics in colorful ethnic traditional dress waved flags and danced at Yangon’s airport in a joyful welcome the pontiff to visit their nation.
Shortly before leaving for Myanmar, the Pope had spoken to some 30,000 people in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican City. “I ask you to be with me in prayer so that, for these peoples, my presence is a sign of affinity and hope,” he reportedly told them.
Pope Francis will meet civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. He will also hold talks with army chief Min Aung Hlaing.
Myanmar’s estimated 700,000 Catholics make up just over 1 percent of the country’s 51 million people and are scattered in far-flung corners of the nation, many of them roiled by conflict.
Around 200,000 Catholics are pouring into Yangon by plane, train and car ahead of a huge open-air Mass on December 29.