It is not unheard of for non-Catholics to visit Catholic churches and shrines. It is less common to have non-Catholics visit those sites, pray alongside the faithful and claim to have received graces through the experience. Sri Lanka’s Madhu Shrine is such a site, and it had a profound effect on Pope Francis.
The shrine dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary draws Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus together in prayer. Faithful from all four religions say they receive graces from praying at the shrine and consider it an important place. During the 26 year war between government forces and Tamil rebel groups, both sides recognized the shrine as a demilitarized zone.
Pope Francis told journalists on Thursday that seeing faithful from the four religions praying together in Madhu inspired him to visit a Buddhist temple. The pope said, “Among the people, who are never wrong, there is something that unites them and if they are united in such a natural way as to go and pray together in a temple that is Christian but not only… How could I not go to the Buddhist temple?”
One of the Buddhist monks from the temple is a friend of Cardinal Malcom Ranjith of Colombo and was at the airport to greet Pope Francis. During the arrival formalities the monk invited Pope Francis to visit the temple. The pope was scheduled to meet with the Sri Lankan bishops, but they were still en route from Madhu. Pope Francis said he took advantage of the unexpected free time and arranged to visit the temple.
Christians are a minority in Sri Lanka. Buddhism is the most prevalent religion, with 69 per cent of Sri Lankans identifying as Buddhists. Muslims make up seven percent of the population, Hindus are another seven percent of the population and Christians come in at just over 6 percent of society.
Pope Francis answered several questions from journalists on board the flight from Colombo to Manila. The Vatican has not yet released a full transcript of that press conference.
According to Vatican Insider, the web based news service of Italy’s La Stampa newspaper, Pope Francis was asked about freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Pope Francis said, “One thing is true: each person has the right to practice their own religion freely, without causing offence to others. And that is what we all want. Secondly, offending or waging war, killing in the name of one’s own religion, in the name of God, is not right.”
Freedom of speech must be exercised, but to the point of offending others, according to the pope. Using one of the Vatican staff members to make a point, the pope said “if Mr. Gasbarri, who is a friend, insults my mother, that’s asking for a punch. Provoking and insulting other people’s faiths is not right.”
The pope was also asked about his next encyclical which is expected to focus on the environment. Pope Francis said, “I don’t know if humans who mistreat nature are fully responsible for climate change but they are largely responsible for it. We have taken hold of nature, of mother Earth, to some extent.” The pope said he read many works by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople on the topic to prepare for writing the encyclical. The final text should be completed by the end of March. The pope said he has sent a draft to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Secretariate of State and the Theologian of the Papal Household “so that they can make sure I am not talking nonsense.” Pope Francis said he hopes the encyclical can be released in June or July in multiple languages.
Asked about the importance of canonizing St. Joseph Vaz in Sri Lanka, Pope Francis spoke about men and women he has canonized who were important evangelizers in different parts of the world. He said he also hopes to canonize Junipero Serra in the fall during his visit to the United States for the World Meeting of Families. The comment launched speculation over where the canonization might happen and what other U.S. cities the pope might visit.