Pope Francis has become the second pontiff to visit a Buddhist temple, changing his schedule at the last minute to pay his respects at an important place of worship in Sri Lanka’s capital and to witness a key ritual for Buddhists: the opening of a casket containing relics of two important disciples of the Buddha.
Francis listened respectfully as Buddhist monks chanted and prayed while opening the stupa, or casket, in the Agrashravaka temple on Wednesday, the Vatican said.
Usually, the relics are only put on display once a year, and Buddhists from around Sri Lanka line up for days to pay homage to them since it is such a rare privilege.
The head monk at the temple, Banagala Upatissa, said that allowing the pope to see the relics was “the highest honour and respect we can offer to his holiness”.
Upatissa had invited Francis to visit the temple when he greeted him at Colombo’s airport on Tuesday, the Vatican said. Upatissa, who heads the Mahabodhi Society Headquarters, a key Buddhist organisation, is active in interfaith dialogue and visited the Vatican during Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy.
John Paul II visited a Buddhist temple during a 1984 visit to Thailand.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev Federico Lombardi, said Francis did not pray or meditate during the visit, though he did take off his shoes as all visitors to the temple must do.
He noted that unlike Francis’s recent visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul – where the pope did pause for a moment in prayer with the chief imam – this visit was a much shorter affair, arranged at the last minute.
“There was not a time of silence in this sense,” Lombardi told reporters. “I can only say the pope was listening with great respect, and listening also to the prayer of the monk showing the relics and this was all.”
Pope Francis wears a saffron coloured robe at the Interreligious Meet, Sri Lanka