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Papal Protocol

Friday, October 9, 2009

During his long pontificate, Pope John Pall II visited 129 countries and met thousands of religious leaders, so this picture of him with Thailand’s supreme patriarch Somdet Phra Ariyavongsagatanana in 1984 might not seem so unusual. It is however, very unusual. You see, popes consider themselves (and are seen by many others) not just as religious leaders or a head of state, but as a monarch. And they are very concerned that they receive all the protocol befitting their lofty status. When the Pope visits your country, he doesn’t pay a call on you, you are shuffled off to pay one on him and are photographed giving him obeisance. Various religious leaders and dignitaries are invited to come and meet him, not the other way around. In all John Paul’s trips this situation was only ever reversed once - in Thailand. When it was announced that the Pope would like to make a two day visit to Thailand the protocol of his visit had to be discussed and agreed upon by the two governments. Vatican diplomats said the Pope would be honored to go to the royal palace to meet the king and that he would be most happy receive the supreme patriarch. With their usual exquisite politeness, the Thais let it be known that as a guest, they felt that the Pope should call on the supreme patriarch, who was after all, leader of 61 million Thai Buddhists. For the Vatican, this would never do. It would imply an equality between the Pope and a Buddhist leader. A series of long, complex and very delicate negotiations began but the Thais stuck to their guns. Normally, the invitation to meet a visiting pope is given and if it is not accepted on those terms you miss out. That ‘take it or leave it’ offer couldn’t very well be done in this case. The Pope could hardly visit a country and fail to meet with its most important religious personage. So in the end it was the Pope who went to pay his respects to the patriarch, who did not meet him at the gate of his residence, at the bottom of the stairs, at the top of the stairs, at the door or even inside, but sat, as usual, on his throne as the pope walked across the room to meet him. The Vatican usually issues photos of the Pope’s meetings with various dignitaries but strangely, pictures of him with the patriarch are quite hard to come across. This ‘building bridges with those of other faiths’ is all very well, but sometimes it takes its toll on a monarch’s dignity.

Sources: http://sdhammika.blogspot.com/2009/09/papal-protocol.html



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