COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Pope Francis became the second pope to visit a Buddhist temple on Wednesday, 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 of relics of two important disciples of the Buddha.
Francis listened respectfully as Buddhist monks chanted and prayed while opening the stupa, or casket, containing relics in the Agrashravaka Temple, 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, told The Associated Press that allowing the pope to witness the relics "is the highest honor 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, an important Buddhist organization, is active in interfaith dialogue and visited the Vatican during Pope Benedict XVI's papacy; a photo of the two men is in one of the Mahabodi reception rooms.
St. John Paul II visited a Buddhist temple during a 1984 visit to Thailand.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Francis didn't 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' 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."
The visit to the temple was one of three last-minute additions Francis made to his busy schedule Wednesday. After canonizing Sri Lanka's first saint and traveling to a northern jungle to Sri Lanka's holiest Christian shrine, Francis also met with the ousted president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the Vatican embassy.
Lombardi said Rajapaksa, who lost power in an election he called just days before Francis arrived, wanted to keep the encounter private.
Francis then met with Sri Lankan bishops, whose meeting had been scuttled on Tuesday because Francis was too tired after greeting dignitaries and crowds upon his arrival.
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