Pope Francis made a spontaneous visit to a Buddhist temple Wednesday afternoon during his two-day visit to this island nation in what appears to be the second such visit by a pope.
Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said Francis decided to make the visit after trying to meet with Sri Lanka's Catholic bishops but finding they had not yet returned to the capital from the day's visit to the northern Sri Lankan town of Madhu.
"This is the way in which the pope acts," Lombardi said, laughing lightly before continuing the story: "So then we went to a Buddhist temple because the Buddhists are an important authority."
Francis, Lombardi said at a press conference Wednesday night, went to the Mahabodhi temple in Colombo, where he met with several Buddhist monks and their chief monk, Banagala Upatissa.
The pope took off his shoes upon entering the temple and went into the center of the space accompanied by the monks, Lombardi said. Together, they saw a statue of the Buddha and then the monks showed the pope a special bell jar that contains religious relics.
The jar, the spokesman said, is normally only opened once a year, but the monks decided to open it to show the pope the relics. While doing so, the monks sang a special song of prayer. The pope, Lombardi said, was "listening with great respect" to the prayer.
Lombardi accompanied the pope during the visit to the temple and was joined by Sri Lankan Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the bishop who serves as apostolic nuncio to the country, and several others.
While it was not immediately certain that a pope had visited a Buddhist temple before, news reports indicate that Pope John Paul II visited a Buddhist temple during his 1984 visit to Thailand.
A Sri Lankan spokesman at the press conference said it was "normal" for Catholic priests to visit Buddhist temples in the country, where an estimated 72 percent of the some 21 million population are Buddhist.
Following his visit to the Buddhists, Lombardi said Francis returned to visit with the Sri Lankan bishops. The pope had planned to meet with the bishops Tuesday but canceled because his schedule had gone long that day.
Francis also had another expected visit Wednesday evening: with former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had served as president since 2005 but lost his re-election bid on Thursday. Lombardi said that was a private visit so the former leader could have a "personal occasion" with the pope.
Francis has been visiting Sri Lanka since Tuesday in a two-part Asian voyage that will see him continue on to the Philippines on Thursday.
On Tuesday, the pope had a private state visit with the Sri Lankan president and took part in an interreligious meeting. On Wednesday morning, he led an outdoor Mass with some 500,000 in attendance to canonize Sri Lanka's first saint, 17th-century missionary Oratorian Fr. Joseph Vaz.
Wednesday afternoon, Francis had been in Madhu, an area about 200 miles north of Colombo that was most impacted by the 1983-2009 Sri Lankan civil war.