The welcome for Pope Francis — the first Pontiff to visit Myanmar, where Catholics are a small minority — was as unexpected for the great throngs of people lining the streets of Yangon as it was refined and festive. And his words resonated clearly as he unexpectedly addressed a group of religious representatives whom he had met at the Archbishop’s residence. Speaking off-the-cuff in Spanish, Pope Bergoglio immediately expressed his conviction and trust that the various faiths, united but not uniform, can contribute through their very differences to building peace and harmony.
So courteously was he welcomed, it was as if the guest had presented an impromptu calling card to introduce himself to the entire population. Which the Pope followed up several hours later in the country’s new capital, Nay Pyi Taw, surrounded by the green of the immense forest, as he addressed the Authorities and Diplomatic Corps after listening to the warm greeting of the State Counsellor and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
Just a few months after the establishment of normal diplomatic relations between Myanmar and the Holy See early last May, the Pontiff explained the aim of his visit, which is, first and foremost, “to pray with the nation’s small but fervent Catholic community, to confirm them in their faith, and to encourage them in their efforts to contribute to the good of the nation”. In this small Church the first Beatification was celebrated in 2014: that of two martyrs, an indigenous catechist and an Italian missionary. In 2015 Francis created the first cardinal originating from the country: Archbishop Charles Bo of Yangon, who in these days is hosting the Pontiff at his residence. The Pope affirmed that, although a minority in an almost entirely Buddhist country, and despite many difficulties, Catholicism is committed to building up “a just, reconciled and inclusive social order”. In Myanmar’s recent history conflicts have indeed multiplied, leaving a burdensome legacy of division. Thus today, the Pontiff continued, “the healing of those wounds must be a paramount political and spiritual priority”.
Politically, the “process of peacebuilding and national reconciliation can only advance through a commitment to justice and respect for human rights”, Francis recalled. And he explained that this peace must be “based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group — none excluded — to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good”.
To these clearest of words, the Pope added what he had said earlier to the religious representatives whom he had met that morning in Yangon. That is, that “religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nationbuilding”, thereby contributing to healing “the emotional, spiritual and psychological wounds of those who have suffered in the years of conflict”.
St. Peter’s Square
Jan. 17, 2018
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