Rainbow of colours in the 'Golden Land'
The Bible speaks of the wise men from the East coming to see the messiah. The whole of Myanmar is awaiting to see our dear Holy Father Pope Francis.Just a year ago, this would have been just a dream to our simple people.God is great. We have the unimaginable grace of seeing our dear Pope in our own land.
Pope Francis is the prophet of modern age.Often he spoke of ‘perspectives from the margin’ and urged all shepherds to ‘ go to the sheep and come back with the smell of the sheep”.True to his word he is coming to this small flock of Catholics - and also to Bangladesh where the church is smaller than our church.He arrives at a time when the country is in the news about the displacement of thousands of people.There is a great expectation that the Holy Father’s presence will melt everyone’s heart and move the country towards lasting peace.
Pope will come to see a great nation.This nation has eight tribes and 135 sub tribes. This is a colorful nation.Theravada Buddhism is the majority religion.The popular mediation practice – Vipassana ( Mindfulness) was started in Myanmar.Myanmar is a very strong Buddhist nation.Around 72 percent of the people are adherents to this faith.Monasticism and Asceticism are integral parts of Buddhism.There are 500,000 monks and 70,000 nuns in the Buddhist monasteries living a witnessing life.
What kind of Catholic church will the Pope encounter in his trip?
Christianity came in the 16thcentury whenthe trade links with Goa brought missionaries. The great Missionary, Francis Xavier was attracted by Burma, though he never came, he urged his confreres to pay attention.Jesuits came at the request of Britto a chieftain. Initially they administered to Catholics who wereworking for the various kings.The life was hard for Christians. Depending on the political equations, Christians had rights or persecutions.Some Christians and four priests were killed once, and the survivors escaped to central Myanmar. This community still thrives and source of many vocations. Cardinal Charles Maung Bo comes from this community.
In the 18thand 19thcenturies, Catholic missionaries once again entered Myanmar. This time with the good relationship with the Kings and their dialogue with Buddhism they were able to move around.Though the Bamar ethnic group which had a long tradition of following Theravada Buddhism did not receivethe message of the Gospel enthusiastically,the ethnic communities received the faith.Today90 percent of the Christianity is found among the ethnic communities.Christianityis found among Kachins, Kayahs, Chin, Karens. There are also Chineseand Indian originChristians.
Christianity had its measure of suffering – especially after Burma got independence from the British. The country started as a democracy but slipped into chronic conflicts because the first government choose to favor one religion, one language and one race. Deep economic problems led to a military coup twice. In 1964a military juntatook over.The next few years were a real way of the cross.All the church property was nationalized.Church was running some of the best schools in the country and reaching out to the remotest areas.All schools were taken away.The missionaries, who formed the backbone of the church were expelled. Overnight the church found itself literally in the streets.
A young church struggled hard.The seminary was left without professors.Church faced its existential crisis.But the deep faith and generosity of the Catholics and the hard work of the church personnelhas seen the church not only survived but thrived.Fromthree diocesesthe church has now 16 dioceses.From 160 prieststhere are 900 priests now, from 200 women religious now there are 2400 religious.The church has an army of Catechists who do commendable work among the remote communities.The priests and religious are very young and have lot of commitment in their lives though church is concentrating on competence building of its personnel now.
Church is a major player in social mission. It has a network of 16 Caritas offices with 800 staff rendering service highly appreciated by the UN and the diplomatic community here. It is a strong service providerin natural disasters andrefugee situations.For the last four years it is accompanying the internally displaced people in120 camps.
A suffocating dictatorship made life not easy for the Church.Its movement and activities were highly curtailed.An ideology called, “Burmese way to Socialism’ virtually pauperizeda country which was once the richest in South East Asia.From 1990 the country slowly opened up andthe church could send its personnel for short trainings outside the country.Till 2010, the military junta controlled everything – education, health, trade, movement of the people.2010 opened up democracy to the country. For the first time the whole church came together to celebrate 500 years of Catholicism in the country in 2014.
The church got into the task of serving the nation.It organized two nation level seminars to explore the areas where church can contribute towards peace and human development. Participants from UN, civil society and government helped the church to understand the needs of the country.In 2017 the church has worked out a Mission plan for five years.The five major areas where the church wants to contributeareeducation, Human Development, Women development,Protection of nature, Inter religious initiatives for peace. Church plays a major role in bringing the religions for peace.
What kind of country the Pope will be encountering
The Pope will see a country which was traditionally called as “ Golden Land” (Suvarna Bhumi).He will see a very colorfulcountry – ofseven tribes and 135 sub tribes.He will see a country which is steeped intwo traditions – the majority Theravada Buddhism and indigenous culture of ethnic people. He will see a land of million pagodas. He will be surprised to see a country soaked in Buddhistmonasticism- 500,000 monks and 70,000 nuns going around early morning with their begging bowls.
He will also see a great riot of colors of ethnic people.He will encounter even in the mass the rainbow of colors :of Kachins, Karens, Shans, Chins, Kayahs, Bamars, Indians and Chinese. Catholic church is really a colorful mosaic.Most of the Catholics belong to theethnic indigenous communities.
He will also see a country blessed with so many natural resources: Jade, Teak, Gold, Oil and Gas,water, huge tracts of forests.He will see a nation that is strategically situated between two big economic giants : India and China.He will be overjoyed to hear that this country is very young : the median age is just 27 and nearly 50 percent of the population is below the age of 30.He will see the great promise of a great nation.
His merciful heart will also be melted by wounds of the past - and the new wounds of a nation that is seeking elusive peace and development.He will hear about the unending ethnic conflicts, the displacement of thousands, the heart wrenching stories of the millions of youth who have been forced to seek employment in nearby countries.Hewill hear about how the innocent youth of Myanmarhas become the modern day slaves and sea slaves in the nearby countries.He will hear about the past generations who died without knowing their capacities owing to lack of quality education.
He will also hear of the extremism that is rearing its head and making everyone uneasy in a country known for grace and spiritual depth. He will aboutthe hate speech ofa few individuals who should be spreading peace and reconciliation.His heart will reach out to allreligionsto make religion an instrument of peace.
He will also see a country rushing to take its place in the global stage. He will see majority of the people need economic empowerment. He will hear about crony economy that refuses to embed equity into the new nation. As a proponent of economic justice and environmental justice, the Holy Father would pray for a country that take a path ofequity and environmental protection.
He will also the country struggling to gain international acceptance after the recent events saw huge number displaced to nearby country. Everyonefaces challenge in reaching out to a consensus, even in naming the suffering people. Even the name “Rohingya’ is contested He will encourage all parties to invest in peace. He will pray, as he always prayed, for the human dignity of all people regardless of religion or race.There will be much expectation on his utterances in his talks here.After visit to this country he will visit Bangladesh which received thousands ofrefugees.
How did the visit came about, what is the schedule in Myanmar?
As a church leader commented this visit is a ‘conspiracy of grace’!The small church never dreamt thatthe leader of the Catholic Church could visit this country.Catholic population is just 700,000. The country is one of the poorest one in the world. Church survives amidst heavy challenges. Holy Father has often spoke of “ perspective from Margins”.His pontificate was marked by special love for small and churches in margins.He elevated the archbishops in Yangon, Myanmar, and Dhaka, Bangla Desh to Cardinals.The Christians celebrated this gesture as a great empowerment of church in margins.
His visit to Bangladesh was announced much earlier.Suddenly there was a news that the Holy Father could consider a visit on the way to Myanmar.It was a pleasant surprise. Just five years ago, church had to struggle with its own existence in Myanmar.Last five years slowly the relationship with the government was improving.The semi civilian government warmly greeted the new Cardinal and celebrated this as a recognition of Myanmar.
In May 2017 Vatican and the Myanmar leadership had a meeting.Later the official announcement of opening diplomatic relationship with the Vatican was announced.When the news of the possibility of Pope’s coming was known, the church approached the government. The government warmly welcomed the visit and sent an official invitation.It followed up with enthusiastic logistics arrangements.
The theme of visit is labelled as “ Missionary of Love and Peace”.Taking into consideration decades of conflict and displacement and the need for various communities to invest in peace, the Pope will be addressing on the theme of Peace based on love. Incidently the Buddhism preaches two virtues to its faithful which are close to the heart of the Pope:Compassion (Karuna) and Mercy (Metta). The visit occurs at a very sensitive time in the history of Myanmar where the world attention and anguish is turned towards to the recent displacement of thousands.Wounds need to heal.And a country waits with hope, Holy Father’s words and gestures will bring greater understanding.
The program starts with the arrival of the Holy Father on 28thnoon from Rome in Yangon, the commercial capital. A welcome ceremony is arranged with ethnic dances. After a day of rest, the Holy Fatherwill proceed to the capital Nay Pyi Taw.He will meet the country’s President and the State Counsellor.This will be followed by an important meeting with the authorities, civil society and diplomatic corps.The Holy Father returns to Yangon, the commercial capital.
The next day is the big day for Catholics of Myanmar.In the Kyaikkasan Grounds, one of the biggest grounds in the city, Pope Francis will say mass.He will arrive at the stadium around 8.30going around greetings people.Mass will be at 9.30.A congregation of around200,000 faithful isexpected to pray with the Pope for peace and love.Other religious people are expected to attend. Church intensely prays that this great spiritual gathering may become an event of reconciliation.
The day is a very busy one for the Holy Father.That evening he wouldmeeting with the “SANGHA”, supreme council of Buddhist monksin the Kaba Aye Centre.Myanmar is a very religious country – people adore their religious leaders and obey their direction.The life of monks is an inspiring example to people of Myanmar.A devout Buddhist man takes to monkhood either permanently or at least three short times.This is an acetic calling wherein no material possession is allowed.Power is voluntarily given up in effort to cleanse the ego.The monks have no ‘sacramental’ or ‘preaching’ power.Their life is a witness to inner freedom.Nearly 70 percent of the country’s are strong adherents to this faith.
Pope Francis has been a great supporter of inter religious initiatives.He has reached out to religionsand people suffering in the name of religions.Even before coming here he has prayed earnestly for the most suffering people of this country.Catholic Church here has maintained good relationship with the monks and collaborated in inter religious initatives for peace.Pope’s meeting with monks will be a significant one since in an age where religions are manipulated for political reasons.The world is worried about the fringe elements here who are resorting to extremist actions and words.The encounter of the Holy Father and the monks would be a great opportunity tostrengthen the peace making role of religions.
Despite the tiring schedule,the Holy Father will haveanother important meeting with the Bishops of Myanmar.There will be3 archbishops,13 bishops and 4 emeritus bishops.Pope is expected to speak on the ‘Catholicity’ ofchurch since the Myanmar church needs to develop a national character.It has a mission plan which needs good co operation among the bishops.Hewill be also meeting 14 bishops who are coming from ethnic areas. Some of these areas are wounded by decades of war and displacement. The three Kachin dioceses : Myitkyina, Banmaw and Lashiohave seen only war in their history and hosts thousands of displaced people, most of them Christians.Human trafficking and drug menace are two major problems of manydioceses.
Long years of dictatorship, lack of quality education as seen the church suffering on many fronts : Its major seminary premises are yet to be released to the church.It was confiscated years ago.Church struggles to give quality formation to its personnel.The enforced poverty of the whole populationthrough what was tagged as “ Burmese way to socialism” had impoverishedhuge section of the population.Church was doubly oppressed those days.All its mission activitieswere suppressed, its properties confiscated.It is a miracle thatchurch survivedthe onslaughts of the past.The ethnicchurch faced armed conflict, loot of its resources, especially precious stones.Many faced the bleak option of displaced life.Planned dams saw whole parishes displaced.The church struggled to protect the dignity of its people.A people lived in their traditional way of life, in harmony with nature become helpless victims in the market economy that benefitted a crony economy.
The Pope’s concern for the poor and lack of sharing economic gains would sound familiar to the Bishops. His exhortation on the Joy of the gospel and his attack on the ‘trickle down economy’ will be heard with great sense of satisfaction.In a country where the natural resources are looted by outsiders and the indigenous rights and resourceswere denied to them Pope’s encyclical has been received with great enthusiasm.Both the documents are translated into local languages and are regularly used in the training programs. Economic Justice and Environmental justice may be the two themes Pope would like the church to concentrate.Church is the victims of these two injustice.
The Popewill end his pilgrimage to this nation with the mass for the youth on the last day. Pope’s love for the youth is well known.Myanmar youth had a chance to meethim in the last Youth gathering.Myanmar is a young nation around 40 percent below the age of 30. Church has nurtured its youth through the tough times.Church was one of the safest places during the dark times.Church educated thousands of poor youth through its boarding school systems.From 1990schurch managed to send many youth for training programs to various countries.They returned and contributing to the church and nation.
Church was the shepherding to the displaced youth in the camps, in migrant areas.Thousands of youth have left the country from 1990sin search of jobs. Most of them ended up in threeAsian Economic tigers:Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.Many of them worked under slavery like situations.Myanmar church sent priests and religious aspastoral accompaniers.
Today the youth of Myanmar are enjoying greater freedom.They are able to pursue their studies.Church is providing empowerment through language centers, teacher training centers and social work training.Three Catechetical Centers are forming youth who wish to be evangelizers. Unlike the youth of elsewhere, the Myanmar youth remain religious and practicing Catholics.They are really a gift to the future church.
Women religious are the back bone of the church in many places.Most of our religious are young, below the age of forty.Very poor by economic standards,sisters live an exemplary life in remoteareas, depending mostly on the generosity of the local communities who are often very poor themselves. They help in faith formation, pre school education, pastoral care of sick and the old.Government has not allowed any private school or any clinic.Thusdeprivingpresence of sisters in two major missions.
Young women religious also will be participating in the youth mass.Religious will meet the Pope in a short meeting.
There have been reports in many media that Pope’s visit has some agenda.Pope has only one agenda :Peace through Love of all.He is coming to meet the people of Myanmar and encouraging the process of reconciliation.He has met theleader of the present government Miss Aung San Suu Kyi in Rome. Pope undertakes this journey to meet all the people of Myanmar.In his letter of invitation to the Pope, the President has warmly welcomed his Holiness visit hopinghis presence would bring “peace and harmony”.
The worldmedia has responded tothe recent exodus of Rakhine Muslims, who are also called “Rohingyas”. The world media was shockedand urges action. Human tears are same every where. Humanity shares the blood and tears. UN and other multilateral agencies havevoiced their concerns about 500,000 displaced. Pope has periodicallyexpressed his anguish about this issue.Pope has expressed his anguish about human suffering anywhere in the world :migrants to Europe, victims of natural disasters, the suffering of people in Iraq and Syria.This apostle of Mercy is moved by human brokenness. All through his life he has brought the face of the most suffering people to the attention of the world.Even in rich countries, he spoke of ‘culture of indifference’ to the human suffering. The world stands with him in his deep compassion for human suffering.Many people have suffered historically in Myanmar. They deserve worlds sympathy and compassion.Compassion and Mercy are two eyes of the Myanmar people’s spiritual heritage.Surely they will understand the deep compassion Pope feels, not only in Myanmar, but for all suffering people.
In Myanmar his major task will be urging all people towards peace and reconciliation. This is the greatest wish of all the people of Myanmar.After long years of conflict and non development, the country can harvest huge peace dividends by promoting peace. Democracyin any country can be a challenge, but in Myanmar it has ushered in great opportunities to the people.There is afunctioning parliament, the media is assertive, the economy is growing.Myanmar journey is a long march.It needs supportin its challenging process of democratization.
The emerging institutions may not promptly attain perfection as many would expect.Without diluting rights of anyone, especially those in the margin, the world needs to encourage Myanmar in its journey – assuring rights to everyone, rectifying its long festering question of citizenship,its need to equity to the poor and ethnic communities. The governments efforts at repatriation of the Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, its verification processneed world support.
There are sensitive issues and some are anxious about the trip. Pope is a person who can reach out to any people in any part of the world.He speaks a language of heart that reaches outto everyone.In Cuba, Colombia and elsewhere Pope healed through his personality and his words.Myanmar church ishopeful that this visit will be a moment of grace and peace to the people of Myanmar.
Pope’s pilgrimage is a pilgrimage of peace, he walks with all the suffering people of Myanmar.He prays for healing wounds,hoping and praying for a peaceful and prosperous Myanmar that affirms the rights to everyone who was born in this Golden land.
Cardinal Charles BO Archbishop of Yangon
St. Peter’s Square
May 27, 2019
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