ROME – A young priest from Myanmar has thanked Pope Francis for his frequent and vocal calls for peace as citizens continue to die protesting for democracy, saying the pope’s support has given people in the country hope.
“For us, the people of Myanmar, it means a lot, especially in this difficult moment. We feel his love, his care, and his pastoral concern for Myanmar,” Father John Bosco Mung Swang told Crux Sunday after concelebrating a special Mass for Burmese people in Rome with Pope Francis.
“Our country is very, very small, however, he showed his concern and prayed. We are blessed to have this occasion for him to pray for Myanmar, not only for us here, but also for the people in Myanmar,” he said, adding, “It’s a kind of release, a hope for us.”
Pope Francis celebrated the Mass for Myanmar May 16 with expats who live in Rome, most of whom belong to religious orders, are priests, or are in various seminaries in the city. Around 200 people attended the Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, most of whom were nuns.
The Mass was announced as part of Francis’s ongoing support for Myanmar following a Feb. 1 military coup in which the national security forces ousted the country’s democratic leadership and took control of the government.
A student at Pontifical Urban University who has lived in Rome for two years, meaning he was not there when the coup erupted, Mung Swang said that when he and others from Myanmar living in Rome first heard about the coup, “We felt sad, and we worry, because we left our family, our friends, and we have already experienced this kind of military dictatorship in those days.”
“I come from a very remote area, so when we got this news, we were very upset, we were very sad, and we don’t want to go back to that dark era again,” he said, referring to the decades in which Myanmar still operated as a military dictatorship.
Since the coup began in February, there has been massive civil unrest in Myanmar, with thousands of citizens, many of whom are youth, taking to the streets in protest and demanding that democracy be restored.
So far, at least 796 people have been killed in clashes between protesters and security forces, according to a local monitoring group, and some 4,000 have been arrested.
With both sides refusing to stand down, there are firefights almost daily, local militias have formed in some areas that resist the national army, and ongoing strikes and protests have caused a serious blow to the country’s economy.
A shadow National Unity Government led by former democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi has also been formed by Myanmar loyalists and who oppose the coup.
In recent days the town of Mindat in the western state of Chin has been the center of unrest after some locals banded together to form the Chinland Defense Force (CDF), which has fought back against military advances into the town.
In a statement Sunday, the CDF said six members of the militia died in clashes with security forces over the weekend, and several others were injured. By Sunday, the group had retreated into the jungle.
Both the United States and United Kingdom embassies in Myanmar called for security forces to refrain from further violence after a weekend battle in Mindat.
Pope Francis also called for an end to the violence during his Mass Sunday, urging the people of Myanmar to “keep the faith” as they endure the ongoing instability and violence that continues to claim lives almost daily.
Urging them to stay unified, he cautioned that, “Once partisan interests and the thirst for profit and power take over, conflicts and divisions inevitably break out.”
Francis also told the people of Myanmar to “keep the truth,” insisting that to do this “does not mean defending ideas, becoming guardians of a system of doctrines and dogmas, but remaining bound to Christ and being devoted to his Gospel.”
“Amid war, violence and hatred, fidelity to the Gospel and being peacemakers calls for commitment, also through social and political choices, even at the risk of our lives. Only in this way can things change,” he said, adding, “The Lord has no use for the lukewarm.”
At the end of the Mass, Mung Swang offered a special greeting to Pope Francis on behalf of the people of Myanmar, including those in the basilica, and those watching the Mass from afar, saying, “Words fail to communicate the sense of healing that this event has brought to many hearts in Myanmar.”
“In our tears, in the bitter despair, in the moments in which the global community abandoned us, we were comforted, healed, by the words of the Holy Father,” he said, insisting that the current situation in his country requires “divine intervention.”
“We firmly believe that this extraordinary event in Rome, with our pastors, will be a point of departure for God’s intervention in our story,” Mung Swang said, adding, “Our people deserve better, our people want peace.”
“For many in Myanmar, this Mass is a great miracle. The pope, the head of the Catholic Church, prays together with the flock of a small country; for them this is something marvelous,” he said, and asked the pope to continue to pray for Myanmar, adding, “Peace is possible, peace is the only way.”
In his comments to Crux, Mung Swang said he believes Pope Francis’s closeness in Myanmar stems from the pope’s commitment to those on the peripheries.
“Our pope, he is very close especially to the small ones, and Myanmar is a very poor country, not stable yet,” he said, noting that people in Myanmar never dreamed they would get a papal visit, which they did in 2017 when Francis came during a broader tour of Asia, and they were also surprised when the pope named a cardinal for Myanmar just two years earlier.
In 2015, Pope Francis gave Myanmar its first-ever red hat when he named Charles Bo, the archbishop of Yangon, a cardinal.
Throughout the coup, Bo has been outspoken in homilies, statements, and on social media, urging the military junta to restore democracy and asking people on all sides to refrain from violence.
“Cardinal Bo, now he is our icon in Myanmar,” Mung Swang said, noting that Bo is respected by other religious leaders in Myanmar, and by the junta. “They have a respect for him,” meaning that whenever he speaks, they listen.
Mung Swang said some young people misinterpret Bo’s calls for reconciliation and nonviolence as appeasement and a failure to act, however, “as a young priest, I understand our leader.”
“Cardinal Bo, even he is not walking alone. Together with the other bishops of Myanmar, they are trying to find peaceful solutions between parties,” he said.
Asked whether he believes the frequent appeals to nonviolence made both by Bo and the pope are being heeded, Mung Swang said “We hope and we pray for that.”
“If this conflict continues, we are afraid that there will be a lot of bloodshed. We pray that our people, with a prayerful heart and reconciliation,” choose nonviolence he said, adding, “We pray and hope for that, for reconciliation and peace.”
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