YANGON, Myanmar — There are just over 20 Catholic bishops in Myanmar, an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation in which Catholics represent one percent of the population. Lest anyone think small size and relative obscurity mean the bishops have it easy, Pope Francis threw cold water on that idea by laying out an ambitious agenda for the Burmese prelates on Wednesday.
In a mere 1,200 words, the pontiff challenged the bishops to action on multiple fronts, including directing them to:
- Promote healing across a wide range of ethnic, regional and political conflicts.
- Pursue deeper ties with other Christians and with different religions, so together they can “reject every act of violence and hatred perpetrated in the name of religion.”
- Kindle a “fervent missionary spirit” among Catholics, and, at the same time, seek “a wise inculturation of the Gospel message in the daily life and traditions of your local communities.”
- Act as champions in national debates of “human rights,” “democratic rule,” and “respect for the dignity and rights of all, especially the poorest and the most vulnerable.”
Perhaps conscious he was asking a lot, Francis also added a note of fatherly concern.
“I know that your ministry is demanding and that, together with your priests, you often labor under the heat and the burden of the day,” he said, quoting a gospel passage. “I urge you to maintain a balance between your spiritual and physical health, and to show paternal concern for the health of your priests.”
The pontiff’s remarks came at the end of his third day in Myanmar, in a session with the bishops held at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Yangon. It capped a day in which Francis celebrated an open-air Mass for an estimated 150,000 people, and also met with a group of Buddhist monks to urge “common witness” on behalf of “the timeless values of justice, peace and the fundamental dignity of each human person.”
Francis’s challenges to the local Catholic Church came as he focused most of his remarks around three words: healing, accompaniment and prophecy.
The first, he explained, comes from the Gospel, as it has a message that is above all about healing, reconciliation and peace. Going back to the central message of his homily earlier in the day, Francis said that through the blood of Christ’s cross, “God has reconciled the world to himself, and has sent us to be messengers of that healing grace.”
This message has a “particular resonance,” in Myanmar, the pope argued, noting that the country is working to leave behind deeply-rooted divisions and to build national unity. He gave no details as to what he meant, but in a country that is struggling to sustain a weak democracy, in place since 2015 after over sixty years of military rule, there are several conflicts to which the appeal could refer.
From the exodus of the Rohingya Muslim minority from Rakhine State, fleeing to Bangladesh in what the United Nations has described as “ethnic cleansing,” to the persecution of Christians in Kachin state, the division among some of Myanmar’s over 130 ethnic groups is omnipresent.
As a footnote, both Rakhine and Kachin were included in the prayer of the faithful during the Mass, which is perhaps the closest the pope will come to saying the word “Rohingya” after Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon asked the pope to avoid it while he’s in Myanmar, even if he’s said it several times before.
“The preaching of the Gospel must not only be a source of consolation and strength, but also a summons to foster unity, charity and healing in the life of this nation,” Francis told the bishops. “For the unity we share and celebrate is born of diversity.”
The pope also praised the Catholic community in Myanmar, saying that it can “be proud of its prophetic witness to love of God and neighbor,” expressed in its outreach to the poor, the marginalized, and in present days “to the many displaced persons who lie wounded, as it were, by the roadside.” He thanked in particular those who work with the latter, “without regard for religion or ethnicity.”
On the second word, accompaniment, Francis told the bishops that a good shepherd is always present to his flock, walking at their side, bearing the “smell of the sheep and of God,” and leading a Church which “goes forth,” as he’s said before.
It is a privilege for the bishop, he said, to “accompany your priests in their daily efforts to build up the flock in holiness, fidelity and a spirit of service.”
Francis also highlighted the “solid faith and fervent missionary spirit” of the local Church, product of the work of those who first brought the Gospel to Myanmar.
“On this firm foundation, and in a spirit of communion with your priests and religious, continue to imbue the laity with a spirit of true missionary discipleship and seek a wise enculturation of the Gospel message in the daily life and traditions of your local communities,” he said, before urging them to pay special attention to accompanying the young.
Developing what he meant with the word prophecy, the pope said that the Church in Myanmar witnesses the Gospel through its works “of education and charity, its defense of human rights, its support for democratic rule.”
Francis urged the bishops to enable the Catholic community to continue having a constructive role in society, by “making your voices heard on issues of national interest,” especially when they advocate respect for the dignity and rights of all.
Towards the end of his remarks, the pope praised the bishops’ five year missionary plan to help in “nation-building.” Speaking with Crux before the trip, Bo said that the five issues at the core of it are education, peace building, ethnic rights, empowerment of women and integral development.
Francis highlighted the need to protect the environment, saying that protecting God’s creation can’t be separated from a “sound human and social ecology.”
The pope told them the first mission of the church “is to heal, to be a hospital in time of war.
“As bishops you must heal the soul, heal the heart, heal the wounds of the people,” he said.
The pope concluded the meeting by reciting the Hail Mary with the bishops: Francis in Spanish, and the bishops in Burmese.
Francis is in Myanmar for a Nov. 27-30 visit. From here, he’ll go to neighboring Bangladesh, until Dec. 2, when he’ll fly back to Rome.