YANGON, Myanmar – Pope Francis on Wednesday held an encounter with Myanmar’s Buddhist leadership, and it was a classic case in which the meeting was the message. It happened in a country where, as Francis said, dialogue between religious leaders represents an essential way to advance peace and justice.

In Myanmar and also around the world, Francis told the Supreme “Sangha” Council of Buddhist monks of Myanmar, people need a “common witness” by religious leaders.

“For when we speak with one voice in affirming the timeless values of justice, peace and the fundamental dignity of each human person, we offer a word of hope,” he said.

This witness, Francis said, is particularly needed at a time when, despite technological progress and a rising awareness in society of our common humanity, “the wounds of conflict, poverty and oppression persist, and create new divisions.

“In the face of these challenges, we must never grow resigned,” Francis said.

Showing respect to his hosts, upon arriving to the Kaba Aye Center, Francis took his shoes off but kept on his black socks, in itself  an exception, since both monks and visitors always walk barefooted in the Pagodas.

Pope Francis is greeted by Bhaddanta Kumarabhivamsa, Chairman of State of the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, with members of the Sangha Maha Nayaka supreme council of Buddhist monks at the Kaba Aye pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. (Credit: Andrew Medichini/AP.)

The overwhelming majority of the population in Myanmar is Buddhist, and religious and ethnic minorities often complain of oppression and second-class citizenship. In that context, Francis told the Buddhist monks that the whole of society is called to work to overcome conflict and injustice, adding that civil and religious leaders have a responsibility to ensure that every voice is heard.

The official name of the group Francis met with is State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, a government-appointed body of 47 high-ranking Buddhist monks that oversees and regulates the Buddhist clergy in Myanmar.

There are an estimated 500,000 Buddhist monks and 70,000 nuns in Myanmar.

Francis was welcomed by the president of the committee Bhaddanta Kumarabhivamsa, who said that even professing different religions, “everybody walks the same path that leads to the well-being of humanity.”

The monk said that every religion can somehow lead to peace and prosperity, and that this is the reason why there still are different beliefs around the world.

Kumarabhivamsa also said that it’s “unfortunate to see ‘terrorism and extremism’ put forth in the name of religious beliefs,” something which he said is “unacceptable.”

“We firmly believe that terrorism and extremism arise from bad interpretations of the original teachings of their religions, because some followers introduce amendments to the original teachings under the thrust of their own desires, instincts, fears and disappointments,” he said.

For this reason, he added, religious leaders have the responsibility to transmit the genuine teachings of each faith.

In his remarks, Francis said that the challenge religious leaders face today is to help people open to the transcendent, and to look deep within and see that they are interconnected with all people, because “we cannot be isolated from one another.

“If we are to be united, as is our purpose, we need to surmount all forms of misunderstanding, intolerance, prejudice and hatred,” he said. To exemplify this, he gave two quotes, one from Buddha, and one attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, both expressing similar sentiments.

“Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness; overcome the miser by generosity; overcome the liar
by truth,” says the phrase attributed to the Buddha.

While the quote often attributed to St. Francis goes: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, let me bring pardon… Where there is darkness, let me bring light, and where there is sadness, joy.”

The pope also urged the monks to continue meeting with the local Catholic bishops, and also with leaders of other religions and civil authorities, saying that such gatherings are “essential if we are to deepen our understanding of one another.” This, he said, is necessary because “authentic justice and lasting peace can only be achieved when they are guaranteed for all.”

This is the second time Francis has visited a Buddhist-majority country, the first being Sri Lanka in 2015. Even though there was no visit to a Buddhist community on his schedule in the South Asian country, the Argentine pontiff, known as a man of surprise and outreach, paid an unexpected visit to a Buddhist temple.

In 2015, a Vatican spokesman said a Buddhist official who greeted Francis at the airport had invited him to drop by, and that the pope “wanted to demonstrate his friendship and positive attitude.”

On Wednesday, Francis expressed “esteem” for those who live according to the religious traditions of Buddhism, since, through the teachings of Buddha and the witness of Myanmar’s monks and nuns, people in the country “have been formed in the values of patience, tolerance and respect for life, as well as a spirituality attentive to, and deeply respectful of, our natural environment.”

These values, he said, are essential to the integral development of society, beginning “with its smallest but most essential unit, the family, and extending through the network of relationships that bring us together – relationships rooted in culture, ethnicity and nationality, but ultimately in our common humanity.”

Earlier in the day, the pope said Mass for an estimated 150,000 people, urging them to avoid the temptation to respond to violence with revenge and calling the cross of Christ the “spiritual GPS that unfailingly guides us towards the inner life of God and the heart of our neighbor.”

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Francis has been in Myanmar for a Nov. 27-30 visit, following which he’ll go to Bangladesh, until Dec. 2, when he’ll head back to Rome. Later on Wednesday, he is scheduled to address the country’s 20 bishops.