YANGONG, Myanmar – In a country scarred by six decades of military rule and seemingly never-ending ethnic and tribal conflicts, Pope Francis on Wednesday exalted the cross of Christ, saying that with it comes healing and describing it the best remedy against a temptation to respond to violence with revenge.
Francis also said that the cross is like a “spiritual GPS that unfailingly guides us towards the inner life of God and the heart of our neighbor.”
On his cross, Francis said, Christ offered his wounds to the Father “for us,” and called upon the tens of thousands gathered to find the wisdom to find in his wounds the healing for the many in Myanmar who “bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible.”
“The temptation is to respond to these injuries with a worldly wisdom” that is “deeply flawed. We think that healing can come from anger and revenge. Yet the way of revenge is not the way of Jesus,” Francis said.
Pope Francis’s words came as he was saying his first public Mass during his Nov. 27-30 visit to Myanmar. The celebration took place at Yangon’s Kyaikkasan Ground, an area of some 150 acres in the heart of Yangon where locals practice diverse sports, from soccer and archery to thaing, a local martial art. The facility was originally built in the era of British colonialism as a horse racing track.
Some 150,000 people attended the Mass, and thousands began lining up Tuesday night to be allowed into the site, coming from all over Myanmar, but also Vietnam, Malaysia, China and India. Pope Francis celebrated the Mass in English, one of the rare occasions either in Rome or on the road in which he’s done so, although he delivered his homily in Italian with translation projected onto screens.
As he did the day before while addressing the local civil authorities, Pope Francis avoided pin-pointing any one case of violence. The attention of the international community today is focused on the situation of the Rohingya Muslims, a minority of over one million people who are not even considered as citizens, despite the fact that their presence here can be traced back many generations.
Over 600,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee the Rakhine State towards neighboring Bangladesh, where they are denied refugee status. Persecution against this minority is decades old, and they’ve been labeled as one of the most persecuted worldwide. Several governments, including the United States, have labeled the latest outburst of violence, which began in late August, after a Rohingya militia burned down 30 police posts, as “ethnic cleansing.”
After he avoided specific reference to the Rohingya crisis on Tuesday, some human rights groups raised their voices, saying the pope had missed an opportunity to stand up for the marginalized. For example, the Burma Task Force USA, based in the United States, called his avoidance of the word “Rohingya”, at the express request of his own cardinal in Myanmar, a “troubling precedent,” accusing Francis of supporting peace but not justice.
However, Francis used the word several times prior to this trip, and is expected to do so again later in the week during his Nov. 30-Dec. 2 visit to Bangladesh.
Furthermore, by not signaling any specific case of violence, the pope in effect included many others that have led the people of Myanmar to “bare the wounds,” as he said during Wednesday’ Mass. For instance, there are cases of ethnic oppression in the predominantly Christian Kachin state, as well as in the northern Shan states, as well as southeastern states and regions such as Karen, Kayah and Tanintharyi.
A Rohingya Muslim activist who attended the Mass as a VIP guest, speaking with Crux ahead of the visit, said that he didn’t care if the pope used the word or not, highlighting that he’s used it before. In addition, he said he hoped the pope would raise the plight of the local Christian minority that constitutes an estimated six percent of the predominantly Buddhist population of 52 million.
“They have no religious rights in this country,” he said.
During the prayer of the faithful, however, reference was made to three of the states most afflicted by conflicts: Kachin, Rakhine and Shan.
“For the leaders of Myanmar, that the may always foster peace and reconciliation through dialogue and understanding, thus promoting an end to conflict in the states of Kachin, Rakhine and Shan,” the prayer, which was read in Karen said.
On Wednesday, Francis told those gathered that when “hatred and rejection” led Christ to his passion and death, “he responded with forgiveness and compassion.”
Most of his homily turned on the Gospel passage of the day, which warns that Christians will be seized, persecuted, jailed, hated and killed because of His name. The reading is from the Book of Luke, and in it, Jesus tells those who follow him that he’ll give them a “wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.”
The pope said that that wisdom is the Holy Spirit, through whose gifts “Jesus enables us each to be signs of his wisdom, which triumphs over the wisdom of this world, and his mercy, which soothes even the most painful of injuries.”
Sometimes, people can fall into the trap of believing in their own wisdom, Francis said, and lose their sense of direction. When that happens, it’s necessary to remember the “compass before us, in the crucified Lord.”
Praising the many charitable efforts of the local Catholic Church to reach out to all despite their ethnic and religion, Francis said that Jesus is bound to “crown your efforts” to sow healing and reconciliation Myanmar.
The pope acknowledged that not everyone understands the logic of Christ’s message of forgiveness and mercy. However, he added, his love revealed on the cross is “ultimately unstoppable.”
As he often does, he closed his homily with a prayer to the Virgin Mary, who “followed her son even to the dark mountain of Calvary and she accompanies us at every step of our earthly journey.”
Later in the day, Pope Francis is scheduled to meet with the Shanga Supreme Council of Buddhist Monks, and following that, with the country’s 20 Catholic bishops.