YANGON, Myanmar — Wrapping up a three-day visit to Myanmar, a Buddhist majority country where foreign missionaries are not allowed to present themselves as such because of the government’s fear of proselytism, Pope Francis urged local Catholic youth to be “missionary disciples.”
“Here is a great task entrusted in a special way to young people: to be ‘missionary disciples’, messengers of the good news of Jesus, above all to your contemporaries and friends,” Francis told the youth on his last stop in Myanmar.
“Make yourselves heard,” he insisted, urging them to shout not with their voices but with their witness, saying by doing so they will be “signs of hope to those who need encouragement, a helping hand to the sick, a welcome smile to the stranger, a kindly support to the lonely.”
Pope Francis’s words came as he was saying Mass for some 1,500 people, gathered at the local St. Mary’s Cathedral, which was built between 1895 and 1899. From here, the pontiff was scheduled to go to the airport and head on to neighboring Bangladesh.
Even though on paper there is religious freedom in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, foreign evangelizers have to enter the country business visas. While they’re here, they present themselves as teachers or translators, according to an interview published ahead of the trip by the Pontifical Missionary Works. The person interviewed had to do so anonymously, in fear of being recognized.
Francis’s homily turned on a reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, which says, “The footsteps of those who bring good news are a welcome sound.”
Youth, the pontiff said, are that welcome sound, bearers of the good news and “concrete signs of the Church’s faith in Jesus Christ, who brings us a joy and a hope that will never die.”
The pontiff acknowledged that seeing so many people suffer, some might wonder how it’s possible to talk about good news, or to look for it when there’s so much injustice, poverty and misery casting a shadow over the world.
Those are things Myanmar has in spades, with some 600,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing towards Bangladesh amidst what the United Nations has declared “ethnic cleansing,” and that’s only the worst of multiple cases of ethnic violence. Myanmar also is ranked 150 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index.
Francis said that he wanted a “very clear message to go out from” the Mass: “I want people to know that you, the young men and women of Myanmar, are not afraid to believe in the good news of God’s mercy, because it has a name and a face: Jesus Christ.”
The pope then challenge them with three questions, turning around the world “unless.”
“How are people to believe in the Lord unless they have heard about him? Second, how are people to hear about the Lord unless they have a messenger, someone to bring the good news? And third, how can they have a messenger unless one is sent?”
He exemplified each, calling on the youth to be “authentic” on their witness to be able to penetrate the world’s many sounds that can drown God’s voice; calling them to be missionary disciples, and to share the gifts received in the Mass with others.