For the Catholics of of this long-suffering nation, Pope Francis’ historic trip to their country is a blessing.
For many of them, starting with Cardinal Charles Bo, the coming of Peter’s Successor is a real “miracle.” It is, in fact, the first time that a pope has come to their country, where Portuguese missionaries first brought the faith in the 16th century. It is also the first time that a Bishop of Rome came to them to celebrate Mass: the moment is nothing less than historical!
For the cardinal archbishop of Rangoon (Yangon), known for speaking freely, the meeting of Pope Francis with Myanmar Catholics is akin to Mount Tabor—that is to say, that place in the Holy Land where Jesus was transfigured, and revealed his divine nature to the apostles. This gives us an “extraordinary spiritual energy,” said the prelate on behalf of all his compatriots, and makes us “proud to be Catholic.”
The legitimate emotion of the little Myanmar flock is surely sufficient to remind the pontiff of St. Catherine of Siena’s words in the 14th century, speaking of the pope as the “sweet Christ on earth.” According to another bishop, this country of monsoons awaited the arrival of the Sovereign Pontiff “like a thirsty land, after a great drought, waiting for the first rain.”
The word “drought” is not an exaggeration. For Catholics, there was a drought of nearly 55 years. In 1962, the growth of the modest Church in Myanmar was stopped by a military coup d’état. At that point, the schools held by Catholics were nationalized, and the missionaries exiled. During all these years of persecution, however, the Church continued to grow, and now is benefiting from and supporting the recent and timid democratic overtures. That’s why a papal trip in 2017 seems like a gift to them, confirming that their suffering was not in vain.
However, their trials are not totally behind them. The Rohingya crisis proves this amply, and a return to power by the Myanmar junta cannot be ruled out either. This is why the pope has strongly recommended they draw from the Eucharist the strength needed to cross over, with the cross of Christ, the ruptures within the country, and even to heal them by their works of charity.
He didn’t hesitate to ask this, because “you are a living Church,” Pope Francis said during Mass, before about 150,000 faithful from all regions of the country and also from neighboring countries: Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.
What was striking about those pilgrims was their youth, and that of the priests and nuns. But also, their faith: some had packed in together by dozens the day before in the parishes of Rangoon, to see the Successor of Peter!
The second moment of grace was centered on words. Unfortunately, it made less noise than the “silence” of the pope on the use of the specific word Rohingya … This moment is summarized by a striking photo, where we see Pope Francis dressed in white, alongside Cardinal Bo, who also wore the white cassock used in tropical countries, both surrounded by a veritable oil spill formed by 300 of the country’s seminarians. That is to say, nearly all of them …
At the end of this memorable trip, if a sign of the vitality of this little Church was still needed, it was given by the pope’s blessing of 16 stones. They were the symbolic cornerstones for the construction of 16 churches—not to mention the major seminary and the nunciature!
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