ENTHUSIASTIC PILGRIMS WELCOME POPE FRANCIS TO MYANMAR
(Vatican Radio) The people of Myanmar welcomed Pope Francis to Yangon on Monday afternoon, although a first glance around the cities of Yangon and the capital Naypyitaw show few signs of any major preparations.
Philippa Hitchen has been travelling around the country, in preparation for this pastoral visit and reports on the expectations of the Catholic community ahead of the pope’s arrival.
One or two isolated posters and billboards can be spotted around the central St Mary’s cathedral in Yangon and the adjacent archbishop’s house where the pope will be staying for the duration of this three day visit. Further out of the centre, away from the shopping malls and smart hotels, in the townships that make up the sprawling metropolis, the other Catholic parishes have also been preparing for this first ever papal visit to the largely Buddhist nation.
Christians in northern Kachin state
Eager pilgrims have been converging on Yangon from other cities too, especially from the northern Kachin state where the majority of Christians are located. I visited Bishop Francis Tang from the diocese of Myitkyina there, watching busloads of men, women and children gathering with their bags on the grass outside his church, in preparation for the two day journey down south. The bishops say up to 200.000 people are expected to attend the main papal events, including pilgrims from neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam, Korea and the Philippines.
Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities
Officially there has been good cooperation with the Myanmar authorities in the planning of this trip, though everyone is on tenterhooks over the crisis in northern Rakhine state. With western media focused almost exclusively on whether or not the pope will pronounce the word ‘Rohingya’, organisers are seeking to shine the light on the many other refugee problems that still plague this nation, made up of over 130 different ethnic minorities. Several of them are locked in long running conflicts that have seen hundreds of thousands of villagers fleeing their homes and living in squalid camps for internally displaced people. I visited one of the 32 located in Myitkyina alone, where the Church tries to supplement basic services provided to Christian families there by the World Food Programme and a variety of NGOs.
High expectations for papal visit
Expectations among these Christian communities are sky-high, hoping the pope can miraculously bring the civil war to an end, by encouraging the military and members of the various independence armies to return to the negotiating table. Without peace and respect for all the country’s minorities, they insist, this nation can never develop and improve living standards for the quarter of its population that still lives below the poverty line.
Messenger of peace and reconciliation
That includes people living in the squalid slums I can see from my hotel overlooking Yangon city centre, close to St Mary’s cathedral. Many of them, including plenty of non-Catholics, will be lining the route as the papal motorcade passes by on Monday, or queuing to enter the stadium where he’ll celebrate Mass on Wednesday. For them, this visit marks a once in a lifetime opportunity to welcome the man they’re hailing as a messenger of reconciliation and peace.
MORE FROM PHILIPPA HITCHENS AND VATICAN RADIO –
Pope Francis arrived on Monday in Yangon, where he was greeted by Myanmar’s political and religious authorities, as well as by crowds of ordinary people who lined the road to the archbishop’s residence where he’ll be staying for the three-day visit.
It’s stiflingly hot here in downtown Yangon, but that didn’t stop thousands of people crowding into the city to line parts of the route where the papal motorcade passed by today, on its way from the airport to the archbishop’s house. While I’d forgotten to put any sunscreen on, almost everyone here uses the pale yellow juice of a local plant smeared on their cheeks to protect them from the sun’s rays. They’d come from all across the country, especially from the northern states where the majority of Christians live, largely in isolated, rural or mountain villages.
‘Peace and Love’ logo
Their excitement was palpable as they waved Vatican or Myanmar national flags, waiting for the pope to pass by. Many were dressed in traditionally embroidered tops and ‘longyis’, those brightly coloured lengths of cloth that everyone – women and men – wear wrapped around them here. Others sported hats and T-shirts bearing the words ‘Love and Peace’, the logo for this trip, depicted above a multi-coloured outline of the country, to signify the 135 ethnic groups that make up this south-east Asian country.
Inside Archbishop’s House
Inside the garden of the archbishop’s house, a group of eager Catholics (including a couple of nuns, who stood out from the colourful crowd in their white habits and veils) were energetically dancing and singing. As the blue car, carrying Pope Francis swept through the gates, their cries of excitement rose to fever pitch, as he stepped out and began walking up the path to the cream-coloured, colonial style residence.
Tuesday’s papal programme
For the remainder of the day, he’s resting, after the more than 10-hour flight from Rome. Then on Tuesday, it’s back to the airport for the short journey up to the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, where he’ll be welcomed by the president and by Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Those meetings will, of course, be held behind closed doors and even his first public address to government officials and diplomats at a nearby convention centre will only be open to the few, carefully selected guests.
Outdoor Mass on Wednesday
So the crowds of eager Catholics who lined the streets today will have to wait until Wednesday morning for their chance to hear and see the pope in person. That’s when he celebrates an open-air Mass at a colonial era racecourse, which also served as a detention centre during the darkest years of military rule.
Patiently waiting for the Pope
Earlier in the week, I met many of the pilgrims on their way down to Yangon from other towns and villages around the country, including a dozen lucky children who were picked to form part of the welcome delegation at the airport today. Many of the Catholics are from poor families and most of them told me they didn’t have accommodation here in the city. They’re simply going to camp out on the grounds of that sports arena, patiently waiting for their big moment to arrive.