PAPAL MASS “A STIRRING EXPERIENCE” FOR CATHOLIC FAITHFUL – POPE FRANCIS MEETS BUDDHIST LEADERS, CATHOLIC BISHOPS

I sincerely hope that my longtime friend and a colleague at Vatican Radio, Philippa Hitchens, is allowed a good rest and a day or two off when she returns to Rome from covering the papal trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh. She has done such a terrific job for Vatican Radio and has brought so much color and behind the scenes info to us.

PAPAL MASS “A STIRRING EXPERIENCE” FOR CATHOLIC FAITHFUL

Pope Francis Wednesday celebrated Mass at a sports ground in central Yangon, on the third day of his pastoral visit to Myanmar.

The Vatican Radio correspondent in Yangon, Philippa Hitchen reported that the event marked a highlight of his journey for the small Catholic Church in the country….

This was the moment the Catholic community in Myanmar had been patiently waiting for, since Francis’ arrival in the country two days ago. As he acknowledged in his homily, many of the faithful had come to Yangon from remote, rural villages or mountainous communities and had journeyed for several days on foot, by train, bus or the uncomfortable, open-sided trucks that are the most common form of transport here. They’d been camping out close to the sports ground since Monday, in anticipation of  this historic, first papal Mass on Burmese soil.

Myanmar’s turbulent history

The Kyaikkasan ground itself, built under British rule as Rangoon’s racecourse, is closely connected to the turbulent past century of the country’s history. During the years of military dictatorship, following the 1962 coup, it was used as a temporary detention centre. Following the death of Burma’s most famous diplomat, former U.N. Secretary General, U Thant, his coffin was briefly displayed here, before being seized by students protesting against the military’s refusal to honour their globally respected political leader.

Healing memories of the past

Pope Francis in his homily alluded to this turbulent history, noting how “many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence” and are searching for ways to heal “every hurt and every painful memory”. While we often try to do this through anger and revenge, he said, it is only through forgiveness and mercy that we can truly find healing in our hearts. He described this loving mercy, modelled by Jesus on the Cross, as kind of “a spiritual GPS” that unfailingly guides us, even when we seem to have lost our way.

Witnessing to love and compassion

The pope praised the small flock in Myanmar for its tireless work among the poorest and most vulnerable people, mentioning especially the local Caritas and the Pontifical Mission Societies. But there are many other small groups of Catholics, up and down this country, working in schools and clinics, refugee camps and rehabilitation centres, quietly witnessing to those values of loving kindness and compassion.

‘Stirring experience’ for small flock

For all those people, this was truly a unique event, quite unimaginable until just a few months ago when the papal visit was first announced. Cardinal Charles Bo, at the end of Mass, described it as a “stirring experience” for this little flock.  An event that may hopefully, in some small way, be part of the national healing process that’s so urgently needed here.

POPE FRANCIS MEETS BUDDHIST LEADERS, CATHOLIC BISHOPS

Pope Francis had an action-packed afternoon in Myanmar on Wednesday, meeting with the nation’s Buddhist leaders at a peace pagoda and with the country’s Catholic bishops at the archbishop’s residence where he’s staying. He also managed to squeeze in an unscheduled encounter with the local Jesuit community there, as he likes to do on every foreign journey.

Philippa Hitchen is in Yangon and reports that the focus of the day’s events was on the role of all religions in shaping society through the shared values of justice, dignity and peace.

The meeting with Buddhist leaders was a very formal affair, with a row of barefoot monks, wrapped in their maroon or rust coloured robes, seated in stiff backed chairs opposite the pope and the rest of the Vatican delegation. An occasion for official speeches rather than animated interfaith discussions.

Nevertheless, the pope spoke emphatically about the need to strengthen friendships between believers of different faiths, promoting that culture of encounter that can “surmount all forms of misunderstanding, intolerance, prejudice and hatred”. He quoted from a famous collection of Buddha’s verses and encouraged recent efforts by religious leaders to meet together and discuss increased cooperation.

Weaving peaceful interfaith relations

In a similar way, with Catholic bishops later in the day, the pope returned to the theme of both interfaith and ecumenical relations, a pivotal part of the Church’s life here, where Catholics are a small minority within both the Christian and the wider Buddhist community.

He talked about weaving peaceful relations among people of different faiths, reminding me of the delicate designs I’ve seen woven into the brightly coloured clothes of the many different ethnic groups here.

Bishops must be prophetic voice

He told the bishops they must be healers, helping to overcome the scars of conflicts that continue to impede peace and development. He urged them to accompany their people, like shepherds who “bear the smell of the sheep”, going out into the fields and villages, rather than staying inside the sacristies of their churches.

Finally, he urged the bishops to be a prophetic voice within their rapidly changing society, asking them to focus especially on the environment, taking care of this nation’s “rich natural resources for the benefit of future generations”.

Priority of environmental protection

I only wish he had time, as I did last week, to visit the new Holy Cross church, built at the foot of a mountain in the spectacular Kachin National Park. Located at the source of the Irrawaddy river which runs the length of the country, the church is managed by La Salette Father Jerome Eiphan, whose dream is to develop a centre for environmental protection. Funding is scarce and the challenges are many, yet it’s a good example of how the Church here is quietly promoting those values of justice and peace that the pope was talking about today.