Pope Francis will be visiting Burma (Myanmar) from 27 to 30 November this year. Although Catholics make up a minority of just 5% in the country among over 87% Buddhists, over 300,000 people from all 16 dioceses in the country are nevertheless expected to attend the Holy Mass that the Pope will celebrate on 29 November in the Kyaikkasan Stadium in Yangon (Rangoon). Even among non-Christians, the expectations of the papal visit are high.
Bishop John Hsane Hgyi of the diocese of Pathein spoke recently to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about the importance of the papal visit for this troubled country, which until 2011 was governed by a military regime.
ACN: How would you describe the present situation of the Christian minority in Myanmar?
Bischof John Hsane Hgyi: In Myanmar the Christians represent about 5% of the total population of the country, which is 51 million. They are a small minority, living amidst the majority Theravada Buddhists in Myanmar. Though small in percentage terms, the Christian presence in Myanmar is dynamic, with solid structures and institutions.
What does this mean for the Catholic Church in particular?
The Catholic Church in Myanmar is composed of 16 dioceses spread across the 14 States and Regions of the country. It is present among all the eight major ethnic groups of the country. The arrival of Christianity began along with the discovery of the New World by the European adventurers in the 16th Century. But the well-organized missionary outreach began only in the 18th Century. Later, the Church in Myanmar suffered great repression during the time of military rule, which lasted from 1962 to 2010. Though struggling with many difficulties, the Church is growing in number and currently the Catholic population is about 700,000.
What expectations or hopes do you attach to the visit of Pope Francis?
The apostolic visit of Pope Francis to Myanmar is a very meaningful and joyful occasion; it is an historic visit, the first ever visit of the successor of St. Peter to the country. Not only the whole Catholic Church in Myanmar but also the whole nation is seized with surprise and excitement at the choice of Myanmar for the apostolic visit. The theme of the Pope’s visit is Love and Peace! The whole country is expecting peace and reconciliation in this transition time for the country, which finds itself in the process of democratization, of building a new nation of Myanmar. The visit of Pope Francis will have great impact on the peace process undertaken by the government, the religious leaders, and Civil Society Organizations.
Is this a topic in the media?
Since the official announcement of the visit of Pope Francis to Myanmar came from the Vatican in the last week of August, the visit of the Pope has become a popular topic in the local media in Myanmar. All the details of the planned activities are publicised in the media and also by Radio Veritas Asia Myanmar Services, both on air and online.
Could you tell us a nice story about how the announcement of Pope Francis’ visit was received by the Catholic people?
The prayer cards for the Pope’s visit to Myanmar were prepared for distribution in the diocese of Pathein. On the day that news of the official announcement of Pope Francis’ visit was received, it was in all the parishes, the religious houses and the formation house in the diocese of Pathein. They all started praying, both individually and in community, with much emotion
What contribution can be made by the Catholic Church for a peaceful development of Myanmar?
The message of the Pope’s visit is Love and Peace in Myanmar. “Peace is Possible and Peace is the Only Way” has become the slogan of the Church in Myanmar for the lnterreligious Conference they are organising in April 2017 in Yangon. The Catholic Church in Myanmar is now advised and requested to take a leading role in the process of nation-building and national reconciliation. The visit of the Pope will truly highlight the role of the Catholic Church in Myanmar for the peaceful development of the country.
What are the main pastoral challenges for the Catholic Church in your country?
The majority of our Catholic faithful are living in rural and remote areas, since most people in Myanmar are not city dwellers. There are still hard-to-reach Catholics in remote areas, deprived of adequate means of transportation. Many young children drop out of school and there is a lack of access to schooling and quality education. Because of this there are problems of food insecurity, and this has led to unsafe migration and human trafficking. The development of rural areas needs to be tackled with collective efforts. Faith formation and serious pastoral care for Catholics can be difficult. In some areas there is still armed conflict, which is still unresolved, and to provide pastoral care to people in these circumstances is always a challenge.