Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai blesses children at St Mary's Cathedral during the start of a three-day commemoration of the history of the Catholic Church in Myanmar (Photo by John Zaw)
Thousands of Catholics arrived in Yangon on Friday for the start of a three-day celebration of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Catholicism in Myanmar.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Mumbai, attended the opening ceremony of the celebration at St Mary’s Cathedral in Yangon on behalf of Pope Francis, bearing with him the good tidings and love of the pontiff to the people of Myanmar.
“Today is not just a day of great joy and festivities but one of reflection on what we can do or not do, how much more we can dedicate ourselves to the Gospel, how we can transform society and how we can better serve the people of Myanmar,” Cardinal Gracias said.
In his welcome speech for the Indian cardinal, Archbishop Charles Bo of Yangon celebrated the endurance of the Myanmar Church amid difficult times.
“Poverty and persecution — even death — have met our people, but never did our people flinch from witnessing to their faith,” Archbishop Bo said.
“The faith that was cemented with tears and blood unites us today from every corner of Myanmar.”
Christianity remains a small minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Catholics number about 750,000 out of a population estimated at just over 50 million, according to a controversial census conducted this year.
The Church has grown significantly in the years since General Ne Win seized control of the country and initiated his disastrous Burmese Way to Socialism, which saw the expulsion of missionaries and the near-complete isolation of the country.
Now, Myanmar is exporting priests and Religious to other countries, Archbishop Bo told ucanews.com in an interview at his residence ahead of Friday’s festivities.
“Since the government announced its program of reform in 2011, many other [Religious] orders have shown up in Myanmar, as it’s such a fertile ground for novices. So there is a lot of competition,” Archbishop Bo said.
He added that Myanmar currently has 300 seminarians preparing for the priesthood, and that the Church has seen considerable growth, particularly in rural areas, in recent years.
“In Myanmar, typical of developing countries, you will get whole villages of 10 to 20 people joining [the Church] all at once. The headman makes a decision to join, and everyone else follows,” he said.
Archbishop Bo added that he hoped Pope Francis would schedule a visit to Myanmar some time next year as part of his focus on Asia. The pontiff visited South Korea in August for World Youth Day and will make Apostolic trips to Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January next year.
The Church’s commemoration comes at a pivotal time in the history of the country, as Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government struggles to follow through with its transition to democratic reform after decades of military rule.
The Church has a significant role to play in that transition, said Father Maurice Nyunt Wai, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar.
“What we need today is to be involved in nation-building, the peace process and national reconciliation. The Church must be a voice for the voiceless, and it must stand for the people of marginalized [communities],” he told ucanews.com on Friday.
A national ceasefire with Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups have been a central part of the government’s reform process, but it has been marred by ongoing violence in many of the country’s ethnic states.
Most recently, the Myanmar military on Wednesday shelled an officer training academy in Kachin state near the Chinese border, killing 23 cadets — just days after a state visit by US President Barack Obama, during which he warned that the country’s progress toward reform was not irreversible.
Bauk Naw, a catechist from Banmaw diocese in Kachin state, said the Church has played a vital role in caring for displaced Kachin communities uprooted by intermittent fighting over the last two years in Myanmar’s northeast.
He was one of about 4,000 Kachin who traveled to Yangon to mark the Church’s 500-year-long history in Myanmar.
The three days of celebration will culminate with an event at a Yangon football stadium on Sunday, attended by Papal Nuncio Adolfo Tito Yllana of the Philippines.