Pope Francis kisses a baby as he arrives for his weekly general audience at St. Peter's Square on Nov. 15 at the Vatican. (Photo by AFP)
Maria Ja Taung, a displaced ethnic Kachin from St. Paul camp, was elated when she heard news of the visit by Pope Francis as it was something she had not expected.
"I am eager to attend a public Mass by the pope to get a blessing as it is a special privilege for Catholics," Ja Taung told ucanews.com.
Kachin State — bordered by China to the north, India to the west and Myanmar’s Shan State to south — has undergone long periods of conflict with the country’s central government.
Ja Taung and some others from the St. Paul internally displaced persons (IDP) camp have saved money to go to Yangon, Myanmar’s main commercial city, to attend the Nov. 29 Mass.
She said many more who wanted to go could not afford to do so.
Among the 20 IDPs who are going, a private donor has sponsored 10 people’s traveling costs.
"We don’t expect we can shake hands with the pope, but attending a Mass and getting a blessing on behalf of other IDPs who can’t go is a special grace," said Ja Taung, a widow and mother of seven.
"For Catholics, it is a moment of joy and hope and the pope’s visit will deepen our faith."
Ja Taung fled from Gadayan village near Laiza, the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), when fighting intensified nearby in June 2011.
She hopes Pope Francis will accelerate an end to the violence by addressing peace issues.
Peace is possible if all stakeholders, including the military and Kachin armed groups, are willing to negotiate, Ja Taung said.
Civil wars continue to plague many ethnic-minority states in Myanmar, particularly mainly Christian Kachin State.
The conflict has also spread into northern Shan State.
Since 2011, when a 17-year ceasefire broke down, more than 120,000 people have fled their homes.
Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon said Pope Francis would address the ongoing Kachin conflict.
Cardinal Bo, however, acknowledged that the pope would consider the totality of Myanmar’s challenges.
This includes the tragic exodus of more than 600,000 Muslim Rohingya from Rakhine State and large numbers of refugees from Myanmar, many of them Christian, still in camps on the Thai side of the border.
Peter Soe Rae, a returned refugee from a camp on the Thai border, cannot afford to take his family to the pope’s Yangon mass.
Soe Rae, an ethnic Kayah and father of three, told ucanews.com that prayers would be offered instead for the success of the papal visit.
He fled from Predo village in Hpruso town in 1996 due to fighting that erupted in the region and has been in a camp along the Thai border for 10 years.
Pope Francis will arrive in Yangon on Nov. 27 for a four-day visit and meet with the country’s president as well as State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.
He will also meet diplomats and politicians as well as representatives of civil society and youth.
More than 150,000 Catholics and members of other religions are expected to attend the public Mass.
The country’s 700,000 Catholics are a small minority in the Buddhist majority nation of 51 million people.
Some 17 bishops, over 900 priests and 2,200 religious serve Myanmar’s Catholics.
After Myanmar, the pope will visit neighboring Bangladesh.