Youth in Myanmar, Bangladesh find meaning in Pope Francis' visit

The pontiff is expected to take the 'pulse' of young people ahead of next year’s Synod of Youth in the Vatican
Youth in Myanmar, Bangladesh find meaning in Pope Francis' visit
Indigenous Catholic youths beat traditional drums to welcome participants at the National Youth Day 2010 celebrations in Bangladesh's Rajshahi Diocese. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario/ 
Many young people in Myanmar and Bangladesh believe Pope Francis' forthcoming visits will help them face life's challenges.

Pope Francis, who will be in the neighboring nations from Nov. 27-Dec. 2, intends to focus on meeting young people of different faiths and denominations.

The pontiff is expected to use the opportunity to take the "pulse" of young people ahead of next year's Synod of Youth at the Vatican.

On Nov. 29, the pope will celebrate a special mass for some 5,000 Christian and non-Christian youths at St. Mary's Cathedral in Yangon, Myanmar's commercial center.

In the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, Pope Francis will Dec. 2 attend an interreligious and ecumenical meeting of 8,000-10,000 youths at the church-run Notre Dame College. 

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A special privilege

Jacinta Lu Seng, 20, from Kachin State in northern Myanmar, expects the pope's meetings with young people will deepen their faith and motivate them to participate in church affairs.

In northern Kachin State, youths including girls face a huge challenge from drug addiction, she said, citing unemployment and a lack of educational opportunities.

"I hope the pope will raise the important issues that youths in Myanmar are facing during his visit and he will also address the peace issue," said Lu Seng, one of thousands of ethnic Kachin displaced by civil conflict.

Facebook before faith 

Manik Willver D'Costa, former youth co-ordinator at Chittagong Archdiocese of Bangladesh, expects the pope to refer to family and social problems contributing to a lack of spirituality among young people.

Many parents did not find time for prayer or to teach their children about religion in a world increasingly influenced by atheism, he said.

Academic demands meant attending Sunday religious services could be put aside, he added.

D'Costa pointed out that the pope could guide the church on how to more effectively reach out to young people.

Father Patrick Simon Gomes, former secretary of the Bangladeshi Bishops' Commission for Youth, said family and social structures had been weakened in a digital culture.

This included giving hero status to immoral personal relationships.

Father Gomes noted that Pope Francis had prioritized family life because this is where the characters of children are formed.

Promoting harmony in age of extremism

Despite overall being a moderate Muslim country, Bangladesh has seen a deadly rise in religious extremism and violence against minorities in recent times.

Afsara Azim, 22, a Muslim finance student, said Pope Francis' visit could help youth strive for tolerance.

"Most Bangladeshi people believe in religious and communal harmony, but there are some religious bigots in the country too," Azim said.

Education and employment

Both Myanmar and Bangladesh suffer from a lack of educational facilities and career guidance as well as high unemployment.

About 40 percent of young people from Myanmar have moved to Thailand and Malaysia to work as laborers or factory workers in recent years, according to a survey.

In Bangladesh, about one million youth, or 25 percent of the 15-29 age group, were unemployed in 2015-16, according to the Bureau of Statistics.

Father Gomes, with his long experience as a youth worker, said young people needed to come out of their "comfort zones" of seeking jobs overseas or with NGOs and instead consider small business opportunities.

Rohingya crisis

Priyangka Debnath, 21, a Hindu economics student, hopes Pope Francis will highlight the plight of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is currently struggling to cope with an influx of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from neighboring Myanmar.

Debnath, who will attend the youth gathering in Dhaka, noted Pope Francis' reputation as a peacemaker.

She also expects the pope to address economic unfairness in Bangladesh where about a quarter of the 160 million population live below the poverty line.

Improving ecumenical relations

Saikat Sarker, 26, a Baptist youth leader in Bangladesh, believes Pope Francis could foster better relations between Catholic and Protestant youths.

The relationship was currently not strong due to emphasis on differing doctrines and mentalities, Sarker said.

However, Pope Francis could encourage the younger generation to seek a greater sense of Christian unity, he added.

Relying on a youth policy

Maximilian Menu, president of Mandalay Archdiocesan Youth Commission in Myanmar, said young people were excited and motivated by the stress Pope Francis placed on youth as the future of the church.

This was partly because of "disappointment" over a lack of collaboration and encouragement by church leaders such as bishops and priests.

The voices of youth were too often ignored, Menu added.

William Nokrek, 25, an indigenous Garo Catholic from Bangladesh, said Pope Francis could help promote youth as church decision makers.

Nokrek, who is president of the Bangladesh Catholic Students' Movement, also said that young people themselves needed to become more aware of their roles in both church and society.

Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon called for greater attention in Myanmar to tackling unresolved conflicts, poverty, the plight of youths working as modern-day slaves in nearby countries and the drug menace.

#popeheartofasia #PopeFrancis

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