Definitely a Papal visit for the history books, writes Chai Brady
After what can only be described as a hugely successful Papal trip, there was definitely a collective exhalation from organisers and governments alike as Pope Francis stepped onto his plane back to Rome after delivering his messages of peace and unity.
This was no run-of-the-mill trip, especially considering it was the first time any Pope travelled to Myanmar, and only the second time to Bangladesh.
Many international media organisations staunchly shadowed the visit, even those who would not normally have given Papal trips much coverage. Without a doubt the plight of the Rohingya people, who are not recognised as a unique ethnicity under Myanmar law and have been given limited citizenship rights for decades, are the reason.
After several public events in Myanmar it became clear that the Pontiff would not say the word Rohingya during his time in the country. Myanmar’s top prelate Cardinal Charles Maung Bo had advised him not to, saying it would spark violence as the majority of the Myanmar people view the mainly Muslim Rohingya as illegal Bangladeshi migrants.
After an insurgent group who associate themselves with the Rohingya attacked dozens of police posts in Rakhine State in late August a brutal military crackdown led to the displacement of over 600,000 people to Bangladesh, many of whom now live in squalid conditions in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar.
The United Nations has accused the country’s military of ethnic cleansing, and there are many reports and evidence of horrific violence perpetrated by soldiers against civilians.
However this journalist, after spending over two weeks in Myanmar, did not find one Myanmar person, journalists or otherwise, who disagreed with the military’s actions in Rakhine State, meaning the Pope could be fighting an uphill battle if he had an aggressive approach.
The Holy Father has used the term several times in the past – even referring to the embattled people as “brothers and sisters” – and later went on to say ‘Rohingya’ in his Bangladesh leg of the trip, during his visit to refugees who fled violence in Myanmar.
While returning from Bangladesh in his plane, which is affectionately called ‘Shepard One’, the Pope was asked by a journalist why he had not used the term in Myanmar.
Translated from Italian, he said: “Your question is interesting because it brings me to reflect on how I seek to communicate. For me, the most important thing is that the message arrives and for this I seek to say the things, step by step, and listen to the answers…”
The Pontiff continued saying that if he had used the word in Myanmar he would have caused a door to shut, and would have been unable to communicate his messages affectively.
From the beginning of his visit the Pope spoke of giving all people, of all ethnicities, dignity. His trip began in the early afternoon of November 27, when he touched down in Yangon International Airport in Myanmar. He was greeted by thousands of Christians as well as 200 children from parishes in Yangon who sang ‘Viva el Papa’, some of which were wearing traditional clothing.
People wore white t-shirts to celebrate Francis’ visit, which bore pictures of a white dove symbolising peace from within a heart drawn in colours of Myanmar’s flag. Inside the heart there is an outline of the country’s landmass beside a picture of the Pope. There were huge billboards and signs everywhere with his image which read: ““A Heartiest Welcome to the Holy Father Pope Francis, Missionary of Love and Peace.”
The country’s hierarchy is made up of 20 bishops, 800 priests, 2,400 sisters and 400 seminarians across 16 dioceses. According to Vatican figures there are less than 700,000 Catholics in Myanmar, about 1.4% of the population.
A meeting with one of Myanmar’s generals was originally scheduled for Tuesday, but at the last minute there was a request to change it to the day of the Pope’s arrival. The Pontiff described it as a good and civilised meeting, but when asked by a journalist on the Papal plane on December 2 whether he thought it was the military trying to assert their dominance (the Pope was scheduled to meet Aung San Suu Kyi first) he said that could be a suspicion.
The meeting with commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was pushed forward allegedly because of his commitments to go to China.
There is currently a precarious balance of power between the military and de facto leader State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, as the military still have control over certain issues such as national security. The generals gained power after a coup d’état in 1962, which saw decades of corruption and violence under the military Junta, especially when quelling anti-government demonstrations. They recently ceded power, and more recently Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide majority in Myanmar’s parliament in 2015.
On Tuesday, November 28, Pope Francis flew to the Myanmar’s new capital Naypyidaw, and had meetings with president Htin Kyaw and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Once again he was met by thousands of Christians flying Vatican flags and wearing their Papal trip themed t-shirts, many of whom had travelled hundreds of miles to see him at the airport, despite the intense heat of 32 degrees.
Pope Francis and Suu Kyi spoke together at the International Convention Centre 2 (MICC-2) that evening, with the Pope spreading a message of unity and inter-religious dialogue.
“The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, and respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group – none excluded – to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good,” he said.
In relation to interreligious dialogue he said that in the “great work of national reconciliation and integration” Myanmar’s religious communities have a privileged role to play, as religious differences need not be a source of division and trust, but a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation building.
He then flew back to Yangon, and the next morning celebrated Mass in the Kyaikkasan Ground, which was the biggest public event during the Papal trip.
Hundreds of thousands of people arrived from remote villages and neighbouring countries to attend the mass, some even camping close to the venue the day before, and others arriving 4-5 hours before it officially began.
Although the mass was scheduled at 9.30am no one could get in after about 7.30am due to demand, those who arrived late had to wait outside and watch monitors that were live streaming the event.
The Kyaikkasan Ground was created during British colonialism for horse racing, and was used as a temporary detention centre during military rule. Now many different sports are played on its grounds.
In the first Papal Mass performed in Myanmar the Pope spoke of the country’s wounds.
“I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible. The temptation is to respond to these injuries with a worldly wisdom that… is deeply flawed. We think that healing can come from anger and revenge. Yet the way of revenge is not the way of Jesus,” he said.
“Jesus’ way is radically different. When hatred and rejection led him to his passion and death, he responded with forgiveness and compassion.”
He added that he was aware the Church in Myanmar is already “doing much to bring the healing balm of God’s mercy to others, especially those most in need”.
Following the Mass he met with the Supreme ‘Sangha’ Council of Buddhists and said it was an important occasion to strengthen the ties between Buddhists and Catholics.
The Buddhist monks and the Pope with his bishops sat in lines facing one another, with more respective clergy seated behind each group.
In his address the Pope said the event “is also an opportunity to affirm a commitment to peace, respect for human dignity and justice for every man and woman.”
In an age of great technological progress were people are increasingly aware of their common humanity and destiny the Pope added that, “the wounds of conflict, poverty and oppression persists, and create new divisions”.
He expressed the need for the religious community to help people recognise their common humanity, a statement which appears to be aimed at factions of radical Buddhist monks who have been known to preach intolerance and even violence towards people, particularly Muslims in Rakhine State, called the Ma Ba Tha (The Patriotic Association of Myanmar).
They exchanged gifts, with the Pope receiving a painting of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and the Buddhists receiving a sculpture of a white dove symbolising peace.
The Chairman of the Sangha, Bhaddanta Kumarabhivamsa said in his address: “We firmly believe that terrorism and extremism arise from bad interpretations of the original teachings of religions, because some followers introduce amendments to the original teachings under the thrust of their own desires, instincts, fears and disappointments.”
After this the Pope met with the country’s bishops’ council.
The following day, Thursday November 30, was the last public event held in Myanmar, called ‘a Mass with the youth’ held in St Mary’s Cathedral in the morning.
Once again anyone who didn’t arrive hours before were not guaranteed entrance to the grounds of the cathedral, while all of about 1,000 seats inside the building were allocated.
Hundreds of people crushed against the closed gates as the Pope arrived, and people inside the grounds cried out and waved Vatican and Myanmar flags as the he passed in the Popemobile.
There was a huge number of young Catholics in attendance, many from diocesan youth ministries.
During his homily Francis encouraged young people to be missionaries, saying that “as messengers of this good news, you are ready to bring a word of hope to the Church, to your own country, and to the wider world”.
“You are ready to bring good news for your suffering brothers and sisters who need your prayers and your solidarity, but also your enthusiasm for human rights, for justice and for the growth of that ‘love and peace’ which Jesus brings.”
Several young people of different ethnicities and in very different but beautiful traditional dress gave readings during the Mass. There are 135 recognised ethnicities in Myanmar, which has been a source of division and conflict, but also of rich cultural diversity.
After an official farewell Pope Francis arrived in Dhaka International Airport in Bangladesh in the afternoon.
There was no respite from the heat as the temperatures in Bangladesh showed no signs of differing from Myanmar, at a roasting 30 degrees.
Pope Francis first visited and placed a flora wreath at the Monument of Martyrs of Savar, which was erected in memory of those who fought for independence from Pakistan in 1971 during the ‘War of Liberation’, civil authorities and a guard of honour were present.
The Pontiff also signed the Book of Honour and planted a tree in the ‘Garden of Peace’ before going to the Commemorative Museum of Bangabandhu to pay homage to the ‘Father of the Nation’ Sheikh Mujibar Rahman, who was assassinated in 1975. Francis was received by members of Rahman’s family.
Mujibur Rahman is the father of the present Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, known popularly as “Banganbandhu” or friend of the Bengalis.
Later that day during a meeting with authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps he commended Bangladesh for its work helping Rohingya refugees, saying: “In recent months, the spirit of generosity and solidarity which is a distinguishing mark of Bangladeshi society has been seen most vividly in its humanitarian outreach to a massive influx of refugees from Rakhine State, providing them with temporary shelter and the basic necessities of life,” he said.
“This has been done at no little sacrifice. It has also been done before the eyes of the whole world.”
Although Aung San Suu Kyi signed a Memorandum of Understanding with officials in Bangladesh, which aims to begin the repatriation of refugees to Myanmar, there has been no time frame established.
The Pope also made a called the international community to action, saying: “It is imperative that the international community take decisive measures to address this grave crisis, not only by working to resolve the political issues that have led to the mass displacement of people, but also by offering immediate material assistance to Bangladesh in its effort to respond effectively to urgent human needs.”
The following day, Friday December 1, the Holy Father celebrated Mass and ordained 16 men to the priesthood in Suhrawardy Udyan Park.
He gave words of encouragement and exhortation for the newly ordained priests, and asked them to work closely with their bishops.
Pope Francis then met the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for a 20-minute private meeting, and then with the bishops of Bangladesh in a home for elderly priests. In the meeting he asked for them to show “greater pastoral closeness to the lay faithful”.
He said: “There is a need to promote their effective participation in the life of your particular Churches, not least through the canonical structures that provide for their voices to be heard and their experiences acknowledged. Recognise and value the charisms of lay men and women, and encourage them to put their gifts at the service of the Church and of society as a whole.”
Probably one of the most stark and memorable moments in the Pope’s visit to Asia was during an interreligious ecumenical meeting for peace in the garden of the Archbishop’s house where he met 16 Rohingya people: 12 men, two women and two girls.
He said: “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” and listened to each of them and blessed them.
The Pope asked for forgiveness for what happened to the persecuted people, saying: “In the name of everyone, of those who have persecuted you, of those who have done you harm, above all for the indifference of the world, I ask forgiveness. Forgiveness.”
Although there’s “little we can do because your tragedy is very hard and great,” he told them “we give you space in the heart.”
On the Papal plane, Pope Francis admitted that at that point he had cried, he said: “In that moment I cried. I tried not to let it be seen. They cried, too.”
On the final day of his visit, December 2, he went privately to a home founded by Mother Teresa for orphans, unwed mothers and the destitute elderly.
He then threw away an 8-page speech he prepared during a meeting with priests, religious and consecrated men and women, seminarians and novices in the Church of the Holy Rosary, saying he didn’t want them to be bored.
Instead he said he would speak from the heart, saying that vocation is like a seed. He said that vocation is looked after with human tenderness in communities, where priests live and in parishes, and that if there is none the plant can dry out.
“Look after it with tenderness, because every brother in the presbyterate, in the episcopal conference, every religious in community, every brother seminarian, is a seed of God. And God looks at them with the tenderness of a father,” he said.
His last meeting was with young Bangladeshis in the Notre Dame College of Dhaka. He urged them to reject the false promises of happiness and go out of their self-centeredness to foster an environment of harmony, reaching out to others.
Commending Bangladesh’s respect for the elderly, the Pope urged them to talk to their parents and grandparents, without playing with their phones the whole day, ignoring everything around them.
As the Pontiff was on his journey home on Shepherd One, he spoke a lot more candidly about certain issues, even saying that he heard from “someone” that Rakhine State is rich in precious stones, and that “possibly there are interests” in displacing people.
There have also been similar theories in relation to conflict in Kachin State, in the north of Myanmar, which has been put down to religious divides between Christians and Buddhists.
Although there is no hard evidence, when the Pope makes such statements, there may be more to it.
Pope Francis arrived back in Rome late at night last Saturday, after a Papal trip destined for the history books.