Pope Francis is visiting Myanmar Nov. 27-30, 2017. Catholics make up a minority of just 5 percent in a country that is close to 90 percent Buddhist, but 300,000 people from all 16 dioceses in the country are nevertheless expected to attend the papal Mass in the capital city of Yangon. Even among non-Christians, the expectations of the papal visit are high.
Bishop John Hsane Hgyi of the Diocese of Pathein spoke recently with 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.
By ACN staff
How would you describe the present situation of the Christian minority in Myanmar?
In Myanmar the Christians represent about 5 percent of the total population of 51 million. They are a small minority, living amidst the majority Theravada Buddhists. 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 comprised 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 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 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 an apostolic visit. The theme of the Pope’s visit is “Love and Peace in Myanmar!” 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.
What contribution the Catholic Church make toward the peaceful development of Myanmar?
The message of the Pope’s visit is “Love and Peace.” “Peace is Possible and Peace is the Only Way” has become the slogan of the Church in Myanmar for the inter-religious conference we are organizing in April 2017 in Yangon. The Catholic Church in Myanmar is now called upon 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 in promoting the peaceful development of the country.
What are the main pastoral challenges for the Catholic Church in Myanmar?
The majority of our Catholic faithful are living in rural and remote areas. There are still hard-to-reach Catholics in remote areas, which are deprived of adequate means of transportation. Many young children drop out of school and there is an overall 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 substantial pastoral care for Catholics can be difficult to provide. In some areas there is still armed conflict, which is still unresolved, and to provide pastoral care to people in such circumstances is always a challenge.
Last year ACN gave a total of more than $1.3M for the support of projects in Burma, above all for the construction of churches and other Church infrastructure, the training of priests, religious and laity, as well as for projects aimed at deepening the Catholic faith of the people.