YANGON, Myanmar — Archbishop Charles Maung Bo had barely wrapped up celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Catholic Church’s presence in Myanmar when he got a call from Australia.
“I was in Calcutta; my niece phoned me to say that she saw my name on a list of the names of the cardinals announced by the Holy Father. I thought she was joking, at first,” Cardinal Bo said, speaking at his residence behind St. Mary’s Cathedral in Yangon, the biggest city in Myanmar (also known as Burma).
The archbishop of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) since 2003, the 66-year-old prelate was one of 20 new cardinals created by Pope Francis on Feb. 14.
He is the first cardinal from Burma, a country home to only 800,000 Catholics, spread across 16 dioceses. Though there are hints of a Catholic presence in Burma going back to the 13th century, the first church in the country dates to 1514 — founded by missionaries accompanying Portuguese traders.
“He wants to show the universality of the whole Church,” said Cardinal Bo, assessing Pope Francis’ rationale for appointing not only a Burmese cardinal but also new cardinals from neighboring Vietnam and Thailand.
There are now 19 Asian cardinals, including Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila, who was recently named to lead Caritas International, the Vatican’s global charity.
Cardinal Bo lauded his Filipino counterpart, but doubted anything like an “Asian bloc” would emerge in the voting during the next conclave, whenever that occurs.
“We meet, we talk, but in the end, we would vote as individuals,” Cardinal Bo said.
Out From Under Military Rule
For now, Cardinal Bo’s focus is likely to be on his homeland — a long-troubled country only recently liberated from five decades of military rule, which often carried out vicious counterinsurgency campaigns in remote, mountainous border regions, where many of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities and Christians live.
“The Church will have to come [out] of [its] shell and help [the] whole country, with regard to education and health care, and make [a] voice for religious rights,” he said.
“The poor people: not much attention is being given to them,” Cardinal Bo explained, describing the inadequate living standards in the countryside, where, for decades, hand-to-mouth subsistence farmers were pushed off their lands by army-linked businesses and where clean water and electricity remain rarities.
While army rule formally ended in 2011, the current government is nevertheless dominated by retired generals who stepped down to meet the letter of the law that requires only civilians to hold high office.
There are, however, some rays of light. Foreign business and visitor numbers are increasing, a national election is scheduled for late 2015, and freedom of speech has improved significantly from the military era.
“You don’t have MI [military intelligence] following you everywhere anymore,” Cardinal Bo put it, laughing. But the old military guard that ruled Burma continues to keep a careful watch behind the scenes, he feels.
“Gen. Than Shwe: He doesn’t appear anymore, but he is very much behind everything,” Cardinal Bo said, discussing the last military dictator to rule Burma prior to the stage-managed civilian handover in early 2011.
‘The Church Will Carry On’
It is with these issues simmering in the background, as well as the deeply held institutions of marriage and the family, that Cardinal Bo will attend the October synod on the family in Rome.
Buddhist hardliners are pushing proposals in parliament aimed at curbing conversions — moves widely seen as targeting the country’s estimated 5 million Muslims, whom Cardinal Bo has spoken up for in the past.
Around 20% of Myanmar’s married Catholics are in mixed marriages, Cardinal Bo said. He is not, however, concerned about the proposed legislation. “Fifty percent of Buddhists or other Christians who marry a Catholic in turn convert to Catholicism here,” he explained.
“Conversion, for us, is a matter of personal concern, and the Church will just carry on [regardless of the new laws].”
As for the upcoming synod, Cardinal Bo dismissed concerns that some drastic reworking of Church teaching is being pushed, predicting, “The basic principles will not change.”
“There will perhaps be more mercy and understanding towards divorced-and-remarried people,” he added.
The Holy Father might be presenting a different image to the world compared with predecessors, explained Cardinal Bo. But, despite media claims to the contrary, Pope Francis “says the same thing as the popes of the past.”
“The messenger of the Good News should not have the facial expression of one coming back from a funeral,” he said, paraphrasing Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).
Cardinal Bo praised Pope Francis for his emphasis on transparency in the Church, both in sorting out financial-management issues and in dealing with priestly sexual abuse.
As Cardinal Bo said, “We have to show humility and zero tolerance to deal with this, and the Catholic Church should set an example to the world for protecting children.”
Simon Roughneen covers Southeast Asia and the Middle East for several publications.
He’s on Twitter @simonroughneen, and his articles can be seen at SimonRoughneen.com.