Most Americans don’t recognize the country known currently as Myanmar and only know it by its older, nobler and more authentic name―Burma.
The largest ethnic group of Burma call themselves Burmans, after which the nation had previously been named. It was the atheistic communist dictators of that erstwhile gentle nation who insisted at the point of a gun to change the name to Myanmar. The new name is derived from the two Burmese words: myan which means “fast” and mar which means “strong.”
The name is classic Orwellian doublespeak in that it’s meant to inspire a bullied population. But ultimately, it means nothing.
In fact, even publicly pronouncing the old name, “Burma,” was sufficient for the jackboots to shuffle you off to prison work camp, never to be heard from again.
It’s been a banner year for Burmese Catholics, who officially make up only 2 percent of the country. However, most priests I interviewed there admit it’s closer to 5 percent of the population. This is in part due to the large number of immigrants from southern India, who are disproportionally Catholic.
I was in Rangoon to perform for several Catholic churches, including the archdiocese’s magnificent and awe-inspiring St. Mary’s Cathedral. I also performed for a Catholic organization for street kids and managed to collect money for the cathedral’s youth program.
A few months ago, the country got its first Apostolic Nuncio and Pope Francis is also planning a swing-by late November. Once there, the Pope will be greeted by some of the friendliest Catholics on the planet.
At the same meeting, the Vatican announced the Pope would appoint Archbishop Paul Tschang In-Nam, a Korean-born prelate, as nuncio to Myanmar, and receive an ambassador from the Southeast Asian nation. Archbishop Tschang has served the Vatican’s diplomatic corps for many years throughout Southeast Asia, Europe, Central America and East Africa.
Catholics are a tiny but important minority in Burma/Myanmar, which has a population of 51 million people, most of whom are Buddhists. There are about 1 million Catholics there served by 16 bishops, more than 700 priests and 2,200 religious.
I attended Mass at Yangon’s St. Mary’s Cathedral, of which I’m in awe. The exterior looks like any French Gothic church, but I was completely taken aback on entering this scared space. I can only describe the interior as whimsically decorated.
I have zero artistic sense and if my loved ones don’t point out why I shouldn’t be pairing a fluorescent green shirt with international disaster orange shorts, I will easily walk out of the house that way. I’ve never been a slave to fashion or good taste. However, the color scheme of the St. Mary’s church was thoroughly engaging. The arches’ bricks were painted bright green and red and they fit the white and brown interior magnificently.
If you disregard the stultifying Burmese heat and turn a blind, nervous eye to the hundreds of not-so-tiny lizards climbing over the church’s murals, hungrily looking for bugs, any Western Christian would have thought themselves transported to the south of France.
The Burmese are “discalced” at home and as church is God’s home, they respond accordingly―we all sat and prayed barefoot, we were reconciled barefoot in the confessionals and received the Eucharist while barefoot. There was nary a clog, a Mary Jane or even a flip-flop in sight! I was a bit embarrassed as I'm unaccustomed to disrobing in public and because I hadn’t had a pedicure at any time in my life. However, as St. Ambrose would have said had he given the situation a moment’s worth of thought, “When in Burma, stop being a baby and take your shoes off!”
And when I walked up to receive the Eucharist next to my fellow unshod Christians, the cool marble underfoot, I felt humbled. Something akin to a cooling shadow passed over me, as if my guardian angel had spread open his wings shading me. I looked up to the priest who, if he had been surprised to see a foreign communicant standing before him, chose to say nothing. Instead, he gave me a look of compassion, silently assuring me that he knew neither of us were worthy of the Great Honor which he held in his blessed hands.
The priest spoke to me in a language that I had no chance of understanding and yet I knew intuitively and exactly that he was asking me for my assent.
I felt ashamed of my relative wealth, but while barefoot, there was no difference between me and my brothers and sisters around me.
I said, “Amen,” as they say in Burma, and received the Eucharist on my tongue. Christ’s Body had never tasted as sweet to me. He had pierced my soul and I was truly humbled in the midst of my humble brothers and sisters.
I’m curious to know if the Pope will follow suit when he gets there in November. I suspect the Burmese will be cool no matter what the supreme pontiff chooses. Because, you know, he’s the pope.
Pope Francis is expected to visit to Myanmar in November on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Catholicism in Burma. It will be the first time a pope visits this fair country. The communists/military junta who had been in charge of the country until recently weren’t too keen on allowing Pope St. John Paul II (the-Man-Who-Brought-Down-Communism) to their country, considering they had everything to lose and nothing to gain.
Buzz around Burma is that their leadership hopes the Pope’s Nov. 27 to 29 visit will heal many divisions in the country. However, Buddhist leaders have issued a warning to the Pope to avoid championing the Rohingya—a persecuted Muslim minority that many Buddhists in Myanmar insist are from neighboring Bangladesh, despite the fact that Rohingyas have lived in Burma for generations.
Pope Francis referred to their suffering in a homily he gave on May 19, 2015, at Saint Martha’s in the Vatican. He spoke after hearing about the arrival of thousands of migrants abandoned on the coasts of Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.
“We think today of those poor Rohingyas of Burma. On leaving their country to flee from persecutions, they didn’t know what would happen to them. And it’s now months that they are on a boat…They arrived in a town where they are given water, food and were told to ‘go away!’ … And that’s happening today.”
Around 1.1 million Rohingya live in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state, but are denied citizenship. Many Buddhists across Myanmar regard them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
More than 87,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since Rohingya insurgents killed nine police last year, which resulted in military crackdown.
Ashin Wirathu, an ultranationalist leader of the hard-line Buddhist movement Ma Ba Tha, in the former royal capital of Mandalay, has insisted to the local and international media that the Pope is confused as to the identity of the Rohingya.
“There is no Rohingya ethnic group in our country,” explained Wirathu. “But the Pope believes they are originally from here. That’s false.”
He’s accused the Pope of coming to Burma as part of an international conspiratorial “political instigation.”
The truth, however, is Aung San Suu Kyi, the Counselor of State and Minister of Foreign Affairs, personally invited Pope Francis to Burma on her visit to the Vatican.
Vatican officials have already descended upon Yangon, Myanmar’s cultural and business capital, to coordinate papal logistics.
When Aung San’s political party, the National League for Democracy, came to power in 2016—winning Myanmar’s first free general election after of living under house arrest decades the year before—she became the leader of a country with a long history of violent, oppressive atheistic military rule, simmering religious and ethnic tensions, intrusive Chinese intrigue and subterfuge, borderlands fraught with insurgencies and a military-drafted constitution that gave generals firm control of the domestic security apparatus.
As pro-papal feelings ride high in Burma, Catholic bishops have petitioned the country to return the Catholic schools nationalized by the Myanmar communist junta many decades ago. Thanks to Catholic schools, Burma had previously been considered the best-educated nation in Southeast Asia. Most of these schools were nationalized in 1965 after atheist General Ne Win seized power and took the Catholic schools at gunpoint.
However, the Catholic Church currently runs about 300 boarding houses in parishes across the country. Village children stay in the boarding houses and attend state-run schools. They are given supplementary lessons in their boarding houses including catechetical training.
Burmese Catholic bishops have pledged to play to help rebuild their country following the horrors of nearly 50 years of military misrule.
During the local Church’s “Mission Planning for Nation Building” workshop held at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Myanmar office in Yangon in June of this year. Burma’s Caritas (Catholic Charities) hopes to help rebuild their nation through education and health care.