In anticipation of Pope Francis’ visit to Burma (Myanmar) at the end of this month, I invited Charles Cardinal Bo to speak about his impressions, aspirations and hopes about the Pope’s visit. The following is the transcript of our conversation:
How did you learn about Pope Francis' visit?
For a long time, we have been praying for the Pope’s visit. We even requested a stopover when he went to Philippines in January 2015, but this year we were surprised in June 2017 that there is a possibility. We were too glad to pursue the option. Our government was willing, and everything went well by God's grace. The Vatican has truly helped us a great deal during this operation, as none of us had had an inkling of the complex logistics a papal visit truly entails.
I understand that you have asked several popes in the past to visit Burma as well. Is this correct?
Yes. We were under military rule for many decades and a papal visit during that time would have been impossible. Our Church here in Burma is very small Church compared to the Christian countries of the West. We had expressed our deep desire to the Vatican since to have a visit from our shepherd. Our faith did not go waste. God has truly answered our prayers.
What do you think about his visit?
This is the pastoral visit by our shepherd. His presence will truly be a blessing and a grace for our simple Catholic community here in Burma. I believe truly that this visit will strengthen the Catholic Church here and internationally. Historically we have been a persecuted Church, however, God has always blessed the fortitude and faith of our simple people. The Pope has a perspective of honoring and assisting the margins and the weak. We are not a big Church. We are not rich. We are the “margin of margins.” He knows that, like Jesus who looked at Zacchaeus and said, “Come down, I want to go to your house,” our Pope is following the footsteps of our Lord. The stone rejected by the builders has become the corner stone in our Pope's perspective.
This is the first papal visit to Burma. What has been the government’s response to this high-level visit?
It has been a very warm reception. The government extended a warm welcome to the Pope and has reached out to us here to cooperate in welcoming the Pope here. The government has been extending any and all help they can in making this trip a successful one. We are grateful to them for their generous support. It’s a first for us all and thus we all have to be flexible and accommodating with each other as learn what to do to prepare for Pope Francis’ visit.
What do you plan to serve Pope Francis for his meals? Who will cook for him?
This is left to our catering department, managed very professionally by Patrick Aung Thu, the owner of Parami Hotel, and the St. Francis Xavier Congregation Sisters. The Pope has certain dietary needs but we will be happy to serve him Burmese delicacies to express our culture to him.
What has been the reaction from the Catholic community about the Pope's visit?
Obviously this is a moment of great excitement and happiness for our people. People these days often speak to me about nothing else other than the Pope’s visit. Five years ago this news would have been just a dream. Our people are energized at this opportunity for us to globalize our relationship with the Universal Church. Our people have always loved our Pope and speak of him with great affection and respect. To be blessed by him, by his presence among us, would be their greatest and most sincere wish. For the Catholic community, his visit will be a great spiritual experience, to feel one with one another and also to be part of the Universal Church. They can barely believe this sudden “conspiracy of grace” that brought Pope Francis to Myanmar.
I'm curious about the plans of Burmese Catholics outside of the Archdiocese of Yangon to visit Yangon to greet His Holiness.
Not very different from how I responded to the previous question. Those Catholics are also immensely happy about the news. Unfortunately, their enthusiastic outpouring is not met by the logistical demands of their traveling to meet the Pope. Many districts do not have enough buses to transport people into Yangon or the capital where the Pope will be addressing people. Some of them are from remote areas and they will need to walk to the correct venues. Lack of transportation has been a great challenge to our people from many remote areas. However, though it is a hardship for them, they will still walk to the venues to see the Pope and receive his blessing. It’s too important to them to see him.
How has the Pope’s visit been treated in the Burmese media?
It has been treated with joy by the Burmese media. The news of Pope Francis’ visit was announced at a time when the country was undergoing a great deal of negative news from all over the world. The Pope’s visit is truly good news to many Burmese―for both Christians and non-Christians as well.
How are non-Catholics and non-Christians reacting to his visit?
The Buddhist community makes up about 87 percent of our nation and many of them have expressed great hope, gratitude and expectation that the Pope’s visit will heal many of the wounds Burma has suffered over the years. Interreligious groups will be meeting the Pope when he is here in Burma. For them he is the prophet of international peace and a shepherd to impoverished and alienated people.
What do you hope for in terms of the Pope's visit? Do you think it will accomplish anything positive for Burma?
Peace has been elusive in our country. God has blessed this nation with great wealth, including 135 colorful tribes. This is a colorful, golden and wonderful land. When Pope Francis arrives, he will see the grace and beauty of this land. Most of our people are peace-loving. This nation has long nurtured spiritual and humanistic principles amongst its people. It’s true that recent events are a great blight on our nation. However, I have the highest hopes―I know―that the Pope will see the best in our people. The Pope's visit, many hope, will heal the many violent divisions in our country. His words can carry great power. He is meeting all the important stakeholders involved in these conflicts. He can pray and plead for peaceful solutions to our country’s many problems. We sincerely believe that his visit will heal these open wounds. I hope after his departure the various stakeholders would be emboldened to choose nonviolent solutions to the pestering problems in our country.
Are there factors that might negatively impact upon his visit?
We sincerely do not foresee any difficulty in his visit. Surely there are some problems but the Pope has a way of reaching out in any issue. He has done it very well in other places. We don’t foresee any negative things that could seriously impact his visit.
How is the Yangon municipal government reacting to the Pope’s visit in terms of security?
It has been rendering any and all assistance they can. The chief Minister is very eager that this city provides both safety for the Pope and accessibility to the Pope. The local government has been very generous in agreeing to many of our requests. It has been a very rewarding cooperation so far. We all hope it will continue into the future as well.
Do you think Buddhists and other non-Catholics will greet the Pope when he visits?
I do not doubt this. Some may be worried about the security but there will be many occasions for people to meet and greet Pope Francis. We sincerely hope that he will touch many hearts when he is here. This is a wonderful opportunity for all of us here in Burma, not just the Catholic community. We are all truly blessed in this occasion.