On the occasion of Pope Francis’ historic visit to Burma, the first time in that country for any pope, Archbishop Paul Zinghtung Grawng granted me an interview to speak about his hopes and concerns about the upcoming the papal visit.

Archbishop Paul Zinghtung Grawng was born on March 20, 1939, and was ordained on March 27, 1965.

He was installed as Bishop of Myitkyina, Burma on July 9, 1976.

He was transferred to Mandalay in 2003, and installed Archbishop of the city and its environs on June 16, 2003. He received the pallium from Pope John Paul II in June 2003 along with Archbishop Charles Bo of Yangon.

Within the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Myanmar, Bishop Paul is Chairman of the Episcopal Commission for Christian Family and of Myanmar Institute of Formation for Formators.


How did word of Pope Francis' visit become public to the Burmese people?

I first heard of it from people who said they saw it on Facebook. Later I saw it myself. Afterwards Charles Cardinal Bo informed the bishops that the visit would take place in November. At that time, there was no official announcement yet either from the Burmese government or from the Vatican.


What can you tell me of any previous attempts at inviting a pope to visit Burma?

There was invitation from the Catholic Church to St. John Paul and Pope Benedict, as far as I can recall. But at that time there was no official relationship between the Vatican and the local government.


What is your perception about the Pope’s visit?

The visit, I think, is Pope Francis' way of reaching out to the peripheries. No one is excluded from his prayers, love and concern. He is the pastor of all, Catholics and all the rest of the world. Hopefully all the world will come to realize this.


What is your government’s interaction with the Burmese Catholic Church?

Prime Minister Dw Aung San Suu Kyi has had contact with the local Catholic Church for many years in the persons of Cardinal Charles Bo and the bishops. She paid at least one visit to the Bishops' Conference during which most of the bishops of the country were present. She has also met with Pope Francis at the Vatican. Besides, she has come to know Archbishop Paul Tschang In-Nam, both as Apostolic Delegate to Myanmar and as Apostolic Nuncio.

Last year the bishops of the Kachin Areas (Kachin State and Northern Shan State) went to meet with her regarding her peace building efforts, affirming her sincere efforts and assuring her of their cooperation.

This year the Bishops Conference went to see Sr. General U Aung Min Hlaing. This was after the official announcement at the Vatican and at Nay Pyi Taw of the Pope's visit. The government response is quite positive. We’re all happy in this regard. This positive interaction allows for us to concentrate on other important issues of mission and our apostolates to assist the poor of Burma.


Tell me, Your Grace, what has been the reaction from the Catholic community about the Pope's visit in your estimation?

Among the Catholic community here in our country, there has been an enthusiastic reaction and joyful reception of the news of the visit, despite challenges of budget, long travels and apprehensions. Thousands outside of Yangon Archdiocese are determined to make the trip for Pope Francis and have registered their names, babies and children included. We are truly grateful for this blessing. Much fewer Catholics from the outer towns and cities will be able to join us in our celebrations with the Pope even though we are making great efforts at getting more and more people from outside the main cities to attend. The poverty of our people is a main issue. Work is another one. Unfortunately, little can be done. We’re just happy he is coming here at all. Those who can celebrate with us will do so by God’s grace.


How has his visit been treated in the Burmese media?

I think there will be a good coverage once His Holiness is in the country; the Bishops' Conference is making arrangements with local and international media. There is sure to be good coverage as even non-Catholics are happy Pope Francis will visit us. This is truly a unique and glorious occasion for all of us. In my opinion, non-Catholics and non-Christians will at least be curious to witness the Holy Father from a close range.


What are your hopes for the Pope' s visit? Do you think it will accomplish anything positive for Burma?

We hope for several blessings. First, the country and the world will become more aware of the existence of the Catholic Church in Myanmar as well as of her unity and communion with the Universal Church, despite her "little flock" status. Second, perceptive and research-minded people will begin to realize more clearly the contribution that the Church makes to the integral welfare of the nation, particularly in education, humanitarian services and democratic and cultural values. Third, hopefully His Holiness’ visit will promote mutual understanding and appreciation in our country. Some have reflected that the visit will draw attention to the situation in Myanmar and bring it to that of Bangladesh.


Are there factors that might negatively impact upon his visit?

Hopefully no factor will negatively impact the visit. His visit is a blessing. How could it be anything else?


How is Yangon municipal government reacting to his visit in terms of security?

According to the security committee organizing the Eucharistic celebration on Nov. 29, the government police force will ensure security by their alert presence around the venue of the feast during the worship service. This would be true also of the whole city. Everyone in Yangon (Rangoon) is and/or will be aware on His Holiness’ visit. We hope all will celebrate with us―Catholic and non-Catholic alike.


Do you think Buddhists and other non-Catholics will greet the Pope when he visits?

Buddhists and non-Catholics, I think, will greet him in a manner that is open to them. Religious leaders will have the chance to join us when he goes to Kaba Aye in the afternoon of Nov. 29. The Buddhist community has been hopeful to join with us and celebrate the Pope’s arrival. Pope Francis will spend time speaking to that community as well as the Muslim community here in Burma. We wish this to truly be an open welcome to His Holiness. We are all blessed by his presence.