In Burma’s Dark Times, Cardinal Bo Proclaims the Light of Christ

“Christ is the light of the world and in that, he is the light that shines in the hearts of all Christians.”

Worshipers gather at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Rangoon, Burma, on Jan. 3
Worshipers gather at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Rangoon, Burma, on Jan. 3 (photo: Register Burma Correspondent)

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, one of Asia’s most recent crop of cardinals, has been outspoken in his defense of the minorities of Burma — first and foremost Christians. Among these ethnic minorities are the Karen people, and in his homily for Karen New Year, he spoke of Christ as the hope of the world and (in light of the military coup 11 months earlier) the hope of his nation, Burma.

On Jan. 3, I was invited to a public celebration of the Karen at their principal parish — Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Insein, Rangoon.

The Karen New Year takes place on the first day of Pyatho, the tenth month in the Burmese calendar, which generally falls in December or January. It coincides with the end of the first rice harvest — there are two such harvests per year per the climate. The Karen New Year was established as a national holiday in Burma in 1937 by the Raj, the British colonial administration. 

The S’gaw Karen are one of the 135 officially listed ethnicities of Burma (Myanmar). Their language is related to Burmese, Tibetan, Sikiimese and Dzongkha (Bhutanese). One out of five Karens are Christian. The majority are Baptist but a sizable percentage is Catholic.

The 5 million Karens in the country make up approximately 7% of the total population. They constitute the third-biggest ethnic population after the Burmese and the Shans. Karens are spread across both Thailand and Burma. The Thai government is also fighting them in an insurgency since 1949 — one of the three such extensive civil wars perpetuated by the central government there which are classed as the longest civil wars in world history. The other two such civil wars concurrent with the Karen uprising also involve other ethnicities in Burma, specifically Rahkine and the Shan. 

Ever since the military coup in February 2021, other ethnicities have waged war against the centralized nation. The Mon, Chin, Wa, Kareni, Kachin, Kayah and Kayin have taken up arms against the military coup and the centralized appropriated government. Small segments of Wa have accepted Chinese assistance and are in open conflict with the central Burmese government. Many atrocities have taken place in Burma. The Rohingya persecution is merely the latest one.

The Karen drum is a symbol of Karen culture as are the bamboo panpipes. A close examination of Sts. Pater and Paul Church shows their church is shaped exactly like both instruments.

I was handed a Karen flag sticker on my way into church and, by dint of being a visitor, escorted to the first pew. In examining the Karen flag sticker I was given, it shows a rising sun with nine rays of light streaming from it to symbolize the rising sun and the nine regions from which the Karen people trace their origins.

The Gospel having been read, Cardinal Bo approached the pulpit with his characteristically warm smile, He’s unusually tall for a Burmese and strikes a regal but warm bearing. He gave his homily in both Burmese and Karen in honor of those present celebrating the holiday.

In his presentation, Cardinal Bo spoke of the need for light when we are in the darkest parts of our lives.

“Christ is the light of the world and in that, he is the light that shines in the hearts of all Christians.” He referenced the nine-rayed rising sun which is a key element in the Karen flag that was temporarily affixed to my heart.

He spoke of the importance of the sun for our own lives and for all life on earth.

“Without the sun, we wouldn’t have life. Earth would be lifeless but God has given us this light to enlighten our eyes. God has given us his own Son to enlighten our souls as well.”

“At this time of the Karen New Year as one of the major holidays celebrated by the Karen,” he continued.

“In this new year,” Cardinal Bo said, “we must remember the light that ever goes before us and leads us like the pillar of fire that led the Jews out from Egypt.”

“Christ is our light. He is the life-giving sun. He is the light that burns brightly in our hearts so that we can all show the world who it is that leads us and loves us. Never let that light go out. Put it on a lampstand so that all can see it. Our country needs Christ. We can show him to our fellow countrymen with our Christ-inspired love.”

The cardinal’s words come at a crucial period for Burma. The country is under one of the world’s longest shutdowns, which has exasperated the contentious and ill-advised military coup that took place in February.

“Pray for Burma,” said the cardinal. “Pray we will see peace.”