Today a long march reaches its significant Peak. Today is a day of Epiphany to Myanmar Christians. A march that started five hundred years ago, has reached a grace– filled junction. Christ stands at this Junction rejoicing with us. We are joyfully gathering today like the Jews who gather at the temple in Jerusalem. Like the Israelites returning from the Exile, we return to the epicentre of our sacred history. What a significant moment! What a joy now it is to be a Christian and a Myanmar citizen! Praise be to God!
This is our Jubilee year. I warmly greet all of you, gathered from every nook and corner of Myanmar. This is a Pentecost, the coming together of all races and ethnicities. We might speak diverse languages but today all understand the language of gratitude.Thousands have gathered here today from 16 dioceses. A truly colourful rainbow church rejoices at ‘the marvels the Lord has done’ for all us.
Our Gathering today reflects the great Jubilee of the Bible. The word Jubilee is derivedfrom the Hebrew word – Yovel – a trumpet blast of Liberty. Jubilee is a year of liberation. In Leviticus 25:10-40 a glorious description of the Jubilee is given. It is the year of celebration of freedom (Lev. 25:11). Free, free, man, woman and the beast, even the land is set free! How appropriate for us the Myanmar Citizens! We the people who have walked in darkness have seenthe light as a nation (Isaiah 9:2 and Mathew 4:16).
Jubilee year is also a year of rest. Rest from all oppression, rest from all wars, rest from grinding poverty, rest from displacement. We have gathered here today to celebrate that dream of a world without want and suffering. This is the year of grace to not only to Christians but to my all brothers and sisters of Myanmar. Come and rest (Mathew 11.28) and rejoice in the Lord always (Phil 4:4).
Christ takes up the jubilee theme in Luke 4: 16-18: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has sent me to proclaim the good news to the poor, liberty to the captives and freedom for those oppressed and to announce the year of the Lord” – what a strong message, echoed once again in the Magnificat, in the words of our Mother “The Lordexalted the lowly”. So we have gathered her to pray ‘Let Justice and Peace flow like a river’ (Amos: 5:24). Yes today in this jubilee year we have gathered to seek Justice, peace and prosperity.
Our clarion call is to total freedom as St Paul will tell the Galatians “For you were all called to freedom – love one another”.A freedom from hatred, a freedom from want, a freedom from all kinds of oppression. Jubilee year is a season of hope, there are showers of blessings, a venture of dreams. This is also a season of thanksgiving. Five hundred years! What a blessing to be part of a Myanmar Christianity that has seamlessly merged itself with the joys and sorrows of our country men and women. We are proud to be Christians and citizens of Myanmar today. It is a confluence of joy and fellowship.
Our Journey of faith started five hundred years ago. There were signs of Christian presence even in the 13th and 14th centuries. But it was with the attention of St Francis Xavier, the intrepid seeker of souls who brought the Kingdom of Pegu to the attention of Rome and others, five hundredyears ago. Like the mustard seed in the Gospel, our beginnings were insignificant. But in many ways we resembled the first Christians in the Acts. The first Christians nurtured by the Jesuit Missionaries in Syriam were to be persecuted and driven up to the upper Burma. Called Bayingyi Christians, this community haswithstood centuries of oppression and discrimination but held on to its faith till today, generously providing vocations.
Among our initial converts we do count a local Prince and Poet– Natshinggaung. Ava and Pegu were to be evangelized by the Barnabites. It was one of the Barnabites, Father Sangermano who would let know the Burmese history and the Burmese literature to the outside world. They were to be followed by Oblates. In 1845 Catholics counted a mere 2500. The oblates were followed by the Missions Etrangeres Paris or MEP fathers, valiant and self– sacrificing missionaries who worked both in India and Burma. Northern Burma was under the MEP fathers. The Eastern Burma was under the care of PIME fathers, West under La Salette. Hundreds of women religious from various congregations were to toil in these areas with commendable sacrifices. Bishop Biganat was to emerge as the local Francis Xavier with his multifaceted personality. The Church grew under his care. The arrival of Coloumbans in the north West provinces saw the Kachins embracing Catholicism. So many missionaries were to toil in this land, some attaining even martyrdom. Many women missionary congregations came. Only God can reward the generosity and commitment of these valiant soldiers of Christ who identified totally with us. Hundreds of them are buried in known and unknown graves.
Their spirit is with us today. Their sacrifice and sagacity is astounding. They reached remotest corners where even today we dread to reach. They brought education to many villages. They studied and dialogued with the Buddhism. They took Burmese youth to foreign countries to educate. They established industrial schools for the youth. Where needed they were diplomats negotiating peace among warring groups. Amidst killer diseases, they tended the sick, often falling victims to the same diseases. They were with the poor. They were with the kings. They brought printing to the country. For many ethnic languages they worked out scripts thus empowering the whole population. The nation and the people today gratefully acknowledge the service of the Catholic Church. All these were done amidst some of the strong opposition from the colonial governments. They were all to all to save some.But inspired all in charity.
A church that grew through blood and tears As St Paul will say “I planted the seed, Apollo watered it. But God has been making it grow” (1 Cor 3:6). We are proud today that our church is hundred percent indigenous church for the last 50 years. When our great missionaries were expelled in 1965 many thought that was the end of this small Church. But we have grown amidst all the difficulties– growing through confidence today boasting of a confident church that has more than 700 priests, 2200 sisters and 16 dioceses and more than 760,000 very strong Catholics. And we have an army of catechists – men and women whose tears and blood continue to water the vineyard of faith. We have more than three martyrs. That has made the church the one institution in the country that can boast of membership from every known ethnic tribe and language groups.
All tribes – Karens, Kachins, Kayahs, Chins, Akhas, Lahus, Lisus, Was Shans have welcomed Christ with a great vigour. These communities prove to be a great witness to faith and generosity by giving great vocations. Despite civil wars and displacement the ethnic Christians have shown the world that their faith comes first, nothing – not even decades of war and displacement could shake their faith. Your presence here is a great witness to your deep faith. We are moved by the fellowship of other Christians – Indians, Chinese who on various occasions came to this land and made commendable contributions to the Church. What have learnt from our journey: the lights and the shades of faith. Our existence proves to the world that our journey has been exactly like the journey of the first Christians. We were persecuted for our faith but we have never given up. In the 1960s everyone thought the Burmese Catholics are finished. It is the faith of the mustard seed (Mt: 17:20) that made us to confront mountains of challenges. We not only survived, we grew.
A rainbow church:We are really a Catholic, Universal Church– how blessed we are! What a colourful church we are! We come from every ethnic group in Myanmar. A rainbow church! As Paul says we are all Christ Body, each one of us member of it (1 Cor 12: 27)
A church of initiative: We have exhibited great initiatives – how we built our people as people of faith in various ways amidst one of the most oppressive regimes, is a great wonder to many a visitor to this nation now. The various indigenous congregations we formed, the strong catechetical approach to the remote villages, the ingenuity with which we have trained our men and women in faith formation, our shrewdness in protecting our flock has won plaudits from our admires both inside and outside the country. Today the Catholic Church can boast of a great growth both in quality and quantity. Truly we have multiplied the five talents into five hundred.
Poverty and disempowerment of our people: With our country men and women we too were victims of man– made disasters – a country which was once the richest was reduced to one of the poorest in the world. Catholics remain one of the poorest populations because of the discrimination, lack of empowerment.
A church of exodus: Thousands of our faithful have fled war and poverty. For thousands refugee camp life is the only life known. Part of our community is like the Israel in exile in the camps in Thailand, Kachin land. Modern forms of slavery have taken our young men and women to every corner of the globe. Thousands need to come back. They sat near rivers of Babylon and think of the Zion and their return (Psalm 137).
A crucified church: In border dioceses, our youth are exposed toinhuman bondage of drugs, human trafficking, and lack of education. A crucified generation cries out for liberation.
The church – the wounded healer:The little flock’s contribution to people and the nation. Yet all our problems were never deterred us from serving our nation. Today we stand here to thank the Lord for the opportunity to this little flock had to serve the nation and the people of Burma/Myanmar.
Education: Already in 1792 the Catholic Church started the school in the country. Inthe 20th century it was the Church who introduced education in remote communities. It was very active in girls’ education. Our women religious educated queens and princess. Where the governments and the armies did not dare to enter – it was the commitment of the religious that saw schools coming up. The best known schools in the country were run by Christians till nationalization came. Let the schools be returned to the original owners: Catholic Communities. This is Jubilee. Then only the education in Myanmar will have progress.
Health: Church was a healer. Preventive and proactive and curative medical care was introduced by the women religious in many remote villages. Mother and child health care was constituted in many villages.
Caring for the most vulnerable: Even today it is the Church that stands with victims of cultural stigma– the people afflicted with leprosy, HIV terminal patients. All along its life the church nursed those who were abandoned by the society. Some of the stigmatized diseases like leprosy which are still considered as the result of bad Karma received the utmost care and concern from church.Even today the two of the biggest Leprosy homes are maintained amidst great difficulties by the Church. The Church has never flinched from her social mission, even when it had no support. It had even begged to look after these people.
Alleviating Human suffering: When natural disasters struck– like Nargis– the church mobilized all its resources and reached out to thousands without any discrimination. In the recent displacement of war in Kachin areas, the church is reaching out to 75 percent of the IDPs.
Promoting Peace and Reconciliation:the Church has stood for peace with justice and has worked discretely to promote peace among conflicting parties. Since it lives among the conflict zones and people, it has trained its people in conflict resolution.
Intellectual work: Through its seminaries and network of formation houses the Church has formed a strong human resource base for serving the Church and nation. Last thirty years, the Church has sent hundreds of youngsters for higher studies who are now serving the nation.
Interreligious Dialogue: Amidst the swelling springs of hatred, the Church has been playing a major role in interreligious dialogue, part of Religions for Peace and Youth for Promotion of Interreligious harmony.
Road ahead – opportunities and challenges:
New evangelization – empowered Laity: theopening of the countrychallenges us. Until now we have depended on the clergy, expecting them to fulfil all the mandates of the Gospel. The New Evangelization throws a challenge for all the evangelized to become evangelizers. The Church stands at a cross roads. It is rightly questioned why a church that started its journey 500 years ago has only 1 percent of the population of Myanmar while the Protestant Churches that started less than two centuries ago are more than 3 percent. The task of revitalizing the Church passes on to laity in the next phase of our life. In a fast-changing society it is the laity who are near the non– Christians and the task of proclamation falls on their shoulders.
A vibrant spirituality based on personal encounter with Christ:As the country opens up, Catholics will be challenged by all kinds of groups,some intended only on disturbing the Catholics’ faith. The future of faith depends on a vibrant personal spirituality based on personal encounter with Jesus. Catholics have depended for too long on their priests for spiritual nourishment.
Emergence of national Church –a Church that is truly Catholic: This is an epiphany for the Myanmar church. Our persecutions kept us closed to each church, sometime to our own ethnic groups. A need for us to emerge as a Myanmar Catholic Church is deeply felt by the younger generation. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere – so our need to be united at the national level.
An empowered, enlightened and educated Catholic community: A new economy offers great opportunities but they need parallel skills in education and technology. A well-educated, self-confident, faith-based community will proclaim God’s kingdom by its word and deed.
Our missionary obligation: The only way to pay back the great sacrifices of our missionaries of the past is to send our sons and daughters as missionaries. There are dioceses in Myanmar full of vocations. We need to share our human resources with our own brethren here and also to nearby countries – Laos, China, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, etc.
Promotion of justice and peace: True peace is based on justice.Decades of war has solidified hatreds in many hearts. There is no future for us without healing. The Church needs to heal the wounds and work towards a future with justice and peace. Land rights, livelihood rights, gender rights, right to return of the refugees and the migrants – all of them need to occupy our attention.
A pastoral and good-shepherd approach: The good shepherd goes in search of the lost sheep (John 10). The Church needs to reach out to those who are outside the regular parish structures. As Pope Francis guides us:“go to the sheep and come back with the smell of the sheep”, we need to go and encounter our brothers and sisters.
There are hundreds of us still condemned to poverty and suffering.
There are hundreds of villages that do not have proper pastoral care.
There are unfinished agendas for all of us.
Miles to go, miles to go.
Our Journey continues with gratitude to the Lord, proclaiming with the Psalmist: Let the nations thank you Lord, let all the Nations thank you! The earth yields its crops. May God, our God, bless us!
May God bless us! Then all the ends of the earth will give him the honour he deserves. Come Lord Jesus – Maranatha –mayGodblessyou all.
May he give a long life to long to see yet another jubilee of Grace.