By John Zaw and Michael Sainsbury
Pope Francis celebrated a two-hour open-air Mass for at least 150,000 people in Yangon early on Nov. 29, preaching forgiveness and praising the efforts of small churches across the country.
The service, the largest single crowd for an organized event in Myanmar, included about 150 cardinals, bishops and priests on stage. English, Burmese, Latin and Italian were used during Mass.
Pope Francis was dressed in green and gold vestments, while a huge choir of nuns and priests wore white attire with blue V’s embroidered on the front of their garments.
Before the Mass, the pope traveled through the crowd on the back of an open-sided, white pick-up truck with a clear front shield and overhead covering.
Pope Francis emphasized forgiveness and then singled out the work of Catholic Karuna Myanmar (Caritas) in providing help to “great numbers of men, women and children, regardless of religion or ethnic background” during his homily.
“I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible,” Pope Francis said in Italian, that was translated into Burmese for the congregation.
“The temptation is to respond to these injuries with a worldly wisdom that, like that of the king in the first reading, is deeply flawed. We think that healing can come from anger and revenge. Yet the way of revenge is not the way of Jesus. Jesus’ way is radically different. When hatred and rejection led him to his passion and death, he responded with forgiveness and compassion,” he said before taking time to praise the efforts of a church that is only 1 percent of the population in a country of 51 million.
“I know that the church in Myanmar is already doing much to bring the healing balm of God’s mercy to others, especially those most in need. There are clear signs that even with very limited means, many communities are proclaiming the Gospel to other tribal minorities, never forcing or coercing but always inviting and welcoming,” the pope said.
Hundreds of thousands of people attended the papal Mass at the Kyaikkasan sports ground in Yangon Nov.29. (Photo credit: Social Communication office of Catholic Bishops of Myanmar)
“Amid much poverty and difficulty, many of you offer practical assistance and solidarity to the poor and suffering. Through the daily ministrations of its bishops, priests, religious and catechists, and particularly through the praiseworthy work of Catholic Karuna Myanmar and the generous assistance provided by the Pontifical Mission Societies, the church in this country is helping great numbers of men, women and children, regardless of religion or ethnic background.”
Many attending the service were pilgrims who had traveled from the furthest corners of Myanmar as most of the country’s Catholics live in the outlying states of Kachin, Shan, Karen and Kayah.
Prior to the Mass, more than 120,000 Catholics and people from other religions packed into at Kyaikkasan sports ground waving flags. They shouted “Papa Francis” when the pope’s vehicle entered the grounds and toured around the thousands of pilgrims.
Saw Zabinus, 60, a Catholic from Taungngu Diocese, in northern Shan State, said he had waited since 2 a.m., as he was excited to see the pope and attend the public Mass.
“His visit is a great help for minority Catholics to deepen our faith and have a good relationship with other religions,” Zabinus, told ucanews.com. He said the visit by the pope was fostering peace in the country.
Peter, an 18-year-old Catholic youth from St. Anthony’s Church in Yangon who worked as a volunteer at the Mass, said it was a special privilege. He said he couldn’t express his excitement and joy enough, especially when the pope toured in his vehicle ahead of the Mass.
“I am very happy that I got a chance to volunteer at the Mass. This opportunity is a once in my life event,” Peter told ucanews.com.
Hkun Htun Aung, a Buddhist and civil engineer who helped in the construction of the stage for the papal Mass, said he was glad to have a chance to see Pope Francis and it was a good thing that a Catholic leader had visited the Buddhist-majority country.
“Christianity focuses on love and peace, and Buddhism also emphasizes compassion and love, and the pope came to Myanmar to bring peace,” said Htun Aung, an ethnic Pa-oo from Pekhon town in Shan State where majority are Christians.
He added that there is a good relationship between Buddhists and Christians as Buddhists participate in Christian celebrations and Christians also come to Buddhist ceremonies.