The archbishop of Yangon is the guest of honour at the Plenary Assembly of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India. For him, "When challenges abound, unity is not a luxury but [. . .] a necessity". Extremist nationalism "threatens the lives of vulnerable people". In Myanmar, "The Church took up the role of mercy for the afflicted people".
Bengaluru (AsiaNews) – For Charles Bo, archbishop of Yangon, the Catholic Church is “a great driver of the social sectors" in India where millions of people are touched by the “service offered by an army of volunteers". Indeed, Catholics “are the face of the compassionate Jesus to the poor and the broken.”
The cardinal made these comments at the Plenary Assembly of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) currently underway in Bengaluru, Karnataka (2-9 February) where he is the guest of honour.
In his address, the prelate highlighted the results of the Catholic Church’s mission in India: 25 per cent of the educational sector is in the hands of the Church, every day 10 million students attend Catholic schools, and 20 per cent of health care provided to the most vulnerable people comes from the Church through " an army of volunteers: nearly 110,000 sisters and around 60,000 men full time for the pastoral and social development of this nation.”
Starting from actual examples of how the "persecuted Church" of Myanmar was able to face the challenges of its own social context, Mgr Bo proposes a series of steps to maintain "unity in diversity" and issues that “brought us together cementing our unity.”
Sadly though, "South Asia has been a hotbed of religious fanatics who fan the fire of hatred". But as priests, “We break bread on a world altar of injustice. We need a world war” against poverty. Card Bo’s full address follows.
Namaskar - Minglaba.
Warm greetings from the golden land of Myanmar.
It is a great honour to be invited to the vibrant Church in Asia. Your Prime Minister has initiated 'look East' and he must have inspired CBCI. Anyhow this is a great honour. Till 1937 we were part of India many priests have served Myanmar Catholics. We have also repaid the debt with giving to you quality men like Archbishop Alan Basil de Lastic and many priests and religious. Thank you – our mother Church. Christianity was brought to Myanmar by missionaries from Goa. Thank you, Mother Church!
Two thousand years ago, this nation encountered the message of Jesus. India has never been the same. It is a great feeling to be with such a Church with long history. India stands with Corinth, Ephesus in the great mission history of the early Church. When Vasco da Gama came with missionaries to the Western coast he was humbled by the realization that before any European came to know the Christ, the light of the Gospel was shining on this great land. Your history, your numbers and the influence bring you to the front lines of Church in Asia.
Thank you very much for the warm welcome. Despite your warm welcome, I feel like a Burmese David standing in front of an Indian Goliath. The population of my country is just 53 million and you are 1.3 billion and counting! The size of the church here gives a staggering feeling. We are just 700,000 faithful in 16 dioceses. I think just a diocese in Kerala or Goa may have more Catholics than our total Catholics number.
You really represent India with more than 1000 cultural groups represented in the church. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Mumbai to Mizoram. Indian church proves 'service is power'. From the Thomas Christians till recent Christian converts, the Indian church is truly Catholic.
Though less than 2 percent of the Indian population, your socio- pastoral achievements are great envy to many. You have your saints like Mother Teresa, holy martyrs like Sr. Maria. You have 174 dioceses belonging to three rites. Church is a great driver of the social sectors.
Your contribution to the building of this nation through education and health is astounding. At least 10 million students enter your institutions every day. 25 percent of education is in the hand of the Church. In many places of India, it is the church that has opened opportunity to the most vulnerable communities. In building a confident nation Catholic Church played a pivotal role. India enjoys a great profile all over the world for its knowledge base and Church can be proud of its role. Catholic church can be rightfully proud of its contribution to the nation building. I heard around 20 percent of the health care to the most vulnerable is done by the Church. Catholic Church has offered the service of an army of volunteers: nearly 110,000 sisters and around 60,000 men full time for the pastoral and social development of this nation. India owes a lot to the Catholic Church. Millions are touched by your services. You are the face of the compassionate Jesus to the poor and the broken. For the millions of your country men and women whose Way of the cross never ends, you are the Simon of Cyrene.
Yet you never rest on your laurels. You are never afraid of subjecting yourself to evaluation. Neither the internal challenges nor the external threats deter the great Indian Church.
I feel so empowered to be with you.
You have chosen a challenging theme:
United in diversity for a mission of mercy and witness
Your secretary General H.E. Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas requested me to share how the Burmese Church lives in unity amidst all diversity. I am honoured to share with this mega Church, our own feats during the dark days and the hopes for the present and future. I feel small standing in front of you theologians, Professors, Scholars and Doctorates and Ph.Ds. I am none.
I heard that this conference comes amidst growing anxiety for Christians and other minorities. A reckless majoritarian discourse threatens the lives of vulnerable people in many countries. I read in an analysis that the historical India is being systematically dismantled. The identity of the religious and cultural minorities is threatened by narratives of hatred, the attacks against Dalits, minority communities, Christmas carols is a sad trend. This is an SOS moment for cultural and religious minorities, India as a nation and as an idea should not be allowed to die. We saw what happening for Christianity in Iraq and in Syria. Many in India are living with anxieties about the dangers to the India of Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore and Ambedkar.
So, the theme of CBCI conference is timely.
Unity in diversity – Unity as a Christian witness
When challenges abound, unity is not a luxury but it is a necessity. Church which started with Jewish converts had to grapple with many cultures. Unity was a challenge even during Peter's and Paul's time. From the beginning, the unity of Christ's followers is paramount as we read:
· Our own faith tradition is rooted in unity of triune God for common good. God is revealed as Trinity – God's living in perfect harmony. Your own church is a beautiful triune communion: Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara. This Trinitarian communion in India is a graced communion a strong Church presence.
· Christ prayed "Let all of them be one". (John 17:20). That is the prayer of the Asian Churches. The early Christian community was marked by unity among different people. (Acts 4: 32).
· Paul takes unity of the mystical body of Christ to a metaphor of the body. 'Now you are the body of Christ and each one of you is a part of it' (1 Cor. 12: 37)
Let me enumerate our problems and our responses. Without pride we can say that Church has emerged as a strong civil society player. Church took up the role of mercy for the afflicted people and by our witness to truth and unity we are slowly building up the image of the Church.
I do agree your problems are different. My sharing will help you, I hope to focus on major issues and what was our response and what could be your response.
Unity was one of our great asset both as the bishops- conference as Catholics. May be the path to unity is led by the issues of the nation. While pastoral issues can have a diocesan focus, Church needs credibility through taking up social issues at the national level.
Ours can be treated as a case study.
Our major Issue 1. Till recently Burmese Church a persecuted church. In 1965 April 1st, all our schools were nationalized, our properties were taken away, our missionaries were expelled. Overnight the Church was disempowered, evil men thought we would never survive.
Our response: We were challenged. I am not sure the Indian church was challenged like us. Overnight we were left in the streets. No money, no man power, no property. We became the Job. What supported us the wonderful relationships we had already built with our people. Together we suffered but together we learned to survive first and resist. Our international connections gave us life -line. Laity participation is vital to our Church survival.
Our major issue 2: One race, one religion and one language totalitarian approach. Both the elected government and the military junta imposed a discriminatory approach. I am sure tides of majoritarian arrogance is washing up your shores. In our country the majority religion enjoys state protection, minority are discriminated in education and government jobs. Christians often felt they were the second- class citizens in their own land,
Our response: Once again Church and the laity stood together. We are 16 dioceses made up of 4 Karens, 3 Kachins, 4 Chins, 3 Kayahs 2 mixed ethnicities. We are in the process of evolving a common Catholic identity. Our success and struggle is to move across the ethic identities towards Common problems brought us together and help us. Boarding schools and other educational efforts were undertaken by the church. Lack of opportunities for Catholics brought us to form educational commissions and making the poor educated and empowered population.
Our major issue 3 Climate of fear, created by extremist groups. South Asia is home to religious extremist groups. Even monks indulge in hate speech and even in violence. Myanmar monks are graceful and peaceful monks. A few of the robed men resort to provocative speeches. You have heard about Rohingya problem. Extremist elements drive a wedge through communities. They force the government to enact black laws against minorities. I am sure you do have similar situations.
Our response: We as a Church have developed good relationship with the moderate religious leaders, diplomats and the international community. While we appreciate all positive efforts, we oppose any hate speech, black laws. By constantly interacting with the moderate elements in the majority religion we keep the violent fringe in the margin. We have openly opposed all hate speech. Of course, we have nothing to lose so we oppose.
Our major Issue 4: Neo -liberal economy that perpetuates inequality – for 30 years a crony economy looted our resource rich country. The resultant poverty brought in human trafficking. Myanmar is one of the topmost trafficking in human trafficking. Millions of our youth are trapped in modern forms of slavery in South East Asia. China buys girls from Myanmar. Companies are confiscating farming lands.
Our response: Migration is a major issue for our faithful. We are an active actor in safe migration and advocacy. Both local and international campaigning is being done at very high level. I take all opportunities to attend seminars and campaign. We have formed farmer associations.
Our major issue 5: Attack on indigenous people, their way of life and their resources.
Our Church is ethnic Church. 14 dioceses are exclusively ethnic in nature. You have a considerable number of ethnic people who are Catholics.
Our Response: Encouraged by the Pope's encyclical 'Laudato Si' we have launched indigenous rights and land rights campaign.
We have cemented our unity through design and execution of national seminars
1. Two national building seminars
2. Inter religious peace initiatives
3. National level and diocesan level socio pastoral planning.
I could enumerate more. Suffice to say the issues brought us together cementing our UNITY. This unity was a powerful witness for our people.
After 50 years we not only survived but thrived. From 2 dioceses we have gone to 16 dioceses, from 300,000 Catholics we are now 700,000 Catholics, from 160 priests we are 700 priests, from 600 religious we are now 2200 religious. Church is the only organization that is representative of all cultures.
We are 8 major races and 135 sub tribes. It is a rainbow Church. Indian and Chinese Catholics join this colourful mosaic. We survived and thrived because we stood together in our dark moments – protecting the Church and the people from one of the most suffocating dictatorship in history. That needed unity of vision, mission and purpose.
The visceral challenge to the Indian church: an outsider perception.
You are facing a visceral challenge today. In a nation where you have been living for ages, the patriotism of Christianity is called into question. In a recent book "Enemies of the idea of India" written by the eminent historian Ramachandra Guha, he points out that India as a nation faces an existential crisis. He points out the right wing religious fundamentalism that is threatening the minority communities, is a grave danger to the very idea of India. Protecting a multi-cultural society is becoming a sacred duty of all of us.
I have no answer but as a Church it might be good to discuss Church's role in protecting multi-cultural mosaic of India.
The world is undergoing a resurgence of right wing, strong xenophobic leaderships. South Asia has been a hotbed of religious fanatics who fan the fire of hatred caused the death of thousands. India faces the following challenges:
Poverty – the biggest terrorism
Pope Francis has been mainstreaming two concepts – rather two justices - economy justice and environmental justice. Poverty is a man-made disaster. This year Oxfam report said 1 percent of the world's rich cornered 60 percent of world's wealth. Poverty is the biggest terrorism and evil that needs to be fought by the Church. Poverty is the mortal sin of modern times. Pope Francis has high- lighted this disparity " the trickle-down theory is wrong. When the glass is full it mysteriously grows' the long-term viability of our people's life and livelihood is a great challenge"
Our countries are extremely poor. As priests we say the great words everyday "take and eat" we are painfully aware that nearly a billion go to bed empty stomach. UNICEF talks of 30,000 children dying of starvation and lack of medicines every day. Our eucharis is a great challenge. We break Bread on a world altar of injustice. We need a world war. Not between Trump. When I was sent as a legate to the Eucharistic Congress in Cebu, I said " we need a third and final world war - a world war against poverty, injustice.
Three churches communion and collaboration in mission
I am happy to see the colourful nature of CBCI. Three Rites! A trinity. This is a great blessing – three trinity. While the need to retain the individuality of each Church like the trinity all need to be united in spiritual wealth and facing great challenges in India,
I thank you all for your attention. I continue my admiration. I have shared with you how our own Church faces the socio- political challenges. I do hope it opens some windows of discussion. You as a church and community face great challenges in the present context. Gandhi always used to say, "miracle is moving from what we are doing towards what we can do. May the great Lord make all of us miracle makers.
God bless us
* Archbishop of Yangon