Pope to Burmese bishops: Healing must be a pastoral priority

Pope Francis at the general audience in St Peter Square Feb 22 2017 Credit LOsservatore Romano 2 CNA Pope Francis at the general audience in St. Peter Square, Feb. 22, 2017. | L'Osservatore Romano.

In a meeting with the bishops leading Burma's small Catholic community, Pope Francis stressed the need to prioritize healing and pastoral accompaniment as the nation continues to reel from both past and present conflicts.

In a Nov. 29 meeting with Burma's bishops, Pope Francis said the Gospel they preach "is above all a message of healing, reconciliation and peace." This message, he said, is especially potent in Burma, which is still working "to overcome deeply-rooted divisions and to build national unity."

Many Catholic faithful in the country "bear the scars of this conflict and have borne valiant witness to their faith and their ancient traditions," he said, explaining that the preaching of the Gospel "must not only be a source of consolation and strength, but also a summons to foster unity, charity and healing in the life of this nation."

Echoing his words to interreligious leaders on his first full day in the country, Francis said this unity "is born of diversity. It values people's differences as a source of mutual enrichment and growth (and) invites people to come together in a culture of encounter and solidarity."

He prayed that the Lord would guide the bishops in their efforts to promote healing and communion at all levels in the Church, so that "God's holy people can be salt and light for hearts longing for that peace the world cannot give."

Pope Francis met with the bishops during his Nov. 27-30 visit to the country - also known as Myanmar - after which he will travel to neighboring Bangladesh from Nov. 30-Dec. 2 before returning to Rome.

He arrived Nov. 27 and has so far met with both religious and civil leaders. The meetings were politically charged on various levels, stemming from the fact that Christians are a small minority in Burma, as well as the fact that the nation is still working to transition to a democratic government after more than 50 years of military rule.

In his speech to the bishops, Pope Francis offered three words for reflection: healing, accompaniment and prophecy.

He praised efforts made by the local Church to care for the poor and the displaced, many of whom are members of the Rohingya Muslim minority who have been forced to flee their home in Burma's Rakhine State as a result of what the United Nations has called "a textbook case of ethnic cleansing" in the area.

The Pope voiced his thanks to those who "bring the balm of healing to these, their neighbors in need, without regard for religion or ethnicity."

This healing, he said, is also relevant when it comes to inter-religious dialogue, and prayed that the bishops would continue building bridges of dialogue and join followers of other religions "in weaving peaceful relations will bear rich fruit for reconciliation in the life of the nation."

Francis then stressed the importance of pastoral accompaniment, saying a good shepherd is always at his flock's side, and must constantly "bear the smell of the sheep."

He emphasized the need to go out to the peripheries, telling the prelates that in their role as bishops, "your lives and ministry are called to model this spirit of missionary outreach," which is primarily carried out by regular visits to the parishes and communities in their local Churches.

In the spirit of the first missionaries who evangelized the country, bishops, as pastors, must "continue to imbue the laity with a spirit of true missionary discipleship and seek a wise inculturation of the Gospel message in the daily life and traditions of your local communities."

To this end, the role of catechists is essential, he said, adding that "their formation and enrichment must remain among your chief priorities."

With few bishops and clergy ministering to the entirety of Burma's small Catholic population, catechesis plays a key role in the formation and education of the faithful in the country.

Burma is a majority Buddhist country. Catholics are a small minority, making up just 1.3 percent of a population of nearly 52 million.

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They are led by 22 bishops; 888 priests, both diocesan and religious; 128 non-ordained male religious and just two permanent deacons, making the ratio of Catholics to priests in the country around 742 to one. Women religious serving in Burma number just under 2,000. The country includes three archdioceses and 13 dioceses.

Given the unique challenges of being a minority, Pope Francis stressed the importance of pastoral accompaniment, specifically of the youth.

He urged the bishops to give special attention to their formation "in the sound moral principles that will guide them in confronting the challenges of a rapidly changing world," including the threats of "cultural and ideological colonization."

Turning to the upcoming synod of bishops on youth in 2018, to be held at the Vatican, Francis said young people are one of the greatest blessings of the Church in Burma, and pointed to the high number of seminarians studying in both minor and major seminary in the country, numbering around 1,100 total.

In the spirit of the Synod, which will listen to the stories of young people and help them discern how best to proclaim the Gospel in their lives, Francis asked the bishops to "please engage them and support them in their journey of faith, for by their idealism and enthusiasm they are called to be joyful and convincing evangelizers of their contemporaries."

Francis then emphasized the importance of the Church's prophetic witness in Burma, and recognized their daily efforts to bear witness to the Gospel through works of charity and education, but also through the defense of human rights and "support for democratic rule."

He prayed that they would enable the Catholic community "to continue to play a constructive part in the life of society by making your voices heard on issues of national interest, particularly by insisting on respect for the dignity and rights of all, especially the poorest and the most vulnerable."

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With a word on the importance of protecting the environment and preserving the rich natural resources in Burma, Pope Francis concluded his speech with a bit of pastoral advice for bishops themselves.

Recognizing the demands of their ministry, the Pope noted that the bishops, along with their priests, "often labor under the heat and the burden of the day."

He urged the bishops to be balanced in caring for their spiritual and physical health, while also keeping a paternal eye on the health of the priests in their care.

Francis encouraged the bishops to spend time daily in prayer and in "the experience of God's reconciling love," which he said "is the basis of your priestly identity, the guarantee of the soundness of your preaching, and the source of the pastoral charity by which you guide God's people on the path of holiness and truth."

Prayer is the first duty of bishops, he emphasized.

In a special greeting to the Pope, Bishop Felix Lian Khen Thang, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Burma, told Francis that his visit brings them "courage, joy and hope in trying to live and witness our faith, as we take part in peace and nation building process."

"Like the dry parched land that is waiting for the first rain, we are also eagerly waiting for your visit which will be like the morning dew, a great blessing for our people and our country," he said, adding that Pope's "timely visit" fills their hearts with love and peace as they strive to be "the salt of the earth and the light of the world" in their nation.

He wished the Pope "good health and peace of mind" during his visit, and assured him that they would always be "your faithful collaborators in the mission of peace and love."

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