Pope Francis celebrated Mass on Sunday for Burmese Catholics, urging them not to lose hope as their homeland is engulfed by violence.
In his homily in St. Peter’s Basilica May 16, the pope encouraged people not to fall into despair as security forces in Burma repress protests following a military coup.
He said: “Please, do not lose hope: even today, Jesus is interceding before the Father, he stands before the Father in his prayer. He stands before him with the wounds with which he paid for our salvation. In this prayer Jesus prays for all of us, praying that the Father will keep us from the evil one and set us free from evil’s power.”
Francis, who became the first pope to visit the Southeast Asian country in November 2017, offered the live-streamed Mass at the Altar of the Cathedra, beneath the amber stained-glass window depicting the Holy Spirit as a dove.
The congregation -- drawn from Rome’s small Burmese community, which consists mainly of students -- sat socially distanced and masked as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.
Religious sisters proclaimed the first and second readings in Burmese. The responsorial psalm was also sung in the official language of the ethnically diverse country, also known as Myanmar, where approximately 100 languages are spoken.
The Gospel reading for the Mass was John 17:11b-19, in which Jesus prays for his disciples before his Passion. In his homily, the pope encouraged Burmese Catholics to learn from Jesus’ example how to face the painful and dramatic moments of their lives.
He said: “Dear brothers and sisters, in these days when your beloved country, Myanmar, is experiencing violence, conflict, and repression, let us ask ourselves: what we are being called to keep?”
“In the first place, to keep the faith. We need to keep the faith lest we yield to grief or plunge into the despair of those who no longer see a way out.”
The military seized power in the early hours of Feb. 1, detaining the country’s elected civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, along with Burma’s President Win Myint.
After nationwide protests, Burma’s new leaders launched a crackdown that included police firing live rounds at protesters. The advocacy group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners estimates that 790 people have died in the violence as of May 15.
In addition to repression, Burma is facing steep rises in food and fuel prices. The United Nations World Food Programme reports that up to 3.4 million more people will go hungry as a result of pre-existing poverty, the coronavirus crisis, and political instability.
The pope said: “To keep the faith is to keep our gaze lifted up to heaven, as here on earth, battles are fought and innocent blood is shed. To keep the faith is to refuse to yield to the logic of hatred and vengeance, but to keep our gaze fixed on the God of love, who calls us to be brothers and sisters to one another.”
Since the Feb. 1 coup, Pope Francis has called repeatedly for harmony in the country, which has a population of 54 million people and borders Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand.
In his homily, he stressed the importance of unity in a nation that has been marked by internal conflicts since it secured independence from Britain in 1948.
He said: “This is a deadly disease: the disease of division. We experience it in our hearts, because we are divided within; we experience it in families and communities, among peoples, even in the Church.”
“Sins against unity abound: envy, jealousy, the pursuit of personal interests rather than the common good, the tendency to judge others. Those little conflicts of ours find a reflection in great conflicts, like the one your country is experiencing in these days.”
“Once partisan interests and the thirst for profit and power take over, conflicts and divisions inevitably break out. The final appeal that Jesus makes before his Passover is an appeal for unity. For division is of the devil, the great divider and the great liar who always creates division.”
Pope Francis made an impassioned plea for an end to violence in Burma in March. Speaking at his general audience on March 17, the pope referred to an image circulating on social media of a Catholic nun kneeling before police, begging them not to attack protesters.
He said: “I also kneel in the streets of Myanmar and say: ‘Stop the violence.’ I too stretch out my arms and say: ‘May dialogue prevail.’”
There are around 750,000 Catholics in Burma -- roughly 1% of the population, which is 90% Buddhist. Pope Francis named Archbishop Charles Maung Bo of Yangon as the country’s first cardinal in 2015, in a mark of support for the Catholic minority.
The pope encouraged Burmese Catholics in Rome to strive to be builders of fraternity.
He recalled that in his prayer before his Passion, Jesus asked God the Father to consecrate his disciples in truth.
“Keeping the truth does not mean defending ideas, becoming guardians of a system of doctrines and dogmas, but remaining bound to Christ and being devoted to his Gospel,” he said.
He continued: “At times, we Christians want to compromise, but the Gospel asks us to be steadfast in the truth and for the truth, offering our lives for others. Amid war, violence, and hatred, fidelity to the Gospel and being peacemakers calls for commitment, also through social and political choices, even at the risk of our lives. Only in this way can things change.”
At the end of the Mass, a Burmese priest thanked the pope for bringing international attention to the crisis in his country.
He said: “This Mass is a great occasion for healing, not only for us here, but for thousands of Catholics in Myanmar and for the diaspora throughout the world.”
Concluding his homily, the pope said: “Dear brothers and sisters, today I wish to lay upon the Lord’s altar the sufferings of his people and to join you in praying that God will convert all hearts to peace.”
“Jesus’ prayer helps us keep the faith, even in times of difficulty, to be builders of unity and to risk our lives for the truth of the Gospel.”