The Catholic Church in Myanmar, formerly Burma, last week concluded the jubilee year celebrations of 500 years of its presence in the country, with 3 days of celebrations. The Nov. 21-23 celebrations in Yangon were marked with Masses, Eucharistic adoration, prayers, processions as well as music and dance events with tens of thousands of faithful from the nation’s 16 dioceses participating. The Catholic Bishops' Conference of Myanmar kicked off the “500th Great Jubilee Year” celebrations last year on Nov. 24, and concluded it on Sunday, Nov. 23. The Holy Father, Pope Francis had delegated Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the Archbishop of Bombay and President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, as his special envoy to the 3-day celebrations in Yangon. Cardinal Gracias conveyed to Myanmar’s Catholics the Holy Father’s felicitations and blessings and promises of prayers.
As early as 1287, evidence of Christianity was found in the form of frescos containing crosses and Latin and Greek words in some places in Pagan, which was once a flourishing kingdom in what is Myanmar today. After the discovery of the route to India by Vasco da Gama in 1497, Portuguese missionaries set out for the Far East as chaplains to Portuguese soldiers, sailors and settlers. The rich land of Burma attracted these Portuguese traders and by 1510, after having founded Goa as the Sea port to the East, they came to Myanmar. The first proclamation of the Gospel in the land, dates back to 1511, thanks to the work of the Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits, who helped establish the first Christian communities. These communities were concentrated mainly in the south of the country where, even today, names are found dating to the era of Portuguese rule. For this reason, the celebrations for the 500 years of the Church in Myanmar should have taken place in 2011, but the political situation and the lack of true religious freedom then, did not allow for such a nation-wide celebration. Hence the jubilee year was marked from Nov. 24, 2013 to Nov. 23, 2014.
The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the British taking full control of Burma, until its independence 1948. However, 1962 with a coup the country came under military rule; and from 1962 to 2011, almost all dissent was brutally suppressed and the military junta wielded absolute power in the face of international condemnation and sanctions. Catholic schools were nationalized and all the missionaries who arrived after independence were expelled in 1966.
The harsh rule of the military regime, however, did not stop the growth of the Catholic Church in Burma, thanks to the faithful and their staunch faith. Today the community in Myanmar consists of 16 dioceses, more than 750 priests, 2500 religious sisters and brothers, and approximately 750 thousand faithful who count for 1.3% of the total population, with a high concentration of ethnic minorities in the tribal areas.
Well, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, was in Rome on Thursday, Nov. 27, to
brief the Holy Father, Pope Francis on the jubilee celebrations of 500
years of the Catholic Church in Myanmar. Despite his tight schedule,
the cardinal obliged to talk to us on the phone regarding the 3 days of
festivities that he attended in Yangon, Nov. 21-23, as the Pope’s
special envoy. We first asked Cardinal Gracias what the Pope had to
say to the faithful of Myanmar.