Pope Francis has often spoken of the need to pay more attention to the people and places on the world’s periphery. Today, ZENIT is publishing the second in a four-part reflection by Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangoon, Myanmar.
In his insightful reflection, Cardinal Bo makes no apologies for being from the periphery. Instead, he speaks of the challenges his world faces — and the lessons his world can share with those in more affluent parts of the world.
In Part One, we shared his introduction and his thoughts on the Rights and Duties of all people. Today’s part addresses the quest for Peace. In subsequent parts, he will address the legitimate role of Defense for a nation, and the importance of Religious Freedom.
Part II: Peace
Before his betrayal, arrest, torture, and crucifixion, our Lord Jesus Christ held out his hands and said: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you … Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14: 27).
Yet all too often our hearts are troubled, and our world seems far from peace. My own country, Myanmar, has not known real peace for many, many decades. For seventy years and more, war has been waged in one corner of this beautiful land or another. Yet in the hearts and souls of every person in Myanmar, of every race and religion, lies a yearning for peace.
“When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact…that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance; We’ve learned to fly the air like birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters…” Those words of Martin Luther King Jr are so true for Myanmar today.
For the Church, peace is at the heart of our mission. But peace must always be accompanied by justice and freedom. Without justice, there can be no peace. In the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s publication The Church and Human Rights, we are told: “If we Christians wish to be peacemakers and to spread harmony among nations, we cannot ‘remain indifferent in the face of the many grave and often systematic violations of human rights’. ‘We cannot conceal our serious anxiety at the persistence and aggravation of situations we bitterly deplore’.” And in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, we are told: “Peace is the fruit of justice… Peace is threatened when man is not given all that is due him as a human person, when his dignity is not respected and when civil life is not directed to the common good. The defense and promotion of human rights are essential for the building up of a peaceful society and the integral development of individuals, peoples, and nations.” As Pope Francis has said, “We are all equal – all of us …… We all have the same rights. When we do not see this, society is unjust. It does not follow the rule of justice, and where there is no justice, there cannot be peace. I would like to repeat this with you: where there is no justice, there is no peace!”
Myanmar is a beautiful land of diverse ethnicities, languages, cultures, and religions. If we are to achieve peace, we must learn to love the diversity of our country and seek unity within it. True peace and real freedom, after all, hinge on respect for ethnic and religious diversity. No society can be truly democratic, free and peaceful if it does not respect – and even celebrate – political, racial and religious diversity, as well as protect the basic human rights of every single person, regardless of race, religion or gender.
I love gardens. When I have any free moment, away from the demands of speeches and travel and religious and pastoral duties, I like to amble in the garden of Archbishop’s House in Yangon, quietly, prayerfully, in an oasis of peace. I helped to design, plant and cultivate that garden. When I travel around the world, if I discover a garden I discover a home, a place of rest, a place of peace. A few years ago, in the midst of a busy tour of the United Kingdom, I spend two days in a tranquil, beautiful home in the countryside, with nothing required of me and with time to breathe in the scent and take in the colors of the array of flora before me. I wanted to linger there longer.
Of course, the Bible begins in a garden, Jesus’ suffering is prefigured in a garden and the Bible draws to a close in a garden, when, after his Resurrection and conquest of death, Mary Magdalene mistakes Our Lord for a gardener.”
I see Myanmar as a garden. In a garden, flowers of different colors, shapes, sizes, and needs to grow alongside each other. Each one individually is beautiful, and the individual beauty of each particular flower is not denied or suppressed by the collective beauty and color of the garden itself. Each one can be appreciated, and taken as a whole they can inspire. Flowers do not fight, compete, displace each other or dominate each other. Only the weeds threaten them. So in creating the garden of Myanmar, we must cherish the individual beauty of each flower, water and tend the soil which we all share with love and compassion, and prune ourselves to ensure that the beauty of our diversity flourishes and is celebrated.
That means pursuing a dialogue based on trust-building and respect. A dialogue of equals. A dialogue in which the grievances of the ethnic nationalities over many years are listened to and addressed. A dialogue which seeks a political solution that accords the ethnic nationalities autonomy and decision-making in a federal system. A dialogue which ensures that natural resources are shared and distributed to benefit the people, rather than plundered and hoarded by a small elite. A dialogue from which no one feels excluded. Only such a dialogue, such a peace process, has a chance to healing wounds, building trust and leading to a meaningful peace.
As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said in her speech welcoming Pope Francis to Myanmar in November 2017, “our nation is a rich tapestry of different peoples, languages, and religions, woven on a backdrop of vast natural potential”. She promised that her government aims “to bring out the beauty of our diversity and to make it our strength, by protecting rights, fostering tolerance, ensuring security for all.”
I know from first-hand experience what this means. I was born in Monhla village, near Shwebo in Sagaing Division, near Mandalay. Monhla is a village with a mix of Catholic and Buddhist people. My father was a farmer, who died when I was just two years old. My mother was a tailor, who was loved by the entire village. She never quarreled with neighbors. She inspired me every night when she told stories of saints and priests. I was also inspired by my parish priest, Don Luwi, who loved my parents and loved me too. He taught me the catechism when I was about five years old. I wanted to be like him.
Growing up in the Catholic Church, I became accustomed to the concept of unity in diversity. I was educated by Salesians and, inspired by the example of Don Bosco, who lived an active life caring for the young and the poor, I became a Salesian myself. But the Church is a house of many rooms, and I cherish the diversity of intellectual, spiritual and vocational callings expressed in the different religious traditions of the one Church – the Jesuits, the Dominicans, the Benedictines, the Franciscans, the Carmelites, and many others. We are one Church, but with a wide range of expressions of being the Church, and the same is true of Myanmar.
I am a little unusual in that I am a minority wherever I go. Within the Church, where most Christians are from the Karen, Karenni, Chin, Kachin, and other ethnic groups, I am in a minority as a Bamar. But among my racial group, the Bamar, although they are the majority in the country, I am a minority among a Buddhist-majority population. Yet I learned to cherish this diversity.
Sometimes I have encountered difficulties. Sometimes as a Christian among the mainly Buddhist Bamar I have had trouble. Sometimes as a Bamar among the Christian community I encountered suspicion on the part of Karens, Kachins, Chins, and others. I do not blame them – the history of conflict has led to these scars.
But throughout my priesthood, I have been able to live with and to love my fellow human beings throughout Myanmar regardless of race and religion. Most of my priesthood was spent in the ethnic states. As a young priest near Lashio, I learned the local language – Maru – and after a week I gave a homily in Maru. As bishop of Lashio, I founded a new congregation – the Brothers and Sisters of St Paul – with the purpose of sharing the Good News of Jesus with those who have not heard of Him. Our brothers and sisters in this community have worked in remote areas, assisting with education, health, and evangelization. Today we have over one hundred sisters and more than 30 brothers and priests, in six dioceses. Their charism is to go where there are no churches and Christians and to go to the most abandoned and remote areas.
And then as bishop of Pathein, I found myself at the heart of the conflict between the military and the Karen people. I was constantly preaching homilies on reconciliation, forgiveness, and unity.
When I became Archbishop of Yangon, I continued to pursue a mission to reach out to the poor and the oppressed: the lost, the last and the least. I have always sought to speak out for justice, freedom and human dignity, for everyone. Because the Imago Dei is so central to my understanding of the mission of the Church.
My mission has always been clear – to see people in Myanmar freed to love and serve others. To achieve this, we need to rid ourselves and the nation of evil forces: sin, addiction, injustice, discrimination and unjust military force. In order to enjoy full freedom, there must be truth in everything. I took as my motto as a priest the words “Omnia possum in Eo” – “I can do all things in Him” – from Philippians 4: 13. This continues as a Bishop and as Cardinal.
Pope Francis, in his speech in Naypyidaw in November 2017, acknowledged that: “The arduous process of peacebuilding and national reconciliation can only advance through a commitment to justice and respect for human rights … The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group – none excluded – to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good.” He is absolutely right.
In The Dignity of Difference, Lord Sacks says that “in our interconnected world, we must learn to feel enlarged, not threatened, by difference.” We must learn this in Myanmar if peace is to have a chance.