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120417 pope tripDHAKA, Bangladesh — Devoting his last day in Bangladesh to the nation's tiny Catholic community, Pope Francis told clergy and religious that there was no way they could promote interreligious harmony in the country if their communities were marked by gossip, division and bitterness.

"There are many enemies of harmony," the pope told priests, religious, seminarians and bishops Dec. 2. One of the deadliest, and most common, enemies is gossip.

"You might want to criticize the Holy Father for being repetitive, but this is important to me," he told the church workers gathered in Dhaka's Holy Rosary Church.

Speaking badly of someone behind his or her back creates distrust, he said. "It's a kind of terrorism," destroying everything.

When the temptation to gossip arises, the pope said, "bite your tongue. You might harm your tongue, but you won't harm your brother or sister."

Pope Francis began the day by visiting a home run by the Missionaries of Charity in Dhaka. Accompanied by the sari-clad superior, he went from bed to bed in the wards for seriously ill adults and children.

Taken by either hand by two little girls in pink and white tulle dresses, Pope Francis was led to the nearby Church of the Holy Rosary for the meeting with hundreds of priests, religious and seminarians from throughout the country.

Archbishop Moses M. Costa of Chattagong, president of the bishops' commission for clergy and religious life, told the pope that the country's Catholics make up less than 1 percent of the population. The 372 priests and more than 1,250 women religious are "satisfactory" for serving the Catholic community, the archbishop said.

But, he said, "compared to the huge population of the country, the number of priests and nuns is negligible."

Pope Francis listened to the testimonies of several priests and a sister. Then he heard from Holy Cross Brother Lawrence Dias, who has been a religious for 63 years. Currently he serves as a hermit at Mariam Ashram, Bangladesh's national Marian shrine. His life is devoted to prayer.

"Many priests and religious and also laypeople have come to the ashram to quench their spiritual thirst," he told the pope. "I am serving as the guru."

Instead of waiting for the elderly brother to go up to him, as the others had done, Pope Francis rushed to Brother Dias' place and embraced him.

Joining the pope and the Bangladeshi priests and sisters was Oblate Father Andrew Small, U.S. director of the Pontifical Mission Societies. The U.S. arm of the Catholic mission support agency provided more than $1.15 million in aid to the church in Bangladesh in 2017.

Ignoring his prepared text for the gathering, Pope Francis spoke in Spanish and had his words translated into English by an aide.

"I prepared a speech of eight pages for you," he said, evoking laughter and applause. But, he said, he didn't want them to be bored.

First, he said, the church workers always must remember that one's vocation is a seed that "does not belong to you or to me. It is God's. And it is God who provides for its growth."

With tenderness and prayer, each person is called to water the seed and be attentive as possible to providing all it needs to grow.

"If there is no such tenderness, the plant is very small, it doesn't grow and it will dry out," he said. But it also is true that sometimes "the enemy comes and sows another kind of seed and there is a risk that the seed can be threatened and not grow. How awful it is to see weeds in the rectories where you live, in episcopal conferences, in religious communities and seminaries."

"In this garden of the kingdom of God," he said, "there isn't just one plant growing; there are thousands, all of us, and community life is not easy. Human defects, our limitations, threaten community life and they threaten peace.

But if the Catholic community itself is not marked by harmony, he said, there is no way it can contribute authentically to strengthening harmony among the many religions present in Bangladesh.

The other essential characteristic is joy, Pope Francis told them. "I assure you when you meet a priest, religious, seminarian or bishop who is really unhappy, has a sad face, you want to ask, 'What did you have for breakfast, vinegar?'"

On the other hand, he said, "I feel great tenderness when I meet elderly priests or nuns who have lived a happy life, who are full of joy and peace." Elderly nuns who have cultivated joy, even through moments of pain, have "impish eyes ... sparkling eyes ... their eyes are acute because they have the eyes of God."

— Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service

120417 pope tripDHAKA, Bangladesh — Devoting his last day in Bangladesh to the nation's tiny Catholic community, Pope Francis told clergy and religious that there was no way they could promote interreligious harmony in the country if their communities were marked by gossip, division and bitterness.

"There are many enemies of harmony," the pope told priests, religious, seminarians and bishops Dec. 2. One of the deadliest, and most common, enemies is gossip.

"You might want to criticize the Holy Father for being repetitive, but this is important to me," he told the church workers gathered in Dhaka's Holy Rosary Church.

Speaking badly of someone behind his or her back creates distrust, he said. "It's a kind of terrorism," destroying everything.

When the temptation to gossip arises, the pope said, "bite your tongue. You might harm your tongue, but you won't harm your brother or sister."

Pope Francis began the day by visiting a home run by the Missionaries of Charity in Dhaka. Accompanied by the sari-clad superior, he went from bed to bed in the wards for seriously ill adults and children.

Taken by either hand by two little girls in pink and white tulle dresses, Pope Francis was led to the nearby Church of the Holy Rosary for the meeting with hundreds of priests, religious and seminarians from throughout the country.

Archbishop Moses M. Costa of Chattagong, president of the bishops' commission for clergy and religious life, told the pope that the country's Catholics make up less than 1 percent of the population. The 372 priests and more than 1,250 women religious are "satisfactory" for serving the Catholic community, the archbishop said.

But, he said, "compared to the huge population of the country, the number of priests and nuns is negligible."

Pope Francis listened to the testimonies of several priests and a sister. Then he heard from Holy Cross Brother Lawrence Dias, who has been a religious for 63 years. Currently he serves as a hermit at Mariam Ashram, Bangladesh's national Marian shrine. His life is devoted to prayer.

"Many priests and religious and also laypeople have come to the ashram to quench their spiritual thirst," he told the pope. "I am serving as the guru."

Instead of waiting for the elderly brother to go up to him, as the others had done, Pope Francis rushed to Brother Dias' place and embraced him.

Joining the pope and the Bangladeshi priests and sisters was Oblate Father Andrew Small, U.S. director of the Pontifical Mission Societies. The U.S. arm of the Catholic mission support agency provided more than $1.15 million in aid to the church in Bangladesh in 2017.

Ignoring his prepared text for the gathering, Pope Francis spoke in Spanish and had his words translated into English by an aide.

"I prepared a speech of eight pages for you," he said, evoking laughter and applause. But, he said, he didn't want them to be bored.

First, he said, the church workers always must remember that one's vocation is a seed that "does not belong to you or to me. It is God's. And it is God who provides for its growth."

With tenderness and prayer, each person is called to water the seed and be attentive as possible to providing all it needs to grow.

"If there is no such tenderness, the plant is very small, it doesn't grow and it will dry out," he said. But it also is true that sometimes "the enemy comes and sows another kind of seed and there is a risk that the seed can be threatened and not grow. How awful it is to see weeds in the rectories where you live, in episcopal conferences, in religious communities and seminaries."

"In this garden of the kingdom of God," he said, "there isn't just one plant growing; there are thousands, all of us, and community life is not easy. Human defects, our limitations, threaten community life and they threaten peace.

But if the Catholic community itself is not marked by harmony, he said, there is no way it can contribute authentically to strengthening harmony among the many religions present in Bangladesh.

The other essential characteristic is joy, Pope Francis told them. "I assure you when you meet a priest, religious, seminarian or bishop who is really unhappy, has a sad face, you want to ask, 'What did you have for breakfast, vinegar?'"

On the other hand, he said, "I feel great tenderness when I meet elderly priests or nuns who have lived a happy life, who are full of joy and peace." Elderly nuns who have cultivated joy, even through moments of pain, have "impish eyes ... sparkling eyes ... their eyes are acute because they have the eyes of God."

— Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service

Defend God's image by defending the Rohingya, pope urges

Defend God's image by defending the Rohingya, pope urges

120117 bangDHAKA, Bangladesh — Each human being is created in the image and likeness of God, yet so often people desecrate that image with violence as seen in the treatment of Myanmar's Rohingya minority, Pope Francis said.

"Today, the presence of God is also called 'Rohingya,'" the pope said Dec. 1 after meeting, clasping hands with and listening intently to 16 Rohingya who have found shelter in Bangladesh.

"They, too, are images of the living God," Pope Francis told a gathering of Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu leaders gathered in Dhaka for an interreligious meeting for peace.

"Dear brothers and sisters," he told the crowd, "let us show the world what its selfishness is doing to the image of God."

"Let's keeping helping" the Rohingya, he said. "Let's continue working so their rights are recognized. Let's not close our hearts. Let's not look away."

The Rohingya, like all people, are created in God's image, the pope insisted. "Each of us must respond."

The refugees traveled to Dhaka from Cox's Bazar, the southern Bangladeshi city hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled Myanmar. More than 620,000 Rohingya have crossed the border into Bangladesh since late August.

Speaking directly to them, Pope Francis said, "We are all close to you."

In comparison to the suffering the Rohingya have endured, he said, the response of the people at the gathering actually is small. "But we make room for you in our hearts."

"In the name of all those who have persecuted you and have done you harm, especially for the indifference of the world, I ask forgiveness," he said.

Pope Francis' remarks, which he made in Italian, were translated for the crowd and for the Rohingya. Many of them were in tears.

In his formal speech at the interreligious meeting, Pope Francis insisted "mere tolerance" for people of other religions or ethnic groups was not enough to create a society where everyone's rights are respected and peace reigns.

Believers must "reach out to others in mutual trust and understanding," not ignoring differences, but seeing them as "a potential source of enrichment and growth."

The "openness of heart" to which believers of all faiths are called includes "the pursuit of goodness, justice and solidarity," he said. "It leads to seeking the good of our neighbors."

Pope Francis urged the people of Bangladesh to make openness, acceptance and cooperation the "beating heart" of their nation. Such attitudes, he said, are the only antidote to corruption, "destructive religious ideologies and the temptation to turn a blind eye to the needs of the poor, refugees, persecuted minorities and those who are most vulnerable."

According to a Vatican translation, Farid Uddin Masud, speaking for the Muslim community, told the pope, "it is compassion and love which today's world needs most. The only remedy and solution to the problem of malice, envy and fighting among nations, races and creeds lies in the compassionate love preached and practiced by the great men and women of the world."

Masud, a famous prayer leader and advocate of dialogue and tolerance, is thought by some to have been the main target of a 2016 bombing at a major Muslim prayer service in Sholakia, Bangladesh. Four people were killed.

Praising the pope for speaking on behalf of "the oppressed, irrespective of religion, caste and nationality," Masud particularly cited Pope Francis' concern for the Rohingya. He said he hoped that the pope's public support would strengthen international efforts to defend their rights.

Anisuzzaman, a famous professor of Bengali literature, told the gathering that in a world torn by strife, the pope's message of encounter and dialogue takes on added importance.

"Those of us who are frustrated to find the forces of hatred and cruelty overtaking those of love and compassion can surely find solace in the pope's message of peace and harmony and of fraternity and goodwill," he said, according to the Vatican's translation of his speech. "We note with great relief that the pope has, time and again, expressed his sympathy with the Rohingya from Myanmar, who have been forcibly ejected from their home and earth and subjected to violence and inhuman treatment."

The pope arrived at the meeting in a rickshaw after a meeting with Bangladesh's Catholic bishops. He had told the bishops that interreligious and ecumenical dialogue are essential part to the life of the church in Bangladesh.

"Yours is a nation where ethnic diversity is mirrored in a diversity of religious traditions," he said. "Work unremittingly to build bridges and to foster dialogue, for these efforts not only facilitate communication between different religious groups, but also awaken the spiritual energies needed for the work of nation-building in unity, justice and peace."

The Catholic Church's preferential "option for the poor," including the Rohingya refugees, is a sign of God's love and mercy and must continue to shine forth in concrete acts of charity, Pope Francis told the bishops.

"The inspiration for your works of assistance to the needy must always be that pastoral charity which is quick to recognize human woundedness and to respond with generosity, one person at a time," Pope Francis said.

— Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service

Pray for your priests, pope urges at Mass in Bangladesh

Pray for your priests, pope urges at Mass in Bangladesh

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Ordaining 16 new priests in Bangladesh, Pope Francis kept to his practice of using the formal ritual homily for the occasion. But, as often happens, he also felt a need to speak more personally to the people before him.

At the Mass Dec. 1 in Dhaka's Suhrawardy Udyan park, Pope Francis' impromptu remarks were not addressed to the candidates for priesthood, but to the estimated 100,000 people in the crowd.

Pope Francis called the Mass "a feast, this great celebration" for the ordination of priests. "I know that many of you came from afar, traveling for more than two days. Thank you for your generosity."

"This shows the love you have for the church. This shows the love you have for Jesus Christ. Thank you so much. Thank you so much for your generosity. Thank you so much for your fidelity," he told them. "Continue this way with the spirit of the Beatitudes."

But he also had an admonition for the people: "Always pray for your priests, especially for those who today will receive the sacrament of holy orders."

Every Catholic, he said, has a responsibility to support priests. "Some of you might ask me, 'But, father, how do I support priests?' Trust in your generosity. Your generous hearts will tell you how to support your priests. But the first support of priests is prayer."

Of the 16 new priests, 10 were ordained for Bangladeshi dioceses; one is a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate; and five are members of the Congregation of the Holy Cross.

The Mass and ordinations were celebrated on a simple, thatch-roofed altar platform constructed of bamboo, a humble material meant to reflect the simplicity and poverty of the majority of Bangladesh's people.

Thanking the pope at the end of the Mass, Cardinal Patrick D'Rozario of Dhaka, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh, said the Mass in the park had great significance for the status of the Catholic faith in his country, where the vast majority of people are Muslim.

The park, he explained, is the place where Sheik Mujibur Rahman, known as the "father of the nation," gave "his world famous speech of March 7, 1971, calling for the independence of Bangladesh" from Pakistan.

Celebrating a Catholic Mass at the park for the first time, the cardinal said, makes "the ground more meaningful" as a sign of the nation's multi-faith character and symbolizes "the special role of the church in this nation."

— Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service

Pope arrives in Bangladesh, praises country's welcome of Rohingya

Pope arrives in Bangladesh, praises country's welcome of Rohingya

113017 pope bengDHAKA, Bangladesh —The government and people of Bangladesh have shown exemplary generosity in welcoming hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, despite great demands placed on already limited resources, Pope Francis said.

Arriving in Bangladesh from Myanmar Nov. 30, Pope Francis wasted no time in mentioning the plight of the refugees who have been a source of concern for him for more than two years.

While he spoke diplomatically in Myanmar about the obligation to protect the rights of all people and ethnic groups, he was more specific in Bangladesh, referring to the "massive influx of refugees from Rakhine state" in Myanmar. He did not, however, use the word "Rohingya," which is how the refugees identify themselves.

Providing shelter and basic necessities to the refugees "has been done at no little sacrifice," the pope said.

The eyes of the world have watched Bangladesh take the refugees in, he said, but clearly the situation is still dire.

"None of us can fail to be aware of the gravity of the situation, the immense toll of human suffering involved, and the precarious living conditions of so many of our brothers and sisters, a majority of whom are women and children, crowded in the refugee camps," he said.

Pope Francis publicly pleaded with the international community to assist Bangladesh in meeting the refugees' emergency needs, but also in helping to resolve the crisis in Myanmar that led them to flee.

As he did in Myanmar, the first stage of his trip, the pope also spoke in Bangladesh about interreligious dialogue, religious freedom and consolidating peaceful coexistence among members of different religious communities.

From the Dhaka international airport, Pope Francis went directly to the National Martyrs' Memorial, which honors those who died in the 1971 war in which Bangladesh separated from Pakistan. In the memorial's guestbook, Pope Francis wrote: "Recalling all those who gave their lives as the nation came to birth, may the people of Bangladesh work truly for justice and the common good."

In the book, under the heading "name," he wrote "Francis." Under "designation," he wrote, "Roman Catholic bishop."

He held a private meeting with Bangladeshi President Abdul Hamid, then addressed the president, government officials, diplomats and leaders of Bangladeshi society.

Welcoming the pope, Hamid told the pope his government had sheltered 1 million Rohingya. Unfortunately, he said, "thousands of them, including women and children, were brutally killed, thousands of women were violated. They saw their homes burned into ashes."

The president, too, spoke of interreligious dialogue and harmony among all groups in the nation where the majority of people are Muslim.

"We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism," he told the pope, but his government is working to "eradicate the root causes of terrorism and violent extremism."

Hamid told the pope that Bangladeshis have a tradition of coexistence and believe "religion is personal, but its festivals are universal" and something neighbors of different faiths celebrate with each other.

"In a world where religion is often -- scandalously -- misused to foment division, such a witness to its reconciling and unifying power is all the more necessary," the pope told him.

"Only through sincere dialogue and respect for legitimate diversity can a people reconcile divisions, overcome unilateral perspectives and recognize the validity of differing viewpoints," Pope Francis said. "Because true dialogue looks to the future, it builds unity in the service of the common good and is concerned for the needs of all citizens, especially the poor, the underprivileged and those who have no voice."

— Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service

Fear and loathing: Rohingya crisis shows danger of identity politics

Fear and loathing: Rohingya crisis shows danger of identity politics

DHAKA, Bangladesh —The themes chosen by the local bishops for Pope Francis' visits to Myanmar and Bangladesh -- "Love and peace" and "Harmony and peace" -- sounded naive or just too "nicey-nice" to some people.

But when love, peace and harmony are missing, the situation is pretty much hell on earth. The Rohingya refugees from Myanmar now living in teeming camps in Bangladesh could testify to that.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, wanted to testify to the Gospel. And that meant emphasizing love, peace and harmony.

The situation of the Rohingya is an extreme example of what happens when one's ethnic or religious identity incites such strong fear or pride or that it creates ironclad categories of "us and them."

And when the lines are drawn that clearly, the migration of the minority group is a natural result.

Holy Cross Father Daniel Groody, an associate professor of theology and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, told Catholic News Service he had been in Myanmar a year and a half ago studying the situation of the Rohingya, as they identify themselves, or the undocumented Muslims from Rakhine state, as the government refers to them.

"They are the most stateless people I have ever encountered," Father Groody said. In Myanmar, "they are not only undocumented, they are so totally defined as 'other' that they are considered nonpersons."

Some media and human rights groups criticized Pope Francis for accepting the advice of local Catholic leaders and not referring to the Rohingya by name while in Myanmar.

The wisdom of that decision will probably be debated for some time.

"But I think his very presence says everything," Father Groody said.

Pope Francis has not publicly berated any government official of any country during a visit. He treats them with respect, listens and -- drawing on the values they profess -- he tries to show them what the next step toward the common good should be.

"It requires real care," Father Groody said. "You wouldn't want to see him do this gangbuster prophecy thing and ride into the sunset, thinking he'd done the heroic thing. I think he's not just trying to be heroic; he's trying to be a bridge-builder."

"There's real heroism and courage in just being able to build bridges," the priest said. "In the long run, that may be more effective, and in the end, that's what matters."

Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, a member of the pope's international Council of Cardinals, was in both Myanmar and Bangladesh for Pope Francis' visit.

In his own country, the cardinal has seen how the identity question and ethnicity and religious belonging can become points of social tension. But it wasn't always that way, he told CNS.

Growing up, he said, the neighbors in his apartment building in Mumbai were Hindu, Muslim and Christian. "We were very good friends. We never saw a different religion or culture as the basis for any division."

"Now, all of a sudden, I must say that it has changed, and I blame politicians for this," he said. "Politicians used and are still using religion to get votes."

And in neighborhoods where people just accepted that they each had their own faith and culture, the cardinal said, now people are starting to think, "Oh, he is different from me."

Playing up differences has had deadly results in Myanmar and India and in many other places around the world. And the fear caused by those acts of violence and terrorism have fed isolationism and an exaggerated "us-first" attitude.

In response, Cardinal Gracias said, "the whole Christian Gospel value of love seems a cliche -- but it is a commitment, love is a decision to imitate Jesus" and rescue those in danger and help those in need, including migrants and refugees.

Obviously, he said, reasonable measures must be taken to ensure people allowed into a country are not coming to do harm.

"There's a real point there, but on the other hand, when you see the tremendous amount of suffering people have undergone, when they are fleeing persecution, economic injustice and violence and they are looking for a better life and to contribute to society, you have to act," he said.

Or, as Father Groody said, "A sovereign state's right to protect its borders is a recognized right," including in Catholic social teaching, "but it is never seen as an absolute right and never as reason for violating human rights. Sovereign rights must be evaluated in view of human rights and the universal destination of goods, which means that every human being should have at least the minimum necessary for a dignified life."

As for the identity question, the Holy Cross priest said that while religion and ethnicity are often important factors in a person's self-description, for Catholics people have an identity that goes even deeper: They are children of God.

Pope Francis flew halfway around the world to let all the people of Myanmar and Bangladesh know that's how he sees them. But he went especially to let the Rohingya know.

— Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service

Buddhists, Christians must reclaim values that lead to peace, pope says

Buddhists, Christians must reclaim values that lead to peace, pope says

112917 buddahYANGON, Myanmar —  Christians and Buddhists are called by faith to overcome evil with goodness and violence with peace, Pope Francis said during a meeting with leaders of Myanmar's Buddhist community.

Quoting St. Francis of Assisi and Buddha, the pope insisted that in a land where the powerfully bonded pairing of religion and ethnicity have been used to prolong conflict, it was time for religious leaders to reclaim the greatest values and virtues of their faith traditions.

Pope Francis met Nov. 29 with members of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, a government-appointed group of senior Buddhist monks who oversee some 500,000 monks and novices in Myanmar, where close to 90 percent of the population follows Buddhism.

One of the strongest anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya currents of Myanmar society is led by Buddhist nationalists.

The meeting was hosted by the Buddhists at the Kaba Aye Pagoda and Center.

As is customary, Pope Francis took off his shoes before entering the hall and walked in his black socks to his place. The Buddhist committee members sat directly opposite Pope Francis and members of his entourage across a plush, bright blue rug.

The challenge of the Buddhist monks and of the Catholic clergy, the pope said, is to help their people see that patience, tolerance and respect for life are values essential to every relationship, whether with people of the same family or ethnic group or with fellow residents of a nation.

The approach, he said, is common to both faiths.

Pope Francis quoted Buddha: "Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness; overcome the miser by generosity; overcome the liar by truth."

And then he pointed out how the "Prayer of St. Francis" has a similar teaching: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, let me bring pardon. ... Where there is darkness, let me bring light, and where there is sadness, joy."

"May that wisdom continue to inspire every effort to foster patience and understanding and to heal the wounds of conflict that, through the years, have divided people of different cultures, ethnicities and religious convictions," he said.

The pope did not use the word "Rohingya," whom the Myanmar government does not recognize as a separate ethnic group, but he insisted the meeting was an occasion "to affirm a commitment to peace, respect for human dignity and justice for every man and woman."

Faith, he said, not only should lead adherents to an experience of "the transcendent," but also should help them see "their interconnectedness with all people."

Bhaddanta Kumarabhivamsa, president of the committee, told the pope Buddhists believe all religions can, "in some way," bring peace and prosperity, otherwise they would cease to exist.

Religious leaders, he said, "must denounce any kind of expression that incites (people) to hatred, false propaganda, conflict and war with religious pretexts and condemn strongly those who support such activity."

Pope Francis ended his day with the Catholic bishops of Myanmar, urging them to "foster unity, charity and healing in the life of this nation."

As he had earlier in the trip, the pope again defined as an example of "ideological colonization" the idea that differences are a threat to peaceful coexistence.

"The unity we share and celebrate is born of diversity," he said. Unity in the church and in a nation "values people's differences as a source of mutual enrichment and growth. It invites people to come together in a culture of encounter and solidarity."

As Myanmar continues its transition to democratic rule and tries to deal with the challenges of development and full equality for all its ethnic groups, Pope Francis told the bishops to make sure their voices are heard, "particularly by insisting on respect for the dignity and rights of all, especially the poorest and most vulnerable."

— Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service

Jesus maps the path to peace, reconciliation, pope says

Jesus maps the path to peace, reconciliation, pope says

YANGON, Myanmar — Jesus' love "is like a spiritual GPS" that guides people past the everyday obstacles of fear and pride and allows them to find their way to a relationship with God and with their neighbors, Pope Francis said.

Christ's message of "forgiveness and mercy uses a logic that not all will want to understand, and which will encounter obstacles. Yet his love, revealed on the cross is ultimately unstoppable," the pope said Nov. 29, celebrating his first public Mass in Myanmar.

According to the Vatican, 150,000 people attended the Mass at the Kyaikkasan sports ground. Thousands of them had traveled hundreds of miles to be at the Mass, and many of them camped out on the sports field the night before the liturgy.

Pope Francis acknowledged the sacrifices made by the people as well as the struggles Catholics face as a tiny minority in Myanmar and as citizens of a country struggling to leave violence behind and transition from military to democratic rule.

"I know that many in Myanmar bear the wounds of violence, wounds both visible and invisible," the pope said in his homily. "The temptation is to respond to these injuries with a worldly wisdom" or to think that "healing can come from anger and revenge. Yet the way of revenge is not the way of Jesus."

Pope Francis prayed that Catholics in Myanmar would "know the healing balm of the Father's mercy and find the strength to bring it to others, to anoint every hurt and every painful memory. In this way, you will be faithful witnesses of the reconciliation and peace that God wants to reign in every human heart and in every community."

Father Francis Saw from St. John Cantonment Church in Yangon said he had 400 guests at his parish. "Many people came from the hill towns. I welcomed them and fed them and then they came here at 10 p.m." the night before the Mass.

"We are very happy and encouraged by the pope's visit," he said. "It is good for our country and for our church."

Some people had reserved seats close to the altar. "Every parish got some VIP tickets for those who are very involved in the parish, very poor or sick," said Noeli Anthony, a ticket-holder from the Myanmar Catholic community in Perth, Australia.

Salesian Father Albert "Sam" Saminedi, pastor of the Perth community, said the immigrants he ministers to "love their country" and "are very strong, very loud and full of faith." More than 100 of them traveled home to be with the pope.

The "VVIP" section at the sports field was reserved for government officials, diplomats and representatives of other Christian communities and other religions.

The Rev. U Chit Toe Win, chair of the Myin Thar Baptist Church and deputy chairman of an interfaith dialogue group in Yangon, sat with the Anglican, Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim members of his group in the very front row.

Like any Baptist minister, Toe Win said, "I believe in Jesus first," but "these are my brothers. We are for unity."

— Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service

Respect the rights of all groups, pope tells Myanmar's leaders

Respect the rights of all groups, pope tells Myanmar's leaders

112817 pope mybaNAYPYITAW, Myanmar —The plight of the ethnic Muslim minority in Myanmar's Rakhine state was front and center in speeches by Pope Francis and Aung San Suu Kyi, but neither publicly used the word Rohingya.

After private meetings Nov. 28 with Myanmarese President Htin Kyaw and Suu Kyi, the state counselor and de facto head of government, the pope and Suu Kyi gave formal speeches to government officials and diplomats gathered at the convention center in Naypyitaw, the nation's capital.

Suu Kyi, leader of the process to bring democracy to Myanmar and winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, publicly acknowledged, "Of the many challenges that our government has been facing, the situation in Rakhine has most strongly captured the attention of the world. As we address long-standing issues -- social, economic and political -- that have eroded trust and understanding, harmony and cooperation between different communities in Rakhine, the support of our people and of good friends who only wish to see us succeed in our endeavors has been invaluable."

"The road to peace is not always smooth," she told the pope, "but it is the only way that will lead our people to their dream of a just and prosperous land that will be their refuge, their pride, their joy."

In his speech, Pope Francis was even less specific, although he repeatedly insisted that the rights of each member of society and each ethnic group must be respected. He praised the role of the United Nations and the international community in supporting peace efforts, presumably also in their condemnations of the discrimination and persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority.

"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," Pope Francis said.

The pope said he wanted to visit the country to strengthen the small Catholic community and "to offer a word of encouragement to all those who are working to build a just, reconciled and inclusive social order."

Myanmar's "greatest treasure," he insisted, "is its people, who have suffered greatly, and continue to suffer, from civil conflict and hostilities that have lasted all too long and created deep divisions."

Pope Francis praised Suu Kyi for convoking the "21st Century Panglong Union Peace Conference," a series of meetings that began in 2016 between the government and militant groups from more than a dozen ethnic groups in Myanmar.

The Rohingya are not included in the peace process since the government does not consider them to be a Myanmar ethnic group, but rather foreigners.

Pope Francis insisted, "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."

Religious communities must play a role in the process of reconciliation and integration, he said. "Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation building."

In addition to helping heal "the emotional, spiritual and psychological wounds of those who have suffered in the years of conflict," he said all religions "can help to uproot the causes of conflict, build bridges of dialogue, seek justice and be a prophetic voice for all who suffer."

— Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service

Uniformity is greater threat to culture than differences are, pope says

Uniformity is greater threat to culture than differences are, pope says

YANGON, Myanmar — In a small, informal meeting with a variety of religious leaders, Pope Francis went to the heart of his message for Myanmar: unity, not uniformity, is the secret to peace.

Representatives of the Baptist, Anglican, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim communities, as well as leaders from ecumenical organizations, briefly told the pope about their communities during the meeting Nov. 28 at the archbishop's residence in Yangon.

"The moment you spoke, a prayer came to mind. A prayer that we pray often, taken from the Book of Psalms: 'How good and how pleasant it is, when brothers dwell together as one,'" he said, quoting Psalm 133.

"United does not mean the same; unity is not uniformity, even within the same confession," he said. "Each one has its values, it riches and also its deficiencies."

Although the vast majority of people in Myanmar are Buddhist, the country's religious make up is varied. Myanmar also has some 135 recognized ethnic groups and in the struggle for recognition and political power, religion often has been used to further the cause or highlight differences.

"Let's not be afraid of differences," the pope told the leaders.

While the group meeting the pope included representatives of the country's Muslim community, there was no specific representation of the Rohingya Muslims, a group that has been subjected to severe restrictions and repression by the government. The Rohingya are not recognized as an ethnic group or as citizens. And the majority of the nation's people consider them a threat to peace and harmony.

One of the representatives, who was not identified, used the word "harmony" three times. Pope Francis said that in life, as in music, harmony comes from uniting differences, not eliminating them.

Today, the pope said, there is "a global trend toward uniformity, to doing everything the same," but "that is killing humanity, that is cultural colonization."

People of faith believe in a creator, a father, which also should mean recognizing other human beings as brothers and sisters, he said. "Let's be like brothers and sisters. And if we argue among ourselves, let it be like brothers and sisters -- they are reconciled immediately. They are always brothers and sisters again. I think that is only way peace is built."

The Vatican said Pope Francis also met separately with Sitagu Sayadaw, a Buddhist leader who has publicly supported the military's crackdown on the Rohingya minority.

Greg Burke, director of the Vatican press office, said the meeting was part of the pope's "effort to encourage peace and fraternal coexistence as the only way ahead."

— Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service

Pope meets generals after brief welcome by children in Myanmar

Pope meets generals after brief welcome by children in Myanmar

YANGON, Myanmar — Greeted by two dozen children wearing traditional attire and by the nation's bishops, Pope Francis arrived in Myanmar Nov. 27 for a four-day visit.

The arrival ceremony at the Yangon airport was brief and led by an envoy of the president, because the formal welcome was scheduled for the next day in Naypyitaw, which has been the capital since 2005.

However, Pope Francis had a "courtesy visit" with the leaders of the nation's powerful military. The pope and Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who was accompanied by three other generals and a lieutenant colonel, met that first evening in the Yangon archbishop's residence, where the pope is staying.

Greg Burke, director of the Vatican press office, told reporters the meeting lasted 15 minutes. After discussions about "the great responsibility authorities in the country have at this moment of transition," the two exchanged gifts.

The pope gave the general a medal commemorating his visit to Myanmar and the general gave the pope "a harp in the shape of a boat and an ornate rice bowl," Burke said.

Pope Francis had been scheduled to meet the general Nov. 30, his last morning in Myanmar. Although the country is transitioning from military rule to democracy, the general has the power to name a portion of the legislators and to nominate some government ministers. Although described by Burke as a "courtesy visit" and not an official welcome, the visit seemed to go against the usual protocol, which would dictate that the pope's first meetings with authorities would be with the head of state and head of government.

Burke did not say whether Pope Francis had mentioned in any way the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Myanmar's Rakhine state, who are treated as foreigners in the country. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has been criticized by human rights groups for what has been described as disproportionately harsh measures against the entire Rohingya community following attacks on security posts by small groups of Rohingya militants.

According to the general's Facebook page, he told Pope Francis there is no religious discrimination in Myanmar.

The pope arrived in Myanmar after a more than 10-hour, overnight flight from Rome. The children in costumes, representing only a portion of Myanmar's ethnic groups, were joined by another 100 schoolchildren wearing white slacks and white T-shirts with the logo of the papal visit.

Banners and billboards along the road from the airport into the city proclaimed: "A heartiest welcome to the Holy Father, Pope Francis."

Because the flight took off late at night, Pope Francis spent less time with reporters than he usually does. He made no comment about his hopes for the trip, only mentioning that he was told it was very warm in Yangon and he hoped the reporters would not suffer too much.

As is customary, the pope sent telegrams to the heads of state of all 13 nations he flew over on the way, including Italy.

In his message to Italian President Sergio Mattarella, Pope Francis said he was making the trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh Nov. 27-Dec. 2 as a "pilgrim of peace, to encourage the small but fervent Catholic communities and to meet believers of different religions."

The majority of people in Myanmar are Buddhist, while the majority of Bangladeshis are Muslim. Pope Francis had meetings with religious leaders scheduled in both countries.

— Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service

Indian Catholics sorry that papal invitation never came through

Indian Catholics sorry that papal invitation never came through

NEW DELHI — As Pope Francis began his tour to Myanmar and Bangladesh, Catholics in neighboring India regret missing a chance to meet him in their homeland, nostalgically recalling past papal visits, reported ucanews.com.

Catholic groups began discussing plans to host the pontiff earlier this year, after the Vatican confirmed a papal visit to the region.

Nobody then expected a papal itinerary would not include India, a nation of 19 million Catholics.

Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, said the Indian Catholic Church was expecting to receive Pope Francis, "but it did not happen."

In August, the Vatican announced that the Nov. 27-Dec. 2 journey would only include Myanmar and Bangladesh, whereas the original plan had been to visit India and Bangladesh.

The lack of an official invitation for Pope Francis to visit India is widely seen as being the result of political considerations by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government. The government is run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Observers say the BJP feared that Modi hosting Pope Francis would have alienated majority-Hindu voters ahead of scheduled 2019 national elections.

However, Cardinal George Alencherry of Ernakulam-Angamaly said the outcome had disappointed the entire Indian church. Cardinal Alencherry was scheduled to join a papal Mass in Bangladesh, ucanews.com reported.

A wide cross section of Indians interviewed by ucanews.com said a papal visit would have uplifted Christians facing violence and threats from extremist Hindu groups, especially in northern India.

One of those unhappy about Pope Francis not visiting India was Johana Xalxo, an Oraon ethnic minority women and a school principal in New Delhi.

Xalxo, 52, said she was privileged to meet St. Pope John Paul II in 1986 when he toured some 15 Indian cities, including her city of Ranchi. She was part of a group that danced to welcome St. John Paul.

"It was an exciting experience," she recalled.

Xalxo noted that papal visits lifted the morale of indigenous Christians, who often felt weak and neglected, providing them with a sense of belonging to a larger community.

She added that a generation of indigenous people had grown up since a pope last visited tribal areas.

The last papal visit was in 1999, when St. John Paul launched the apostolic exhortation, "Ecclesia in Asia." The ailing pope then limited his tour to just the capital.

Father Nicholas Barla, secretary of the Indian bishops' Commission for Tribal Affairs, told ucanews.com that people around the world view Pope Francis as a "messenger of peace."

He said much would have been gained from Pope Francis also coming to India this year, particularly considering persecution of religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims by extremist Hindu groups.

Peter Lobo, 59, a retired Catholic police officer in Pune, said Catholics such as himself have been denied a rare opportunity to see Pope Francis.

Recalling how people in Pune welcomed St. John Paul II, Lobo told ucanews.com he suspected the government decision not to invite Pope Francis was part of a political game "to keep the Hindu nationalists in good humor."

— Catholic News Service