Though Catholics in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar make up less than 1 percent of the country’s mostly-Buddhist population, Archbishop Charles Maung Bo, 66, of the archdiocese of Yangon has become an important voice for peace and justice throughout the country.
Long ruled by a military junta, Myanmar had been rated until recently as one of the worst human rights violators in the world. But in recent years the junta has softened its positions, releasing Nobel Prize-winning activist Aung San Suu Kyi, preparing to hold elections and welcoming President Barack Obama, the first time in 50 years that an American president has visited the country.
Reflecting on the upcoming elections, Archbishop Bo in his Christmas homily preached, “Christ’s birth is a message of integral hope...People of Myanmar, DO NOT BE AFRAID to seek your right to dignity and prosperity....Do not be afraid of voting, do not be afraid of selecting your choice.” He has also spoken out vigorously on behalf of the religious toleration and condemned in particular the persecution of the country’s Muslim minority. “We have to celebrate our unity in diversity,” said Bo. “Our dream for the future of Myanmar is built on justice, peace and fraternity.”
In 2014 the Church in Myanmar celebrated its 500th anniversary. Archbishop Bo is the first Myanmar bishop ever to be made a Cardinal.
How do you feel about being named Cardinal? How has your family reacted?
I consider it not so much as a personal moment, a dignity or position. It is more a tribute given to the church here for the struggles and efforts gone through by the missionaries, both men and women, and for the present enthusiasm of the leaders of the church and the faithful throughout these 500 years. It is more of a duty and obligation to give more attention to our Catholics, and the Myanmar people, than an honor. To be a “voice” for the voiceless.
My relatives, the Catholic community and people in the nation of Myanmar are excited, and everyone takes pride in it. The pope has given focus to Myanmar in front of the international communities. These past days and weeks so many have come for interviews, and the news appear often in different magazines, journals and TV programs. The civil authorities, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindu and other Christians, too, have sent congratulatory messages.
What do you hope for the Church today?
The present Holy Father is focusing on the poor and the peripheries. He wants to embrace the poor—the least, the lost and the last. He has chosen 20 new Cardinals all from the corners of the globe. He is a universal figure and at the same time, wishes to have advisers from all nations. These are very positive indications. The church will no longer be the same. There is already a move among the leaders of the church to get out of their comfort zones and start targeting the vulnerable and the marginalized.
The image of the church has changed from day one of this pontificate and continues growing in a positive way. As the pope is saying and showing through his actions, the church is concerned not only about its own spiritual aspects, but also involved with the whole of humanity—with its hope and concerns, its progress and problems. As one of my great Protestant pastors was telling me: “We do not have a real, good leader in the world, except Pope Francis.”
What is one message you feel the church should be offering to today’s world?
Let us embrace and consider others as my own brothers and sisters. Let us save one another. Let us remember that: “At the end love will conquer everything. Not violence, hatred, nor competition nor technology.”
What are the most pressing issues facing your region and community?
As a nation, we are in urgent need of justice and reconciliation, peace and prosperity. Without justice we cannot hope for reconciliation. Without reconciliation there cannot be peace. Without peace, no prosperity. Peace is the outcome of justice and reconciliation.
What has your work and your community taught you about God and the church?
This year is my 25th anniversary as a bishop. Previously I lived 15 years as a priest; I was a parish priest especially in a remote village in the Lashio diocese. Then as a bishop I have worked in five dioceses. One reflection always comes to my mind: God is a merciful Father and the church is the instrument of that mercy. God is never tired of forgiving us and accepting us.
I feel the tenderness of God when asking for forgiveness, and the church should always make efforts (especially its leaders) to show God’s tenderness towards others. Never to exclude anyone, be they of any religion or race.
What’s an image of God, passage from Scripture or figure from church history that you look to for support and encouragement?
From my Sacerdotal Ordination in 1976 and throughout my Episcopal ministry I stick to one passage from the letter of St. Paul the Apostle to the Philippians: “Omnia possum in Eo.” “I can do all things in Christ, who strengthens me” (Ph: 4:13).
In times of problems, when I might have reason to get discouraged, and when leading a community, this passage gives me strength and comfort. It guides me along. Not to boast, but God’s energy sustains me and I do not notice myself getting into despair or discouragement.
Finally: What are your hopes for next October’s Synod?
We do not hope that the Synod would change the doctrines nor the fundamental principles of the church. But I do hope that there will be more pastoral and intensive care for families, a deeper sympathetic pastoral approach towards families, especially those in irregular unions.
Return to New Cardinals