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.
(Story continues below)
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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.”
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