CAFOD volunteer Jim Quinn reflects on his recent meeting with Cardinal Charles Bo:
(In case you are wondering about the wording on the T shirt it is Burmese for freedom.)
In November 1998 I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of four CAFOD volunteers to visit CAFOD funded projects in Myanmar (then known as Burma). The visit lasted three weeks and included a variety of projects and experiences ranging from meeting Burmese refugees in the camps on the Thailand border to spending days in remote, extremely poor, villages experiencing the realities of daily life of those living in poverty under an oppressive, military government.
One of our bases for these visits was Pathein in the west of the country. The diocesan Bishop was Charles Maung Bo with whom we stayed for three days and during which he accompanied us everywhere clearly enjoying mixing with his flock and enabling us to really understand what life was like for ordinary people. We were all impressed by this man of the people. Some years later he was made Archbishop of Yangon (Rangoon) and in 2015 a Cardinal – Myanmar’s first.
Upon my return I commenced many years of giving talks about Myanmar and CAFOD’s work there. These always included stories of the visits made with Charles Bo. So it was with delight that I heard of his visit to the UK last May. CAFOD continues to support projects in Myanmar working in partnership with the church, so a visit to CAFOD’s offices in Lambeth was on his itinerary and at a lunch time staff talk I heard him speak, in no uncertain terms, of the continuing challenges facing his country.
The people of Myanmar were, for six decades, in his words: “a Good Friday people, a crucified people” due to the extent and nature of the military oppression. There is now a “new dawn” and Easter is no longer a distant dream. But there is still a long way to go due to: land grabbing, a still powerful military, ethnic conflict, corruption, climate change, human trafficking, drugs and poverty. But last year’s elections he described as credible so while the military still have overall control and Myanmar is not yet a democracy there is now “an opportunity to build a new Myanmar”.
Cardinal Charles is a prophetic person. He speaks truth to power and calls us all to apply our faith to social injustices. Despite his country’s difficulties in reflecting on the Year of Mercy he notes that in Europe there are “thousands of refugees pleading for food and shelter”.
He has praise for Laudato Si. He calls it “a clear mandate for the Catholic Church to protect and promote harmony with nature”.
Ultimately he considers the world’s problems caused by injustice and quotes Pope John Paul II “If you want peace, work for justice”.
CAFOD, for whom he had special thanks, has worked in Myanmar serving and supporting the poorest for over two decades. As the country and the challenges faced by people change, so has CAFOD’s work moved towards equipping communities with the knowledge, skills, and tools needed as the country struggles with ethnic conflicts, civil war, and exploitation. Current projects include: being a voice for the voiceless in peace negotiations and development programmes; training community and faith leaders in conflict resolution; advocacy empowerment for those most vulnerable to exploitation and providing skills building and infrastructure for communities affected by climate change – in particular small scale farmers who are the backbone of Myanmar’s economy. You may remember the devastating effects of Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
Myanmar has particular problems brought about as a result of a troubled history and continuing abuses of power by the military and commercial elites. The Catholic Church in Myanmar has responded by prioritising action around key social and pastoral issues. It was interesting how many of these also apply to our situation. For example he is passionate about inter-faith understanding and tolerance. Our work with CAFOD gives us the opportunity to promote this as well, for example through the One Climate One World campaign – an issue espoused by most world faiths. Let’s work with them locally.