Myanmar Reflection: “I Have Found My Map”

Fr Kurt with Buddhist monks. Photo: Fr Kurt Zion Pala

Fr Kurt with Buddhist monks. Photo: Fr Kurt Zion Pala

As an expression of our solidarity with the peoples of Myanmar, including our Columban seminarians and deacon from Myanmar and our Columban colleagues on mission there, the society organised a Columban Online Prayer Service for Myanmar on the 2nd of February 2024, marking the third anniversary of the country’s military coup which has sent the country “into conflict and darkness”.

Reports from Myanmar over the past three years depict a grim picture of conflict, with over 11,000 lives lost and countless families displaced. Homes, medical facilities, and places of worship are targeted, particularly in Christian areas of Kachin, Kayah, Chin, and Karen states. Humanitarian crises are escalating, leaving millions without basic necessities.

Amidst the turmoil, people live in fear of arbitrary arrests and surveillance, with even phones being scrutinized. However, there is resilience and determination among the populace. Despite the silence from the international community, the spirit of the people remains strong, with prayers for strength and a desire to rebuild their nation.

Prayers extend to those in refugee camps, with pleas for justice and peace in Myanmar and beyond. There is a collective call to remember and address the ongoing crisis in Myanmar.

The following is a reflection on Matthew 5:1-12 by a Filipino Columban, Fr Kurt Zion Pala, who lives and works in Myanmar. 

When I first arrive at a new place or city, the first thing I try to find is a map. I want to know where places are, interesting places to see and find. Later, I would look for another kind of map, a map that would show me where people are, different people live, and interesting people to meet.

Arriving in Myitkyina, Kachin State, in 2017, I did not have a map to follow. I did not have a guide or template to work out what to do in Myanmar. One day Fr Neil Magill asked me to write up something of what I thought I would be doing as a ministry. I wrote about many things, not knowing actually where to begin or what to do. I went out to find that map wherever I could and met people – especially Buddhists, Muslims, Baptists and young people.

Fr Kurt celebrating All souls day Mass at Myitkyina. Photo: Fr Kurt Zion Pala

Fr Kurt celebrating All souls day Mass at Myitkyina. Photo: Fr Kurt Zion Pala

Our gospel today is on the Beatitudes, part of what is considered to be the greatest sermon of all times. It includes the Lord’s Prayer and the commandment to love your enemy. During the time of Jesus, it would be a radical invitation for all his listeners. Jesus was preaching about the Kingdom of God. But during those days they were all under the Roman Empire. Israel was held captive by the Romans. Their land was taken from them. They were heavily taxed and their women were abused.

When Jesus started speaking about the Kingdom of God, the people must have been excited. They have been waiting for a Messiah, a saviour to save them from the oppression of the Romans. Jesus brought them to the mountainside. It probably made many think that Jesus was going to start a revolution of some kind. And so they waited for Jesus to speak.

Then Jesus said: Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted because of righteousness. It must have been a shock for many of his listeners. Jesus seems to be blessing the wrong people. Jesus seems to have read from the wrong list. Jesus should be calling out and blessing warriors, war planners, and vengeance-filled men and women to fight for the people.

Yesterday, we remembered the third anniversary of the coup. If Jesus spoke today about the Beatitudes, he could have blessed these people:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, the young people who have stopped dreaming; for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, the mothers and fathers who lost their children, and children orphaned by the war; for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the people and creatures displaced by the war, mining and the destruction of the forest, for they will inherit the Earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the many political prisoners and young people who have died courageously protesting in the streets, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the peacemakers, peoples of different faiths and cultures who work for peace, for they will be called children of God.

The Beatitudes were not a condition set by Jesus so that only those he mentioned shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven. They are not commandments that we must obey to enter God’s Kingdom. But they were an assurance for those who are oppressed and weak that they have a place in God’s Kingdom.

I have been following a series about the Gospels, called ‘The Chosen.’ The whole series is a creative interpretation of the gospels. One of the scenes explores this part of the gospels where Jesus spoke about the Beatitudes. I believe this scene happened before Jesus spoke to the big crowd. In the scene, Jesus woke up Matthew and said to him: “I got it. I got the map… directions, where people should look to find me.” Jesus stood up and Matthew followed. Now they are standing on top of a hill overlooking the camp where they are prepared and waiting for the people to come and gather. After a while, Jesus spoke and said to Matthew, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Jesus continued until he finished this passage. Matthew listened but did not completely understand. Matthew told Jesus, “Yes, but how is it a map?” Jesus replied, “If someone wants to find me, those are the groups they should look for.” Matthew continued and said, “And then?” Jesus ended the conversation and told Matthew, “You are the salt of the Earth.”

We have organised Catholic students from different state schools. We started a movement closely influenced by the Student Catholic Action of the Philippines. After Covid and the coup, it was getting more and more difficult to visit students in universities. We also saw the need for skills and work preparation seminars to give young people a chance to work and study abroad or locally. We hope to form young Christians to be ‘Salt of the Earth’.

On 15 August 2021, we opened a student centre as an alternative educational centre. It is a centre run by young people, for young people and with young people. We hope to form life-ready and work-ready young people. We provide the Positive Youth Development Program which includes English Skills, Computer Work Skills, Life and Works Skills, Accounting, and also Mental Health Awareness. We are already accepting new students for the third batch or group. Besides this program, we also provide General English classes and basic computer classes. One of the many consequences of the political crisis is the growing educational crisis in the country. Education is an important part of the Columban Mission here in Myanmar.

I also work with young people of other religions through our Mental Health advocacy activities, promote inter-religious dialogue and animate the Laudato Si’ Movement at parish and national levels through the Laudato Si Movement Myanmar chapter.

The word ‘Beatitude’ originally comes from the Latin, ‘Beatus’, which means ‘happy’. Jesus showed us through the Beatitudes how to be truly happy and joyful. They direct us to how to live our lives if we desire to be happy. Happiness is not only a feeling but a decision to be in a relationship with God, which begins with our relationship with Jesus Christ.

In the beginning, I did not quite know what I would be doing or how I would spend my time here in Myanmar or Myitkyina. But now I have found my way. I have found my map. Jesus in ‘The Chosen’ series scene, told Matthew that to find him, we must follow the Beatitudes like a map. There are many times I felt helpless and alone but the people I work with continue to give me purpose and joy, sustaining me in my ministries and mission. They are my map.

Have you found your map?

Please do not forget to pray for the young people of Myanmar. Please continue to pray for the people of Myanmar. Please continue to speak for us!

May the Lord continue to bless us, the people that support us, and the people that we work with. Amen.

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