By Philippa Hitchen
In a video message before departing on his journey to Myanmar on November 26th, Pope Francis said he was going to confirm the small Catholic community there “in its worship of God and its witness to the Gospel.” He said the Gospel “teaches the dignity of every man and woman and commands us to open our hearts to others, especially the poor and those in need.”
As part of her coverage of this papal visit, Philippa Hitchen travelled to some of the remote parts of Myanmar to see firsthand how Catholic women are putting that Gospel imperative into practice.
In the northern diocese of Myitkyina, I met Irish Columban missionary, Sr. Mary Dillon who runs a home for people affected by the HIV/AIDS virus.
Her ‘Hope Centre’ is located down a dirt road, beside a railway track, next door to a camp for Internally Displaced People. It’s in Kachin state, where a local independence army has been locked in conflict with the military for decades, forcing thousands of families to flee the fighting.
High rates of drug addiction
The area is also renowned as one of the world’s largest opium producing regions, with drug addiction among young people as high as 80 percent, according to some estimates.
The majority of young HIV positive men Sr Mary sees at her centre are drug users, many of whom have passed the virus onto wives and children. Together with three local Franciscan sisters, she provides a bed, nutritious meals and medical supervision for up to 70 patients, who may stay for a few days or many months, depending on individual needs.
Home and hospital care
Supported by Catholic groups including CAFOD, SCIAF, Trocaire and Misean Cara, she also provides home care and support for patients at the local hospital, as well as running summer camps for over a hundred children.
Sr Mary told me that, despite the difficult conditions she’d previously witnessed as a missionary in South Korea, she was “shocked with the poverty” she found when she arrived, fifteen years ago, in this isolated, rural corner of Myanmar.
All religions and ethnicities welcome
Together with a local nurse, she began going around on a bicycle, seeking out people who were suffering from symptoms of the disease. She said she met at least 50 in her first year, but as no treatment was available at that time, all of them died.
Realizing there was a need to provide nutritious food for patients and their families, she began building what she called a “respite care” centre where people could share their stories with others and regain inner strength to deal with the many challenges they faced.
The Hope Centre now welcomes between 500 to 600 patients each year, coming from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. Sr. Mary tells me she draws inspiration from Pope Francis’ words about being ‘a poor Church for the poor’, describing the centre as a “home” where people feel wanted and accepted.