By Robin Gomes
Myanmar’s prominent Catholic churchman on Friday gratefully recalled priests, religious and the faithful who perished in the Covid-19 pandemic, the third wave of which is now ravaging the country. “Today we have gathered here to mourn many of our most dear ones; just a few days ago, they were with us, they shared in our joys and sorrows. They were our friends, our brothers, our sisters and sons and daughters, husband, wives, grandmothers and grandfathers,” Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon said in his homily at a Requiem Mass in St. Mary’s Cathedral, August 6.
The Eucharistic celebration came during the 2-week national prayer campaign that Myanmar’s bishops called for on Monday, urging followers of all religions to pray so that the coronavirus may end.
In Myanmar, the serious political, socio-economic, human rights and humanitarian crises unleashed by the Feb. 1 military coup that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, have been exacerbated by a devastating third wave of Covid-19 infections. People are reeling under an acute shortage of oxygen, with the most basic healthcare almost non-existent in government hospitals.
July has been the worst month with the highest reported coronavirus deaths and infections in the country. The military-controlled Ministry of Health on August 2 reported 330 fresh deaths, taking the country’s total past the 10,000 mark. With 4,132 new infections on Thursday, the total stood at 319,250. The death toll climbed 10,988 with 293 new deaths. Experts say the official figures are an undercount.
“Today, the sadistic virus made them numbers,” Cardinal Bo, the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Myanmar (CBCM) lamented, referring to the Covid-19 deaths. He refused to regard them as mere numbers, adding, “They are part of our life, part of our existence, part of our inalienable memory of gratefulness”.
He expressed the deep pain that the virus has deprived many “of the most sacred last moments”. Many had to die alone, abandoned and buried, without their loved ones able to bid them farewell, shed a tear or utter their last words.
In this regard, Cardinal Bo recalled the death of Bishop John Hsane Hgyi of Pathein on July 22 as “a shattering experience” for him. He had much wished to personally bid goodbye to the “kind-hearted shepherd, an erudite man, an ever-smiling pastor.” Likewise, the virus has tolled priests, religious and hundreds of laity, “leaving a hole in the hearts of the dear ones”.
Christian faith and hope
At this moment when “darkness seemed to have set at midday,” the cardinal sought solace in Christian faith and hope. He said, “We have gathered around this altar fortified by the strong faith” which assures Christians that they are still united to them in spirit through the communion of saints. “Spiritually we are united more now than ever. Rather we have come closer,” said the cardinal, who is also president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC). He drew strength from Psalm 23, saying “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort.”
He expressed gratitude to those the departed souls saying, “As we mourn our dear ones, the only vaccine that can cure our sorrow is gratitude” for their love and accompaniment. Priests died preaching the Word and breaking the Bread. The religious broke the bread in the streets, feeding and consoling the suffering “during these hard times”. Those who have gone, he said, have taught us how to live this short life.
God of life and love
“We cannot make death the arbiter of our destiny,” because “our God is not a God of death". "He is the God of life,” argued the 72-year-old cardinal. Because “love is stronger than death”, he said, “death and grave cannot take away a Christian’s hope”.
The cardinal commended the generosity and resilience of the people, who despite the loss of their loved ones, continue to help and support others. “See the volunteers in care centres, the great sacrifice of doctors and nurses and other health professionals, whom Pope Francis calls “saints next door’. See the generosity of the business community, see the contribution of the simple people and our own Christians!” he said. “We know we can defeat this virus since God has put in our hearts the fire of compassion,” Cardinal Bo said. “Living in love, with great gratitude, we shall all overcome …. This pandemic too will come to an end,” he added.