It was the last event of this four day visit to Myanmar and it was the one which best captured the hopes of the country, struggling to find its way to becoming a modern, democratic, developed nation.
Standing outside the redbrick, colonial-era Cathedral, with its tall twin towers, I chatted with some of the hundreds of young men and women, waiting patiently for the pope to arrive. Most were dressed in the colourful costumes of their different regions, representing the multi-ethnic history of the modern Myanmar. They’re fiercely proud of their origins, history and local cultural traditions. But they also want to be part of a forward-looking, internationally accepted nation that offers job prospects and opportunities to enjoy the same standards of living as their contemporaries in more developed countries.
An awful lot has changed here in the past few years since the government began opening up to the outside world. Just four years ago, there was little lighting and few flights arriving at Yangon’s airport. Now the city still includes some strikingly poor slum quarters, with rusty tin shacks and open sewers, but it also offers all the international brand names and hotel chains you’d find in New York, London or Rome.
Aung San Suu Kyi's challenges
The youngsters I talked to were very aware of the challenges facing their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as she seeks to modernise the economy and steer the country away from the grip of military rule that has stunted its growth for the past six decades. There are, of course, no instant answers to the challenges facing the country today. Not even a papal visit, as many had naively hoped, can miraculously bring peace between the military and the various ethnic independence armies.
Be messengers of hope
In his words to the young people, Pope Francis acknowledged how hard it is to talk about the ‘Good News’ of the Gospel when injustice, poverty and misery are all around us. Yet, he told them, you must be messengers of hope in Myanmar, unafraid to believe in God’s mercy and show solidarity with your suffering sisters and brothers.
Listen to the Lord
He urged them to listen to the voice of the Lord, so often drowned out by the deafening noise and distractions of their daily lives. He told them not to be afraid to cause a stir, or ask thought-provoking questions – no easy option for people who’ve been told what to think and say and do for decades.
Gospel grows from small beginnings
So will his words make a difference to those youngsters, listening so attentively inside the airy cathedral, or outside in front of big screens on the grass? Be courageous, generous and joyful, the pope told them, adding that the Gospel always grows from small beginnings. Bishops here are hoping that his words will mark a new beginning for this small Church, sowing seeds among its young people that will bear much fruit in the years to come.
Listen to the report: [ Audio Embed Pope Mass for youth in Myanmar]