In the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, the parliamentary chapel just underneath Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament, Burma’s first-ever Cardinal celebrated Mass.
“Coming from a country, Burma, that is just emerging from over half a century of cruel, brutal military dictatorship, a country torn apart by war, ravaged by religious and ethnic persecution, with rampant corruption and dire poverty, into a new Easter dawn of democracy, to stand here in this chapel with all that it symbolises and represents is an immense joy,” Cardinal Charles Bo said. “Britain and the British Parliament has a long history with Burma; many of you have been with us in our darkest hour, stretching out a hand of friendship and solidarity in our time of need, raising a voice for us when we were voiceless.”
It was just one of many beautiful and significant moments during Cardinal Bo’s almost three-week tour of the United Kingdom and Brussels, which began with Mass in St Andrew’s Cathedral, Glasgow, with a piper on the door. The tour then took us the length and breadth of the UK, and to Westminster and the European Union.
The visit was co-hosted by CSW together with Missio, Aid to the Church in Need and the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales.
Cardinal Bo met with Cardinal Vincent Nichols; the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby; the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Hugo Swire; and the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. He celebrated Mass in four Cathedrals and met with the Anglican Bishop of Coventry, Bishop Christopher Cocksworth, who speaks for the Church of England on international religious freedom. He spoke to school children and in Brussels he met the EU’s Special Representative for Human Rights, Stavros Lambrinidis and the recently appointed EU Special Envoy for freedom of religion or belief, Jan Figel. In Parliament, Cardinal Bo met several Parliamentarians including Baroness Kinnock, David Burrowes MP and Valerie Vaz MP, addressed a meeting chaired by Lord Alton and hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Burma, the APPG on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, and the Catholic Legislators Network, before finally speaking at a reception in Speaker’s House hosted by Mr Speaker.
It was a remarkable visit. Cardinal Bo delivered a clear message with two key points.
First, there are certainly some changes in Burma for which we must all be thankful.
Second, there is still a very, very long way to go, Burma continues to face many challenges, and the country continues to need our prayers and support.
One of his most striking messages was his appeal for the protection of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) for all.
In the chapel in the UK Parliament, where the Gospel reading was Mark 9:38-40, he said: “Today’s Gospel speaks to us all of the need to unite with friend and stranger. To speak not only for our own kind but for our neighbour, our brother and sister in humanity, and the stranger. For as our Lord says, ‘Anyone who is not against us is for us’.” That, he added, is a message our world today “desperately” needs to hear.
“That is why I spend so much of my time making friends with my brothers and sisters in other faiths – Buddhist monks, Muslim clerics, Hindu leaders – and with my Protestant brethren – because those of us who share the same values – of freedom of religion, democracy, peace, justice – must work together against the merchants of hatred, the dark forces who seek to sow conflict and destruction. Anyone who is not against us is for us … So when we see others, of other beliefs, doing good, let us remember the words of Jesus: ‘You must not stop him’ … Unless they speak evil of us, unless they are against us, they can be for us, and we must be for them.”
Of all the memories of travelling together with Cardinal Bo and his secretary, Father Dominic, for almost three weeks, two in particular stand out.
The first was his homily during Mass in Westminster Cathedral. He spoke about the persecution of Christians around the world. “To be a Christian today is not an easy task … I belong to a church that underwent its own quota of suffering during the dictatorship. I wish to pray for all those who are persecuted for their religion.”
And the second was a simple, symbolic, spontaneous and beautiful act at the end of Cardinal Bo’s final public engagement, the reception in Speaker’s House. He presented Mr Speaker with a gift, a painting of a scene of Burmese landscape. Mr Speaker and the Cardinal then hugged, and with that hug summed up the entire message of Cardinal Bo’s visit: let’s stand in solidarity with each other, let’s work for freedom and human dignity for all, and let’s reach out to a hurting world with a message of hope, to celebrate unity in diversity. “Evil,” says the Cardinal “has an expiry date. Hope has no expiry date.”
“Evil,” says the Cardinal “has an expiry date. Hope has no expiry date.”
By Benedict Rogers, CSW’s East Asia Team Leader
* Click here to watch the BBC interview with Cardinal Bo on the plight of the minorities in Burma
**Click here to listen to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales’ interview with Cardinal Bo on Burma’s new dawn of democracy