The people of Myanmar “know they’ve been starved of education” and are eager to turn that situation around, the newly appointed Superior of the Jesuit Mission in Myanmar told The Catholic Weekly.
This means, Australian Fr Mark Raper SJ told the paper, that the main focus of the Jesuit mission in the struggling nation is the field of education.
The Church in Myanmar had all of its schools taken away by the military dictatorship when it first came to power in the 1960s.
Even though there are 16 dioceses throughout the country, the Church has no primary or secondary schools of its own. The Jesuits in Myanmar therefore concentrate their mission work on teacher formation.
“Just in terms of the magnitude of the challenge, it’s much more effective to enter into teacher education,” Fr Mark said, during his recent visit to Sydney for the Jesuit Conference of the Asia Pacific Region.
“The people are very engaging and it’s an absolute delight to be with them. They’re very eager for education.”
“Now it’s possible to build up institutions for education, for retreats and we’re putting a lot of energy into that, especially to make good decisions, because whatever we build will have to last many, many years.”
“Our desire is to strengthen the Catholic Church.”
Once a wealthy, prosperous country, Myanmar began to decline after the military seized control of the government in the 1962. The country has struggled economically ever since, with military rule only ending in 2011.
As a democracy, the country is still in its infancy. As such it is changing rapidly, he said.
“Myanmar is in a period of immense transition at the moment.
“Although there was the election of a civilian government, the military have written the constitution and in such a way that they still retain significant authority,” he told the paper.
Catholics are a minority in Myanmar. With a total population of 56 million, just 700,000 are Catholic.
“The Church is really embedded among ethnic minorities in the country and part of the conflict in Myanmar is for the ethnic minorities to have full rights to land tenure and rights to education.
“Our work as Jesuits is to support the local Church and their work is to assert the rights of their own people and to develop the life of living the Gospel with some integrity,” he said.
Fr Mark, who grew up in Sydney, has just stepped down as President of the bi-annual Conference, after just over nine years at the helm.
The Conference brings together Provincials from the seven Jesuit provinces in the Asia Pacific region.
During his time as President, Fr Mark lived in the Philippines and coordinated cooperation between the provinces of the Asia Pacific region.
“I’ve been in so many different roles and my job now is to help lay the foundations for well-discerned and well-chosen priorities for the future and to help build-up the younger Burmese Jesuits, to take their place not just in Myanmar but in Asia Pacific and in their service to humanity,” he said.
There are currently fifty Jesuits in Myanmar and most of them are still in formation. Three are already priests and another is to be ordained in the coming weeks, Fr Mark said.