Palm Sunday in Yangon and a Holy Week challenge

By Barb Fraze

YANGON, Myanmar — Palm Sunday Mass was a warm affair, as temperatures crept toward 97 degrees.

Families gather under the shade of trees during Palm Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Yangon, Myanmar. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

Families gather under the shade of trees during Palm Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Yangon, Myanmar. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

At the 6:15 a.m. Mass at our Lady of Fatima Church, oscillating fans mounted on pillars and the balcony worked to cool the hundreds of parishioners packed inside. Some sat in pews on the side porches that ran the length of the church, fanning themselves with cardboard fans or palms — or even their hands. Others, particularly families with small children, sat in the courtyard under the trees, on plastic chairs or retaining walls.

Mass in a developing country is always a treat: The fervor for the faith is palpable. The singing at the March 29 Masses was loud and sincere. As in some other Asian countries, lyrics were flashed on large screens at the front of the church. Between the fifth and sixth pews, in the aisle at the break in the church, musicians set up a keyboard, amplifier and microphones.

Yet despite being nearly halfway around the world, some things remained the same. Parents outside occasionally had to keep bored toddlers from wandering off — outside was its own version of a cry room or the back of the church. One toddler was delighted that her sandals made a beeping noise every time she walked.

In the shade behind the concrete railing outside the nearby Blessed Sacrament chapel, a mother sat on cool tiles to nurse her baby. And at Communion, parents were trotting their children to the toilets in the back of the church compound.

Samson da Silva, 82. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

Samson da Silva, 82. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

Between morning Masses, 82-year-old Samson da Silva stopped to offer the history of the parish. Found at the beginning of the 20th century, it originally was known at St. Monica’s. Samson said his sister, who just died at age 92, took care of the parish during the Japanese occupation. In the early 1950s, after the statue of Our Lady of Fatima was brought to the church, the parish changed its name.

Our Lady of Fatima Church is near the center of the city, accessible by bus and near many ethnic communities: Kachin, Kayah, Kayin and Chin.

Downtown, at the 5 p.m. Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral, a breeze had picked up and the sun was beginning to set, but parishioners still fanned themselves. The large brick cathedral was a cooler building; one woman’s mantilla blew off after Communion as she walked by a large fan.

As in the morning, Mass was in the Myanmar language, yet Palm Sunday service was familiar. There was no mistaking when, toward the end of the Passion, the priest knelt to mark the death of Jesus.

This downtown cathedral was full of people of all ages, including teens and young adults. One young woman, Julia Aye Thandar Soe, spoke after Mass about what she thinks Catholics need.

“We need more love in each other, more fellowship in each family,” she said. People “worship together, sing together, pray together,” but they also need to “share their difficulties with each other.”

A fitting challenge for Holy Week, when Jesus faced so many challenges.

Gifts from the Offertory procession are displayed at the foot of the altar at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Yangon, Myanmar. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

Gifts from the Offertory procession are displayed at the foot of the altar at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Yangon, Myanmar. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

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