Religion and social communication amidst the pandemic: Where am I as a Catholic priest?

Hubert Myo Thant Oo

On 16 March 2020, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar officially promulgated a letter for all the faithful in the country regarding religious activities, liturgical ceremonies, and other public gatherings as the coronavirus outbreak began to affect our beloved country. 

Almost all parish priests were obliged to comply with the announcement. Doors of churches and cathedrals were closed for public worship. Home pastoral care was also cancelled. Shepherds retreated and the sheep hid in their own quarters and villages.

All social as well as pastoral contacts were interrupted. In exceptional cases and in extreme needs, pastors attended to their poor sheep while wearing personal preventive equipment.

The people of Myanmar are not used to this kind of “social distancing.” The people are so much in love with nature, community, and festivities. External involvement in all sorts of social atmosphere is an outlet, a release for low-income families who rarely find joy in their homes. The more we walk outside, the lesser the burdens we carry in our hearts and minds. This is Myanmar’s way of addressing tension, or we can say that social closeness is a way of forgetting oneself.
 
Pagodas, mosques, churches, temples, monasteries, famous pilgrimage sites and other places of encounters are where people usually show their extravagance in the name of religion. In Myanmar, religious festivals are overcrowded with all kinds of people. Families could spend a month’s savings in one night’s shopping. 

Now is the time to reflect on our inherited system of social closeness. The virus is anti-social and it segregates all human relationships. “Man is a social animal.” In this challenging situation of death or survival in the face of an anti-social virus, who dares to play with the dangerous visitor?
 
Many people are praying that it may pass as soon as possible. Technicians in medicine and public health service are scratching their heads and straining their eyes to find a reliable medicine. While front-liners are defending the victims, backsliders are encroaching into the meagre incomes of poor people by skyrocketing the prices of commodities. This is dirty business.

It always happens in Myanmar whenever there is political and economic crisis. Now it is a health crisis, and the same malicious and poisonous mushrooms are sprouting everywhere. It shows that the teachings of religions are not reliably effective on people. One of the pragmatic reasons is that of corruption of morality since 1948, during the year of independence.  

Politicians are deeply aware of the importance of communication. In their hands, social communication is used as a tool of propaganda. The mentality of most is not that of religious mindedness. Genuine religious practice is overshadowed by pomposity. Politicians are well-versed, or are shallow-minded, in that field. 

People are easily led astray, from the 1950s to 1980s. After the Burma Students’ Demonstration in 1988 (historically known as 8888 Revolution), most of Myanmar saw the black and white of political maneuverings played by dictators. Since that time, the fifth pillar of the State Constitution takes precedence in all levels, that is news media and communication. 

The religious atmosphere in this country is too changed. Some of contemplative Buddhist monks dare to come out as and founded the Monastery Schools [Bon Gyi Kyaung Education Center]. These schools manage to bring forth the new bloods of progressive thinkers, technicians, teachers, etc.
 
In the environment of families, the tradition of closeness and family-centeredness is slowly disappearing. Facebook, Tik-Tok, Twitter, Viber, WeChat and other communication applications are playing major roles in the demise of tradition.

“God is everywhere,” we say. Now, God is nowhere compared with entertainment media. Even some religious people believe misleading Facebook posts on religion. Instead of reading the Scripture, they are digesting the gospel of FB. Young as well as old people are easily tapped and trapped in the net of the entertainment industry. 

A major setback is the decrease in the reading of books and time for reflection. Instant noodles, instant coffee, and instant satisfaction are in the minds of people. One of the social consequences is “Now you see him/her, now you don’t” magic relationship among the youth.
 
Traditional values of matrimony, close friendship, mutual respect and responsibility, quality and accountability, love and life-long dedication, family uniqueness and child care are slowly dwindling. Cyber bullying, media gossip, evil propaganda, extremism, pornography, virtual sex, and hackers into private life and public services are alarmingly increasing and are seemingly beyond control. 

There were, are, and will always be pros and cons to any changes of human society. Who is/are responsible for these unavoidable changes and enterprise? Man is created and entrusted by God for the good of the earth.  

Since the beginning, man is not alone but accompanied by woman. It is the beginning of social communication. Human original communication is based on mutual love and care. Therefore, the whole earth is in the care of human beings. We cannot deny that love unites and hate separates. Even illegal union brings new generation if they mutually agree and is favored by nature. 

In God's plan, every man is born to seek self-fulfillment, for every human life is called to some task by God. At birth a human being possesses certain aptitudes and abilities in germinal form, and these qualities are to be cultivated so that they may bear fruit. By developing these traits through formal education of personal effort, the individual works his way toward the goal set for him by the Creator.

Therefore, life set by God needs to be nourished and nurtured till it achieves the goal of reunion with the Creator. Divine Communication for reunion with God and Human Communication among human beings are two sides of the same coin. From where we came, we shall go back again. 

As a priest in the Catholic Church, although a celibate, priestly life is still capable of multiplication for the future generation. Both spiritual and moral fatherhood are imbued in the life of all baptized people. We are men for all seasons: we are not wedded to any woman, but we belong to all without discriminating males or females, white or black, rich or poor, Christian or non-Christian.

A community or parish entrusted to us is where our moral family resides, and abides our spiritual family.

My first and intimate channel of communication is connected to the Tower of Holy Trinity. My daily news announcer is the Lady Scripture. My permanent live show is the Holy Mass. Prayers are various programs of Divine-Wide-Web. Holy Rosary is the chains of Divine and Human subscribers in the Mystery of Salvation History. Devotions are downloaded programs for renewing and recuperating the wounded humanity. 

What else we need to add? St. John Paul II lived out his intimacy with Christ Jesus by entrusting his life of prayer into the maternal hands of Mary. His motto, Totus Tuus (Wholly Yours), refers to this special relationship (i.e. his daily channel of Marian Devotion). She who obediently turned motherhood to a supernatural motherhood accompanies all those who allow themselves to be raised by her Son into the new existence of grace that Christian prayer makes possible.
 
I am not a cog in a big wheel. I am not a built-in gadget in a supercomputer. We must be centered in the axis of all fast moving humanity and slow moving spirituality. 

Why fast moving humanity? Because all changes connected to human society is like a lightning compared to the past century. Social inputs and outputs are bombarding our surroundings without even being noticed by ourselves. Vigilance is a virtue. The leaders of all religions must be soaked with the rain of information as well as the sun of intuition. Sun shines and water evaporates. If the information we receive are less of values and more of malicious instigation, these must be vaporized by our Virtuous Vigilance, shining like a sun. 

Why slow moving spirituality? Because all foundations laid deeply and securely take time, energy and wisdom. The spiritual castle that defends and produces the good moral characters of humanity cannot be built within a short period of time.

The rain poured, the rivers flooded, and the wind blew against that house, but it did not collapse because it was built on rock.

The COVID-19 crisis brings all efforts of frontline defenders together. It also gives birth to virtuous people and greedy persons. It makes families either more close or far apart. It paves the way for new ways of working while blocking some traditional practices.

As a priest in this challenging times, we must see to it that we come out of this pandemic a much better person. How? 

  • Courage for Community
  • Obedience to Holy Spirit
  • Vigilance against outbreak of virus
  • Integrity in relationship
  • Dedication to Mission of Charity
  • 19=1+9= 10= Only One God I believe and without deep faith in Him, I am Zero.