Buddhist monk, friend of The Lay Centre, known around Rome

The Venerable Varasami, a Buddhist monk from Myanmar, was a resident at The Lay Centre last term.  (Photo: H. GOO)

The Venerable Varasami, a Buddhist monk from Myanmar, was a resident at The Lay Centre last term. (Photo: H. GOO)

The Venerable Varasami, a Buddhist monk from Myanmar, is a former resident of The Lay Centre and dear to current members of the student community. He studied in Rome last semester on a study grant from the Nostra Aetate Foundation.

But his renown seems not to have been limited to the grounds of The Lay Centre, as Michael Canaris notes in his most-recent submission to The Tablet for the magazine’s column “Letter from Rome.” The article, published 26 February 2015, is reproduced below, with the permission of the publisher. (http://www.thetablet.co.uk)

Letter from Rome

26 February 2015 by Michael Canaris

After seeing the recent reports and moving videos of Pope Francis making an unannounced visit to a migrants’ shanty town outside Rome, I was doing some reading and stumbled across a papal statement on the issue in the American context, which at first sight seemed pretty prosaic.

After commending American and Mexican bishops for conferring and cooperating “in order that Mexicans who emigrated to foreign countries might not become the prey of the enemies of Christ, nor lose the Christian ways of their fathers”, the Pope went on to discuss a recent meeting with American senators from a committee on immigration. He had “urged them to try to administer as liberally as possible the overly restrictive provisions of their immigration laws”.

For some, a typical example of Pope Francis sticking his nose where it does not belong in the political sphere? But no, the line is taken from Pope Pius XII’s apostolic constitution Exsul Familia, written in 1952, long before the council was a glimmer in Good Pope St John’s eye. Clearly the talk about America’s broken immigration system and its need for reform is not all that new. It will be fascinating to see what Francis has in store when he addresses Congress in September.

Though Rome is already starting to flood with waves of tourists as the weather gets warmer, it is a surprisingly small town in some ways. Wherever I go, everyone seems to know Varasami (one name – like Bono or Madonna), an incredibly enthusiastic and gregarious Burmese Buddhist monk who was even asked by the Pope to pray for him during a recent face-to-face meeting. He is a fascinating personality and a close friend, and so I enjoyed chatting with him about Francis’ selection of Charles Maung Bo, the first cardinal ever from the country variously known as Burma or Myanmar. Varasami told me that Bo’s appointment is timely as he can encourage Burma’s steps towards democracy by building relationships between different religious groups, adding, in a reference to the Holy See: “I hope within a few years we might have diplomatic relations between the two sovereign states.”

Between Bo and President Obama’s recent visit, the nation’s rise in prominence on the international stage will hopefully ease some of the many tensions there.  Varasami hopes to contribute to the country’s bright future via education, as he is here as one of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue’s visiting Nostra Aetate scholars.

He regularly reminds me that the robed street performers near the Colosseum apparently floating mid-air with their legs crossed “aren’t real Buddhist monks” (the platform which makes them appear to levitate is supported through a pipe in their sleeves).

Lastly, I recently attended a panel conversation launching a new ­graduate degree focused on digital communications in ecclesial settings, and available at Loyola University Chicago through its Institute of Pastoral Studies (IPS). Loyola has many strong ties to Rome; its John Felice Center is the oldest continual United States university programme in Italy and both former US ambassador to the Holy See Miguel Diaz (now John Courtney Murray University Chair in Public Service) and his wife, Marian, teach at the university. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, whom many characterise as the uber-intellect in the Sacred College, will be visiting the Windy City campus in a few weeks to participate in a colloquium on culture and Latino theology organised by Diaz and his wife.

The IPS event in Chicago included blogger Rocco Palmo of Whispers in the Loggia fame, America magazine managing editor Kerry Weber, and Fr Manuel Dorantes, a young Mexican-American priest who serves as Spanish-language assistant to the Holy See press office. Blogging Bishop Christopher Coyne (Burlington, Vermont) could not arrive in time because of a snowstorm, but Pope Francis’ most prominent American episcopal nomination to date, Archbishop Blase Cupich, gave an opening reflection for the panel.

The archbishop made clear the Church has a vested interest in communications technology, not merely as a “utilitarian concern … to make sure the Church is not still using quill pens, as it were, when everyone else is text messaging”. Rather, since we live in a new culture as a result of this explosion of information and interconnection, Cupich argued the Gospel today “cannot be effectively communicated without the Church’s immersing herself in and understanding this culture”. 
But he warned that, while the internet is morally neutral, it is exceptionally efficient for the “widespread and anonymous dispersal of lies and misinformation and of indecency and predatory activity”, and then he added: “Unfortunately, like developments in weaponry, developments in the means of communications can outstrip the ability of humanity’s ethical sense to come up with the principles and ways to guide their use.”

Michael M. Canaris PhD holds a research fellowship at the Angelicum and lives in The Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas.


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