As we drove out the main gate of the compound of the Archdiocese of Myitkyina on the fine afternoon in January, we turned left into a dusty, potholed road packed with motorbikes and jeepneys with thousands of people going about their daily business. Behind us we left the Cathedral of St. Columban built by Bishop Howe in the 1940s and the old building of the minor seminary built and run by the Columban Fathers in the 1950s and 1960s. They are both run now by the native priests and Bishop Francis. That morning I concelebrated Mass with Bishop Francis in a packed church. The parishioners sang their way in their native language all through Mass. It was an eerie, mystical and an uplifting spiritual experience for me.
At the end of Mass Archbishop Francis asked me to say a few words in English which he translated. I mainly thanked them for welcoming me to Myanmar and stated what a privilege it was for me to visit their Diocese and have the opportunity to celebrate Mass with them. Above all I was glad to be able to say thanks to them for their welcome and care and respect and love for the Columban priests and Sisters over the years.
In my short visit to Myanmar I encountered a respect and interest for the Columbans unlike anyplace else I have ever visited or lived. The local people knew the names of all the Columbans who worked there, where they are now and, if applicable, when they died. In various designated areas they have memorials for the Columbans who worked in Myitkyina Diocese.
It was a tragic turn of history when the military-socialist government took over the country in 1964. The junta nationalized the schools and hospitals and made it so impossible for missionaries to work there that the last Columbans made the difficult decision to leave in 1977. Bishop John Howe from Ireland was the only Bishop in the Myitkyina Diocese at the time, but before he left he ordained Paul Grawng as the first native priest in 1974 and as Bishop in 1977. Bishop Paul is now the Archbishop of Mandalay, and Myitkyina has since been divided into two dioceses, Banmaw/Bhamo was set up as a Diocese in 2002. The area was known as Bhamo when the Columbans first worked in parishes and schools.
As the Kachin driver drove us along the dusty crowded road to the airport, suddenly I felt a sadness come over me as if I was leaving home for the last time. My mind brought me back to the Columban Sisters and Fathers who had to leave Burma prematurely because of government pressure and circumstances. What were their thoughts and feelings as they were driven to the airport those days? I related my thoughts to Bishop Francis who was sitting behind me. “I was a young priest at the time” he said, “grew up with the Columbans, and I was with the last group as they left to the airport. As we left the city their last wish was to be allowed to visit the graves of their fellow Columbans, priests and Sisters who had died here. As they said prayers tears ran down from their eyes to the ground like spring rain. They were doubly brokenhearted, not only for leaving their ministry places and the people they loved but also leaving their colleagues in the graves in a foreign land. They were leaving their life’s work unfinished, their dreams, hopes and desires behind. They felt they could never return again, and while most didn’t, a few did.”
As we sat in silence in the Jeep weaving our way slowly on a crowded airport road, I wondered how they really felt and thought. Most of all they left behind the people they loved, churches, schools and clinics, taken over by a government hostile to Christian religion and values. How did they feel towards those in power who interrupted the work of their hands and hearts? This was the place they had sowed their first seeds as missionaries, the place where they saw their first dreams come true. Did they think that their long hours of learning languages and culture, their years of building up an education system were a waste of time and energy? Were they angry with God for not protecting them from a government who had the audacity to take over their schools and education system to control the noble people of Burma especially the Kachin people among whom they had worked?
Thanks to God the church of the Kachins did not die, rather it flourished under persecution and is still flourishing. Bishop Paul Grawng led the church, and the seed sown by missionaries took flower. With only ten priests when they left, the area now has 50, two dioceses, three native Bishops and many religious priests and Sisters. And it is not just a vibrant group of clergy they left behind but a very fervent and committed group of laity.
I had the privilege to be present with Bishop Francis Daw Tang at the opening Mass of the yearly education program for 90 catechists and church workers from all around the hill country parishes of the Katchin State. There were both, men and women but mainly men, ordinary men who farm and labor in the mountain areas take off two months every year to come to Myitkyina to study about their faith and spend time together to share care and learn from each other. Some could not come because of the war strife and pillaging by the army in their area. For others the roads were mined and too dangerous to travel. When the program is over, they return to their villages and lead their congregation in prayer, liturgy, catechesis and care for their spiritual needs, while living their own daily life of farming and raising their family.
The schools that the Columbans built are still held by the government, but it looks like a change is coming. Small, unofficial schools are offering alternative education. The government is beginning to see the need for a more open and liberal and educated people as they encounter the wider world of trade and business.
No one knows, but people have the hope. With Aung Sung Sui Kyi released from house arrest, people look to her as the new Nelson Mandela to lead them to the promised land of peace and prosperity. We hope and pray with them.
This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Columban Mission magazine.