Columban missionaries have re-established a presence in Myanmar through teaching, social work and health-care ministries.
In 1966, all foreign religious missionaries who had come to Burma after January 4, 1948, (Burma’s independence day from England) were forced to leave. Those who had arrived before 1948 could stay on, but no new seminaries could enter the nation.
The last three Columban missionaries to leave had not been to their home countries for at least 16 years.
The Catholic Directory of Myanmar states:
“The Columban Fathers realized with intuition that the time had come for them to hand over the government of the Diocese [of Myitkyina] to the Kachin clergy. On April 3rd 1976 Bishop Paul Grawng was consecrated Bishop. The following year Bishop [John] Howe handed over the care of the Church in Myitkyina Diocese to the indigenous clergy who then numbered only ten and left for home. The rest of the Columban Fathers withdrew in 1979.”
Early on, Columbans discussed the legacy they wanted to leave in Burma. In August 1979, Bishop Howe wrote that the establishment of an indigenous Church became a top priority for Columban work in Burma as far back as the mid-1950s.
Fr. Tony O’Brien, the Columban superior general in 1979, wrote that there was a certain sadness in this final departure from Burma.
Yet, he acknowledged we had played our part in developing a local Christian community with its own leaders. The outside pressures did not so much hinder our work but rather laid before us an urgent challenge and helped us establish and follow a set of priorities.
In hindsight, we can see the faith and wisdom of that early vision and the phased withdrawal in the ’70s. The legacy was intact.
Myanmar Facts (2005 statistics)
Population: 42.91 million
Median age: 26.14 years
Life expectancy: 60.7 years
People living with HIV-AIDS: 330,000*
HIV-AIDS deaths: 20,000*
Ethnic groups: Burman 68%, Shan 9%, Kachin 7%, Rakhine 4%, Chinese 3%, Indian 2%, Mon 2%, other 5%
Religions: Buddhist 89%, Christian 4% (Baptist 3%, Roman Catholic 1%),
Muslim 4%, animist 1%, other 2%
Literacy rate (15 years and older): 85.3%**
Name change: Since 1989, military authorities in the country have promoted the name Myanmar as a conventional name for their nation. The name is not recognized by the U.S. government.
Government: Military junta
Source: CIA – The World Factbook 2005
Today, the Catholic Church in Myanmar has gradually gained momentum in its evangelization work. It’s one of the few Southeast Asia nations where all Catholic priests and Religious are natives.
But since the Church in Myanmar has been isolated from the rest of the world for so long, it has asked Columbans and others for help. One way we have assisted the Church is to provide personnel to educate seminarians and priests and give retreats and courses on formation for Sisters, priests and brothers.
The Myanmar bishops asked the Columbans to provide staff members for a new missionary seminary they had just established. Since 2003, two Columbans are teaching English and philosophy at this seminary.
In 2004, other Columbans arrived. They teach and give retreats to seminarians, do social work and are involved in HIV-AIDS ministries. Others are considering what contribution they can make.
We are happy to help the local Myanmar Catholic Church and respond to its new needs. I doubt Columbans would have foreseen this when they left Burma in 1979, but they no doubt would have been pleased that we can now help the Church grow in new ways.
Columban Father Neil Magill of Ireland was ordained in 1973 and has worked as a missionary in Korea and Taiwan. He now is a member of the Columban General Council, the Columban society’s leadership body.