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Adopted at 70

The Oldest New Family Member!

By Fr. Patrick O'Donoghue

It is almost impossible to describe the appreciation and love that Catholic Kachins in Myanmar have for Columban missionaries, and at times, it can be almost embarrassing.

One of the traditions that showed this appreciation in a very “sacred” way was that at a certain moment a particular Kachin family would “adopt” an individual Columban priest! It was their way of showing their deep gratitude for the Columbans leaving their own country and families to come and stay with the Kachin people.

Archbishop Paul Zingthung Grawng and Fr. Patrick O'Donoghue
"Brothers." Archbishop Paul Zingthung Grawng (left) and Fr.
Patrick O'Donoghue

This was particularly true of those Columbans who stayed on in Myanmar, then Burma, after 1966 when many Columbans and other missionaries were expelled from the country. Those who stayed had to have arrived in Myanmar, then Burma, before 1948. But, if they left for any reason they would not be allowed to return.

Those Columbans who stayed did not take any vacation outside of the country; they stayed until illness or something else forced them to leave and some remained without a break until 1979 when the last three Columbans left the country.

In a very real and literal sense they “belonged” to the Kachin people and this is what the Kachin people tell us now. Like everyone else, the Columban missionaries may have had their idiosyncrasies, but their gift of themselves and their loyalty to the people was without question. And as the older Kachins still tell us: “They loved us and we loved them” – and the sincerity of that is clearly evident. This love of the Kachins for the Columbans found a practical expression when various families would formally “adopt” individual Columbans. This showed not only appreciation but also ensured that the Columban would always be cared for. He was now family.

Though circumstances have changed, the people have continued this tradition with the Columbans who have “come back” to Kachin in more recent years, beginning with the Columban Sisters, five of whom arrived in Myitkyina in 2003. They have also extended this same privilege to some other missionaries.

Since May 2019 I had been aware that my “adoption” was being talked about though I was not told who my “adopting family” might be. Rumor was that it would take place close to St. Columban’s Day. However, in late October I received a phone call asking me if I would be free on the evening of October 30, 2019. Then I was informed that I would be adopted by the Zingthung family who would be honored if I would accept.

Though I had somewhat expected this I was very touched and humbled. Archbishop Paul Zingthung Grawng (former Bishop of Myitkyina and emeritus Archbishop of Mandalay) is the first Kachin priest and the first Kachin Bishop. I have known him since 2003 when I first came here and have always deeply respected him – a simple and humble man. Bishop Paul is now my “elder brother.” I am adopted into the extended family but a particular member of the family will take the primary responsibility – in this case Bishop Paul’s younger brother Johnny and his wife Mary. And it was in their house that the Zingthung family, myself, my fellow Columbans (priests and Sisters) and some friends gathered for the ceremony on the evening of October 30, 2019.

The ceremony was simple but had a quiet solemnity and was deeply moving for me. The senior catechist here in Edin, Myitkyina (where we live), officiated at the ceremony which included prayer, Gospel reading, Bishop Paul’s words on the Gospel and a warm welcome into their family. My new name by which I am now to be also known was revealed – Wa Jau (Fr.) Patrick Zingthung Aung Li – Aung Li being my “given” name within the family.

In the few days prior to the ceremony there had been speculation about what name I would be given. Many things come into play with regard to your name: your place in your birth family, first born, second son or daughter etc., your date of birth and some other things. Many felt that I would be called Hkun Naw which can mean second son or good son!

Aung Li, my name, has many meanings including “a great harvest.” In my case it refers to my many years as a missionary priest as well as the Columbans’ fruitful harvest over the last 80 years in Kachin. Rose, one of my new sisters, explained that it can also mean a “welcoming bush” which could refer to the little mustard seed that becomes a bush for the birds of the air. So, no shortage of symbolism!

At the final part of the ceremony I was given a bag and a sword to symbolize mutual protection and care. Then we had a lot of fun as we enjoyed our dinner together. What stays with me is the solemnity, reverence and prayerfulness of it all and how deeply moved I am by the genuine warmth and happiness of all the family, especially the younger ones, in welcoming me as one of their family.

Columban Fr. Patrick O’Donoghue was assigned to Myanmar in 2015 after spending many years on mission in the Philippines.