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Finding Connections

Fr. Kurt holding harvested rice.
Empowering Youth

By Fr. Kurt Zion Pala

It is amazing how things, situations, history and peoples can be so connected and tied with one another.

We moved to the north of Myanmar (formerly Burma) from Yangon to begin the next stage of mission with the Kachin peoples. The bishop laid out different ministries that we the Columban missionaries can be involved with including youth, family ministry, and even looking after a farm. I ended up working with the Diocesan Youth Commission. After observing and looking around, I noticed that there are a number of government educational institutions in the diocese.

Fr. Kurt learning Burmese with Buddhist novices monks
Fr. Kurt learning Burmese with Buddhist novices monks

There are many Catholic students, but there is no student chaplaincy in the diocese. So, I went to the bishop and spoke about my plan to start a student ministry in the diocese. After a discussion with the youth director, we started to go around the different schools and met the Catholic students and also teachers to organize the Catholic Student Action Myitkyina (CSAM) movement.

The student movement is actually inspired by another student movement that was started by a Columban missionary in the Philippines, the Student Catholic Action (SCA). Columban Fr. Edward J. McCarthy saw that generations of students did not have religious instruction, and there was growing anti-Catholic sentiment prevalent during that time in the Philippines so started the SCA. The movement flourished in the University of the Philippines and quickly spread to other universities and schools. It was very active during the martial law days. And many of its alumni became prominent individuals including Cardinal Tagle. Since its founding, many Columban priests served as university chaplains including Fr. Clarence R. Beckley.

Fr. Clarence served SCA mostly in the Far Eastern University from 1983-1986. On my ordination day I received a gift from Fr. Clarence’s family — his chalice and ciborium. In their letter, Jane, Fr. Clarence’s sister wrote, “Clarence and I were very close and we talked about what we were to do with it if he would pass on. This is exactly what he wanted. I’m thrilled to the soul that Father Tom Shaughnessy had mentioned to me that there is a lad coming up for his ordination. This is the work of the Holy Spirit to bring about. I do hope and pray that you will be the servant to carry on Fr. Beckley’s work in the Philippines and wherever your mission will take you.”

On my ordination day, Fr. Tom Shaughnessy, a fellow Columban handed me the chalice and the ciborium. Fr. Tom was also one of my very first formators in Cebu City, the Philippines.

Fr. Tom (left) with Fr. Kurt at his ordination with Fr. Clarence's chalice
Fr. Tom (left) with Fr. Kurt at his ordination with Fr. Clarence's chalice

But Fr. EJ McCarthy, the founder of the movement spent some time in Myanmar where I am now living and working. At the invitation of the Asian Superior of the Columbans, Fr. McCarthy went to Myanmar (formerly Burma) to carry out the canonical visitation of Columbans on behalf of the Superior General. Because of that visit he escaped the Malate massacre of February 1945 when five Columbans in Malate were killed, but he could not escaped the tragedy that fell upon Mandalay, Burma, during his visit. While in Mandalay, as they were saying Mass, a shell burst mortally injuring one Columban, injuring seven others while Fr. McCarthy escaped with a few scratches. And during this trip he also contracted malaria. During the war, he was interned at the St. John’s Leper Asylum in Mandalay for 37 months. Yet he would later write that “Looking back now, I can say that those years in Burma were the happiest of my whole life.”

According to Fr. Neil Magill, another Columban who was interned in the church of St. John, Columban, Fr. Tom Murphy was killed while saying Mass in the church when the Japanese bombed it. The alternative higher education center is now the occupant of the old leprosarium. Fr. Neil mentioned that when he started the Mandalay Archdiocesan Higher Education Center (HEC) in 2009, many of the old people he met mentioned the names of the Columbans they’ve met. They told stories of how Columbans made slippers and one even pulled their teeth.

Fr. Kurt with local friends
Fr. Kurt with local friends

As a Columban student I used to do pastoral work in the University of the East (Manila), which is also part of the Student Catholic Action movement with Fr. Bernard Martin, another Columban. Through my encounters with the SCA movement, it inspired me to start a student movement in the diocese (2018), which we call now the Catholic Student Action Myitkyina (CSAM). The movement is also a ministry to the Catholic student population in government schools. Like SCA, the ministry provides spiritual and faith formation but also leadership training (self-leadership) and personal development. The highlights of the year are the University Students’ Gathering and the Student Leadership Camp.

After months of preparation and a cancelation, we finally hosted our second Student Leadership Camp from June 19- 25, 2022, in the Center for Learning Alternatives for Youth (CLAY), in Pa La Na, Myitkyina. We had 32 participants ranging from 16 to 24 years old. Many came from nearby parishes like Mogawng and Namti.

The camp was divided into three stages of discovery: discovering self and others, discovering the Church and discovering Catholic Student Action Myitkyina (CSAM). The theme of the camp was “Empowering You, Empowering Youth.” The objectives of the camp are to provide training on necessary skills and knowledge to student leaders, to build workingrelationship and friendship among students/youth and to introduce the Catholic Student Action Myitkyina (CSAM) spirit.

The pandemic and the on-going political crisis in the country is putting a lot of pressure and stress on the youth. A number have joined the armed movement, but some are lost and do not know what to do. We recently opened the Student Learning Resource Center to prepare young people to be work-ready and ready to face the real world. The center provides different courses and activities. The center will be run with young people for young people.

Columban Fr. Kurt Zion Pala lives and works in Myanmar (formerly Burma).