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Journey in faith highlight of celebration amidst great suffering

MYITKYINA (SE): On November 21, Father Neill Magill travelled to Myitkyina, the capital city of the Kachin State in the Union of Myanmar.

He left Mandalay, where he is working at a seminary and Higher Education Centre to attend the ordination of five young Kachin deacons to the priesthood and be present for the closing of the Year of Faith.

Father Magill is a Columban and he was returning to an area where his society had been present from the 1930s up until the late 1970s, when the last of them was expelled.

He called it an experience of a lifetime to be in a faith-filled atmosphere with at least 5,000 people for three days of seminars, choir practice, catering and ordinations.

“The poor and refugees from among the many internally displaced persons’ camps, which have sprung up during the last seven years because of the renewed conflict with the Burmese military came in droves,” he said.

He added that they read from the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything under heaven.”

Father Magill reflected that for a people so traumatised due to conflict and dislocation, this really was a time to celebrate.

“Hundreds of women have been ganged raped by the military, innocent people, including many children who have been killed, homes burned, villages destroyed and more than 100,000 people displaced from their homes and villages,” he explained.

“They now have no homes, no money and no influence, but they  do have a strong faith and a hope that they will see justice for their children,” he continued.

Father Magill cites the words of Pope Francis saying we need to get out among the sheep and to smell the sheep.

He added that these words take on a new meaning in Myanmar, especially in the Kachin state, as there is so much that needs to be done and so many people needing care.

Father Magill describes traditional Kachin dress as radiating with bright and colourful decorations, and explained that not all of his three days in Myitkyina were spent in prayer!

“People met up with old friends, made new friends and in the evenings there were stage shows which entertained everyone before most slept under trees waiting for the events of the next day,” he explained, adding that ordinations are always a colourful, lengthy affair.

One of those being ordained told him, “I would like to share with you about my vocation, but let me introduce myself. I am Bosco N-lam Hkun Seng.”

He explained, “My father married twice. I am the second born child from the second marriage. My siblings are nine in number including my two step-brothers.

“My father told me his story of becoming a Christian. My grandparents and my father were animists honouring the spirits called nat jaw.

“They lived in Kachyihtu which is now one of the remotest parishes in Myitkyina diocese. It is two days of travel by boat from Myitkyina, upstream from the Irrawaddy and then one day on foot.

“When my father was a little boy he was seriously ill. For his recovery from illness my grandfather offered 10 cows to so many kinds of nats, but did not succeed. When Father Owen Rodgers (died 1997), whom they called Wa Jau Ra Ja, arrived in Kachyihtu, he prayed for him and my father got better.

“In 1952, my grandparents were converted to Catholicism in the hands of this same Columban missionary. In 1956 my father was also baptised by him.

“My grandfather was a man of great dignity, which gained him the respect of all. Due to the war, when the priests could not go to Kachyihtu for about eight years, he was the one who organised the faithful. The last parish priest of Kachyihtu was Father O’Leary, who left the village in 1967.

“My father hadn’t been highly educated. He studied up to only grade eight in a Columban mission school in Myitkyina under the guidance of Father Thomas Walsh (died 1945 at the age of 34 from malaria after internment by the Japanese in Mandalay), Father Thomas Dowling (died in 1979), Father John O’Sullivan (died in 1989) and Father O’Leary (died in 2013).

“When the war broke out, my grandfather called him back to Kachyihtu and he could not continue his study. In 1967 he began to work as a catechist and in 1969 he attended the catechetical course in St. Luke’s Catechist School in Tanghpre, Myitkyina, under the guidance of Father Bernard Way (died in 1993), to whom they gave the Kachin name, Wa Jau Naw Seng. Since then, my father has been working as a permanent catechist in Myitkyina.

“Since my father was a catechist, priests would come to our home every now and then. So, priests were no strangers to me since my boyhood. I observed from then on, the way they spoke, the way they dressed and what they did.

“They were my heroes. For me, they were Mr. Know It All. But when I joined the seminary, I came to know that a large number of priests have abandoned their priestly ministry throughout the world for various reasons. I was surprised, as I saw very human elements in the priestly community. On the other hand, I came to know holy priests and good priests also.

“In my seminary life, I liked reading mission magazines, such as The Far East and the PIME World. I got much wisdom from those magazines. I came across the word of Father Jim Cloonan (died 1992).

“He said to a Burmese priest, Father Canute U Lun Aung, who was saying prayers before the blessed sacrament after Mass, was told by Father Cloonan, ‘God will be here all day, but the people have to go back home soon and they would love to speak to you’ (Columban Mission, December 2005).

“The other one is the word of Blessed Vismara from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions. He said, ‘You are old when you are no longer useful to others.’ I was touched. I noticed that missionaries are never tired of meeting the needs of the others—mental, physical and spiritual.

“They are simple, humble and content with what they have.


“From this, I learned one thing—that a priest should be seen and be approachable. Joy does not lie in material things, but in us. I believe that a life of commitment, sim plicity and honesty gives this joy. I truly want to die without being old!”

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