150 Years of PIME in Myanmar
PIME Missionaries and local priests gathered for the Eucharist look out on
a sea of 20,000 Catholics of various, regional ethinc groups.
By Giorgio Bernadelli
Over 20,000 Catholics of different ethnic groups participated in the anniversary celebrations of the arrival of the first PIME missionaries in 1868 in the former Burma. Not just a memory, but also a sign of the vitality of the Church in the country today.
They traveled in the thousands to the village of Leiktho. Christians of different ethnic backgrounds – keba, kayan, kayo, kachin, pakagno, karen, shan – gathered together in a large village in the eastern region of Myanmar to remember the first PIME missionaries who arrived here just 150 years ago. It was the cardinal moment of celebrations that took place at the beginning of April, with which the dioceses of the where the PIME Missionaries founded the local Church solemnly expressed their thanks. Thanks not only for those roots, but above all for a history, that despite many difficulties, continues to bear fruit today.
In 1866, it was the Vatican Dicastery of Propaganda Fide that entrusted the then Lombard Seminary for Foreign Missions (the one that in 1926 would become the PIME Missionaries) a frontier land like eastern Burma. Two years later Eugenio Biffi, Rocco Tornatore, Tancredi Conti and Sebastiano Carbone were the first four missionaries to arrive at Taungngu, a city then ruled by the British, where other Christians of the Baptist denomination were already present. Their choice was to cross the Sittang river to address the tribal populations: the last among those to whom no one had yet spoken of Jesus. A decision that not even contrary pressures of the colonial authorities managed to discourage, “we will no longer be able to protect you”, they said.
Many ethnic groups like the kachin, karen, and shan hold a special place in their hearts for PIME,
as they have ministered to and lived among them since coming to the region a 150 years ago.
From that courage was born 150 years of friendship marked by the ministry of 170 PIME Missionaries. There are six local Churches that recognize themselves as daughters of that evangelization: from the dioceses of Taungngu (Taungoo) and Kengtung (two dioceses founded by PIME) born from those successes were the churches of Taunggyi, Loikaw, Pekhon and Lashio. The link to PIME did not fail even after the awful political circumstances that first led to Burmese socialism, and eventually in 1966, to the expulsion of all the missionaries that entered before independence was proclaimed in 1948.
There were only 29 who- could stay next to their own people after that dramatic decree; the last, Fr. Paolo Noè, died in Hwari in 2007 after 59 years spent among the shan and karen. His death was not the final word: on many occasions in recent years the PIME Missionaries have been able to see how the memory of the work carried out by its members remains alive. It is a sign of a precious resource, especially today, that the Catholic Church in Myanmar knows a new season, one full of potential; just as Pope Francis’s visit showed last November.
The celebrations that were held on April 7th and 8th were the moment that all of this became even more visible. Leiktho, a village in the Diocese of Taungngu, was designated as the inaugural place where, in 1868, the first missionaries began their work. Here the local bishop, Msgr. Isaac Danu, together with the Cardinal Archbishop of Yangon Charles Maung Bo and numerous other local bishops and priests, welcomed the General Superior of PIME, Fr. Ferruccio Brambillasca; who arrived with a delegation of PIME Missionaries including Fr. Maurizio Airoldi, Superior of the community in neighboring Thailand. “We at PIME are a bit allergic to these type of celebrations,” comments one of the PIME Missionaries present that day. “But in the East, anniversaries are always an occasion to show something. We had already seen it in Myanmar in 2014, when the 500 years of evangelization had been celebrated. And even now remembering the first missionaries who arrived in these areas, still the poorest in the country, was a way of saying: we are here too, something is moving here.”
Fr. Ferruccio Brambillasca, General Superior of PIME, and Cardinal Archbishop of Yangon
Charles Maung Bo after celebrating Mass.
There were two main moments in the celebrations: on Saturday there was the inauguration of a monument dedicated to PIME and the blessing of the cemetery also dedicated to the PIME Missionaries; a cemetery, which is located in a town just outside the village. In reality not all PIME Missionaries are buried in this cemetery (the same Fr. Eugenio Biffi, who led the first group of pioneers, died in 1896 in Colombia where he had been a missionary even earlier); local Catholics, however, wanted to have all their names remembered in this place.
Also remembered here are the Sisters of the Reparation, the religious sisters founded by Fr. Carlo Salerio (PIME Missionary), who from the end of the 19th century arrived in these lands to carry out their own missionary ministry. Their presence is still represented in Myanmar, as evidenced by the spring of vocations to the Sisters of the Reparation of Burmese origin.
Sunday, April 8th, in the great church of Leiktho, the culminating moment of the festivities took place: the Eucharistic celebration. During the ceremony four new local priests were ordained for the diocese of Taungngu, as a symbolic passage of witnessing the faith. However, the most significant image of the day was certainly the mosaic of ethnic groups who came specifically to participate in the ceremony. Underlining an important actuality for Myanmar: the need for true and respectful encounters between the different ethnic groups, the need to find a way to really turn the page again. “An old teacher,” the missionary tells us again, “told me: ‘You cannot understand what the PIME presence here was. PIME gave us a culture, they put our languages in writing, they made us breathe as a people.’ He wanted to reprint the first books written at the end of the last century in Keba language. We still keep some original copies of those volumes in our archive in Rome: those in which our missionaries, using the Latin alphabet, have written down the languages they heard, their songs.”
Fr. Ferruccio poses with his confreres in front of the sign for Leik Tho,
the village that was designated as the inaugural place where the PIME began their work back in 1868.
Even the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, wanted to be present at the celebrations for 150 years, he did so through a message addressed to Bishop Danu. A letter reconnecting these celebrations to the Pope’s trip to the country last November: “Having recently visited your beautiful nation with Pope Francis,” Cardinal Filoni wrote, “I share his sentiments of esteem and witness to the many fruits of the work of evangelization begun long ago by the PIME fathers, because as the Pope said in Yangon ‘the Church of Myanmar is alive, Christ is alive and is here with you’.”
“This occasion,” he added, “is an opportune time to thank the Missionaries of PIME, all those who worked tirelessly in the Lord’s vineyard in Eastern Myanmar, those who today spend their lives at the service of the local Church and, above all, God Almighty for His abundant goodness and generosity. The pastoral visit of Pope Francis was the fruit of many efforts along the 150 years of faithful witness to Christ and to his Gospel. As you celebrate this event full of grace,” he concluded, “may God continue to bless you all with abundance, and may love towards God and your neighbor be the lasting seal of the work of evangelization carried out by so many faithful brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ in Myanmar. May you always receive the necessary protection and the maternal guidance of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the star of evangelization.”