Burmese Catholics celebrate faith and culture in the United States

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Ordination of Myanmar-born priest is focus of National Conference of Burmese-American Catholics in western Kentucky

Myanmar Catholics pray as Pope Francis arrives before an open-air mass in Yangon on November 29, 2017. (Photo: AFP)

Posted: July 02, 2022 04:55 GMT

Updated: July 02, 2022 at 05:08 GMT

Ahead of his July 2 ordination as a priest for the Diocese of Owensboro, Deacon Martin Ma Na Ling said becoming a priest had been his dream since childhood.

A Burmese Catholic who arrived in Kentucky in 2017, he grew up in a small village in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

The village was so isolated that priests could only visit it once a year, which was always the cause of a big holiday among the local Catholics, who are a minority religious tradition in Myanmar.

When he was very young, Deacon Ma Na Ling liked the priests to be fed excellent food when they visited the village, and he wanted to be a priest for this reason. But as he got older, he realized his desire was more than just physical nourishment.

“I was maybe 10 or 13 when I realized I wanted to be a priest, I realized that was my calling,” he told Western Kentucky Catholic, the diocesan newspaper of Owensboro.

His ordination is the focus of the National Conference of Burmese American Catholics July 1-4, hosted by the Diocese of Owensboro at the Owensboro Sports Center and nearby Owensboro Catholic High School.

After a two-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the national organization expected its 11th gathering to draw more than a thousand people, mostly lay people and priests from Myanmar who now live in the States. -United.

Western Kentucky is home to a significant number of refugees from Myanmar, according to the Kentucky Office for Refugees, a department of Louisville Catholic Charities.

According to the agency, between 2015 and 2019, a total of 849 arrivals from the Southeast Asian country arrived in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and a total of 460 arrivals from Myanmar arrived in Owensboro.

To serve this growing population, many of whom are Catholic, two parishes in the Diocese of Owensboro currently offer the possibility of a Burmese Mass: Holy Spirit Parish in Bowling Green and St. Pius X Parish in Owensboro.

Maurice Lee, president of NCBAC, looked forward to the resumption of the national gathering of Burmese Catholics, which not only keeps the faith alive for them, but also provides an opportunity to foster community.

Lee said conference organizers expected to see a wide age range among attendees, “from newborns all the way up to 80!” and that families often attend conference together.

Besides Burmese masses and confessional opportunities, the main focus of the conference will be on apologetics; that is, how to defend the Catholic faith, with sessions taught by four priests and a layman, the latter being John Sailon, the founder of NCBAC, who is currently its assistant spiritual director.

Cultural dancers representing multiple Myanmar ethnicities were on the agenda, as was traditional Burmese cuisine, served by a cooking team that travels from New York and Pennsylvania to feed NCBAC conference attendees each year.

Lee said NCBAC usually has sponsorships for priests from Myanmar to travel to the United States for the conference. But due to the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar and the resulting unrest, it was difficult for priests to obtain visas to travel to the United States, and no one was going to be able to travel from there. Myanmar to attend the rally in Owensboro.

For Deacon Ma Na Ling, the idea that his priestly calling would bring him to Kentucky to serve Burmese Catholics was not something he had planned.

The possibility was raised during his pastoral year at St. Michael’s Major Seminary in Taunggyi, Myanmar; he entered the seminary in 2010. For their pastoral year, the seminarians did not take any exams and instead focused on their spiritual formation.

As a seminarian, his bishop’s secretary asked Martin if he would consider going “to another country.” He wasn’t sure because his plan was “to be a priest and serve people in a small village,” he said.

But the plans of God are not the same as the plans of humans.

He was told that other country would be the United States, in the Diocese of Owensboro. With the growing population of Burmese Catholics resettling in the United States—including western Kentucky—to escape Myanmar’s social and political unrest, they needed shepherds who understood their situation.

The United States has a number of Burmese priests, but at the time all had studied and been ordained in Myanmar before being sent to serve Burmese refugees.

He was told he would be sent with another seminarian – Stephen Van Lal Than, whom Martin had befriended over a shared love of music.

They arrived in Kentucky in January 2017. After studying in the ESLI (English as a Second Language International) program at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, they continued their education and training at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology. in southern Indiana.

Stephen was ordained to the diaconate in April 2019 and to the priesthood in May 2020. Martin was ordained to the transitional diaconate in March 2021.

Deacon Ma Na Ling’s ordination will be the second U.S. priestly ordination of a Myanmar-born priest. Father Van Lal Than’s was the first, but pandemic restrictions at the time required the mass to be closed to the public.

“Most Burmese never saw an ordination after arriving in the United States,” Lee said. “Our greatest need for the Catholic people of Burma is to strengthen our spiritual needs. We have seen some Catholics losing faith and the only way to prevent this is to educate the Catholic people of Burma.”

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