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Burmese Catholics celebrate faith, culture in the US

Myanmar-born priest's ordination is the focal point of the National Conference of Burmese-American Catholics in Western Kentucky
Myanmar Catholics pray as Pope Francis arrives prior to an open-air mass in Yangon on Nov. 29, 2017

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

Published: July 02, 2022 04:55 AM GMT
Updated: July 02, 2022 05:08 AM GMT

Ahead of his July 2 ordination as a priest for the Diocese of Owensboro, Deacon Martin Ma Na Ling said becoming a priest has 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 travel out to it once a year -- which was always the cause of great celebration among the local Catholics, who are a minority faith tradition in Myanmar.

When he was very small, Deacon Ma Na Ling liked that the priests were fed excellent food during their visits to the village, and he wanted to be a priest for that reason. But as he got older, he realized his desire was about more than just physical nourishment.

"I was maybe 10 or 13 when I realized I wanted to be a priest, realized it was my vocation," he told The Western Kentucky Catholic, Owensboro's diocesan newspaper.

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

Following a two-year hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the national organization expected its 11th gathering to draw more than a thousand people, primarily laypeople and priests from Myanmar who are now living throughout the United States.

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

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

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

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

Lee said the conference planners anticipated seeing a wide range of ages among attendants, from "newborns up to 80 years old!" and that families often attend the conference together.

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

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

Lee said the NCBAC usually has sponsorships for priests from Myanmar to travel to the U.S. for the conference. But because of Myanmar's February 2021 military coup and the resulting turmoil, it has been difficult for the priests to obtain visas for travel to the U.S., and no one was going to be able to travel from Myanmar to attend the gathering in Owensboro.

For Deacon Ma Na Ling, the idea that his priestly vocation 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 took no exams and instead focused on their spiritual formation.

As a seminarian, Martin was asked by his bishop's secretary if he would consider going "to another country." He was unsure since his plan was "to be a priest and serve the people in a small village," he said.

But God's plans are not the same as humans' plans.

He was told that this other country would be the United States, in the Diocese of Owensboro. With the growing population of Burmese Catholics resettling in the U.S. -- including western Kentucky -- to escape the social and political turmoil of Myanmar, they needed shepherds who closely understood their situation.

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

He was told he would be sent with one other 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 formation 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. priesthood 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 have never seen an ordination after arriving in the U.S.," said Lee. "Our biggest need for the Burmese Catholic people is to strengthen our spiritual needs. We have seen some Catholics lose the faith and the only way to prevent this is to educate the Burmese Catholic people."

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