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Communion leads Myanmar Buddhist woman to Catholicism

By UCA News reporter

March 06, 2024 03:04 AM

A desire to be in communion with the local congregation and receive Christ pushed Ma Wai to the Church

Monica Ma Wai

Monica Ma Wai. (Photo supplied)

As a child, Ma Wai practiced Buddhism, the predominant religion in her Myanmar village. But a few months ago, aged 50, she joined the Catholic Church.

Ma Wai began to “get a sense of Christianity” in 2008 after she married a Catholic when she was 34. That was 16 years ago after she fell in love with Stephen Soe Htet Aung.

She was born the eldest of five children of her Buddhist parents, who belonged to a mix of Bamar-Karen tribes in a village on the outskirts of Hinthada township in Irrawaddy division, southern Myanmar.

Most of the 200 families in the village are Buddhists, with a few Christians.

“I knew that Christians revere Jesus Christ, but I had no idea about Catholicism," the woman said.

Marrying Soe, she said, opened her “eyes to the world of Christianity,” particularly to Catholicism.

Interfaith marriages are common in Myanmar, forming at least half in Catholic parishes, mostly Catholics and Buddhists, a Church source estimated.

In such marriages, the non-Catholic person need not change religion. However, to have a Catholic marriage, Church law insists the bride and groom agree to baptize their children in the Catholic faith.

Ma Wai said her husband “never pressured” her to change her faith.

Some years after their marriage, the couple moved to a village on the outskirts of the national capital Naypyitaw and was too busy even to go to Sunday Mass.

She worked as a cook in homes and restaurants, and her husband worked as a gardener. Together they earned 100,000 kyats (about US$100) a month in 2008.

Three years later, looking for a better life the couple moved to Shwe Pyi Thar township on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar's largest city and commercial hub, for better employment opportunities.

The move also meant living close to her husband’s relatives.

Monica Ma Wai,50, is seen in her house in Shwe Pyi Thar township, in Yangon's outskirts which belongs to Yangon archdiocese. (Photo supplied)

Thirst for Communion

In Shwe Pyi Thar, the couple continued to do the same jobs but earned three times their earlier income.

The new place helped them to join the Sunday liturgy with their family and relatives.

Ma Wai said regular visits to St. Gemma Galani Parish under the Archdiocese of Yangon, helped her to know more about Jesus, the Bible and the Church.

The parish’s some 320 Catholic families are mostly daily wagers and garment factory workers.

The regular Masses with them, Ma Wai said, were an inspiration. “When I saw people lining up to receive Communion, I felt a thirst to “receive the Eucharist” and to be in communion with the congregation.

In 2020 Ma Wai began catechism classes but she discontinued them after her husband developed a heart problem, which kept him home for months.

Husband’s illness put all the responsibilities looking after a young family of three children on her. But the challenges did not stop her.

The family, including children — Alice 14, Solomon 10, and David nine — live in a tent built on a small plot of land allocated by local authorities temporarily. The site is home to dozens of families like hers who migrated to the area from various parts of the country.

Her children attend school — the eldest is in Grade 10 and the youngest in Grade 3. 

In 2023, she and Soe met their parish priest Father Paul Aung Myint Win, who helped her resume catechism and prepare for baptism.

After ten months of preparations, Ma Wai was baptized in December 2023 as Monica Ma Wai.

Monica Ma Wai (front row, fourth from right) is seen taking part in a parish assembly at Saint Gemma Galgani Church in Shwe Pyi Thar township, in Yangon in October, 2023. (Photo supplied)

Faith in action

Even before receiving baptism, Ma Wai was involved in a Bible-sharing group thanks to the encouragement of the parish priest.

The Bible group “was the beginning of my faith journey," Ma Wai recalled. She was also inspired by Catholics’ readiness to help needy people with food and other necessities irrespective of faith, she said.

The decision to change faith came “after some years of learning and contemplation,” she said.

A few weeks after her baptism, her husband died of a heart attack.

“I have survived difficult situations thanks to my faith in God and hard work,” she said.

Monica Ma Wai (far left) is seen participating in a discussion session in the parish assembly held at Saint Gemma Galgani Church in Shwe Pyi Thar township, in Yangon in October, 2023. (Photo supplied)

Ma Wai now works extra hours at home and raises pigs and chickens to earn extra income to support the family.

She earns around 350,000 kyats (US$100) a month but needs to spend most of it.

Her parish priest Aung said he has known Ma Wai’s family since they came to the parish four years ago.

“She is very active in church activities, and she regularly attends Sunday Mass," the priest told UCA News adding that her "strong commitment as a Catholic” is also impressive. 

The priest said her conversion was “spontaneous and not because of any pressure or any expectations.”

Each Sunday, Ma Wai gets up early and takes an hour-long bus ride to reach her church for Mass. 

“I am happy to attend it. Also, I'm also glad to share my new faith experience with other people, including my neighbors,” she added.

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