Myanmar Church is in great need of lay empowerment

Laypeople do not enjoy the same respect as the clergy and consider priests their leaders rather than another lay person
A parish priest and laypeople pose for a photo at the first pastoral council training session held in St.Gemma Galgani parish, Shwe Pyi Thar township on April 7

A parish priest and laypeople pose for a photo at the first pastoral council training session held in St.Gemma Galgani parish, Shwe Pyi Thar township on April 7. (Photo supplied)

By UCA News Reporter, Myanmar

Sherley Margaret has been involved in Church activities for years. But the 37-year-old Catholic from Myanmar only heard about the Second Vatican Council, which advocates lay empowerment, for the first time in April.

She was among 40 Catholics who attended a five-day training course in Shwe Pyi Thar township on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and commercial capital.

The training focused on the teachings of Vatican II, which concluded 58 years ago, stressing the role of laypeople in the Church, their rights and responsibilities. Most Catholics like Margaret are yet to hear about the council and its teachings.

“Most lay people assume that the Church’s work is the duty of the clergy and religious and lack knowledge about the missionary role of laypeople,” said Margaret, a member of the St. Gemma Galgani parish council.

Margaret, who has been involved in parish youth activities and with lay Catholic organizations for several years, said most Catholics in her country “lack knowledge about Church teachings and about the role of laypeople.”

The case of St. Gemma Galgani parish is similar to parishes across Myanmar, says Freddy Soe Naing, director of the Laity and Family Commission of Mandalay archdiocese.

“A gap exists between the clergy and laity because both are content with the old system” of clergy deciding on the affairs of the Church, he said.

Freedy Soe Naing, director of the Laity and Family Commission of Mandalay archdiocese gives a talk at a gathering held in St. Joseph's Church in Mandalay on May 20. (Photo supplied)

Pressing poverty pushes Church away

Most people struggle to make ends meet, Margaret said. “A daily struggle for survival, lack of knowledge, and too much dependence on the clergy are major barriers against lay participation,” she said.

Her parish priest, Father Paul Aung Myint Win, who came to the parish in November 2019 said he was both “surprised and shocked” to find most participants in the training had no prior knowledge about Vatican II.

He said the April 3-7 course aimed to train laypeople to become active in parish pastoral administration and also empower them to become competent lay leaders.

“The majority of parishioners are daily wagers or factory workers. So it’s a huge challenge for them to take part in Church activities,” the Dominican priest told UCA News.

His parish has some 1,500 Catholics from about 400 families. About 90 percent are poor, internally displaced migrants, who fled conflict zones, particularly from Rakhine state, the priest explained.

Most eke out a living doing a range of jobs such as casual labor, carpentry, masonry, plastic waste collection, and some work in factories.

“To attend Sunday Mass, they have to find time and return to work immediately after the Mass,” Father Win said.

Zaw Zaw, an ethnic Chin Catholic from Rakhine moved to the parish in late 2018. He earns 8,000 Kyats (US$2.75) working as daily laborer to feed his eight family members.

“I need to work almost every day,” he told UCA News adding that a Sunday break for Mass would mean no food that evening.

Thousands of Catholics attend a priestly ordination at Our Lady of Lourdes in Chanthar, a village, near Mandalay, in Myanmar on April,20. (Photo Credit: MDY-OSC)

‘Church decorating laity’

Both the laity and priests are “somewhat comfortable letting priests decide everything,” said Soe Naing, the director of the Mandalay archdiocesan laity commission.

For example, he said, during parish feasts the parish council expects the priest to take responsibility for everything and other members to volunteer for various tasks such as cooking, cleaning and decorating the church.

“It is urgent to find ways to help clergy and laypeople work together towards a synodal Church,” Soe Naing told UCA News.

He said laypeople need more support and recognition from the clergy. Laypeople do not enjoy the same respect as the clergy and laypeople consider priests as their leaders rather than another layperson.

“It is more effective when a parish priest or other priests conduct programs rather than me doing it as a layman,” he said.

However, laypeople head four of 17 commissions of the national bishops’ conference — the commissions for social development, education, laity, and pastoral care, according to the Catholic Directory 2023.

Rampant clericalism

A priest based near Mandalay, who wished to remain anonymous, termed clericalism as "one of the biggest challenges” blocking lay empowerment.

“Some clergy consider clericalism as something defamatory that has nothing positive,” the priest said.

“So, most parishioners also behave the same way. They think the final decision on anything in the local church should come from the parish priest as they are not aware of laypeople’s co-responsibility in the Church,” he said.

“It is the responsibility of the priest to teach laypeople their important and equal role. But that does not happen,” he said.

“Members of the clergy need to know that they are not the owners of the Church. Laypeople also need to be courageous and speak out when necessary," the priest said.

Local Catholics say there are plenty of examples of how parish priests have the final say in the functioning of parish councils.

One is a parish council in Mandalay archdiocese which has not been functional for almost three years because the parish priest has not called a meeting. The last meeting was in late 2020.

“When the priest wants to discuss carrying out some work such as decorating or renovating the church building, he calls a meeting and the final decision always comes from him,” said a layman on condition of anonymity.

Laymen attend a small group discussion about a monthly programme of family gatherings held at St. Joseph's Church in Mandalay on May 20. (Photo supplied)

Lack of structure

Father Florence Aung Kyaw Oo, a member of the national committee that synthesized the Myanmar Church’s diocesan synodal consultations, said that some dioceses do not have any pastoral councils including his own Pathein diocese.

The Myanmar Church has nearly 1,100 clergymen and about 710,000 Catholics but it lacks an effective structure to ensure lay involvement in Church life, lay leaders and officials say.

“There is no coordination within the lay movement due to not establishing pastoral councils in parishes,” Kyaw said.

A diocese needs to do “strategic planning” at diocesan and parish levels to ensure lay participation in the Church, he said.

Lay empowerment lags behind because of a lack of capacity-building efforts, clericalism and dominating priests, he added.

“The clergy needs to be open-minded and filled with simplicity and humility and give a space for laypeople."

Lay men and women take part in a group discussion at a pastoral council training session in St. Gemma Galgani parish, Shwe Pyi Thar township on April 7. (Photo supplied)

Silver linings

Amid the gloom, a few dioceses such as Loikaw, which covers the whole of Kayah state, have functioning systems for lay participation, says Sylvester, 65, the president of the diocesan pastoral council at the Christ the King Cathedral.

The cathedral parish council has 25 members, including 15 laywomen and five laymen, with the remaining five being priests and nuns. It meets once a month and decisions are made after consultation, said Sylvester who goes by only one name.

The diocese organizes a pastoral assembly once every three years to guide parish councils, which the bishop also attends.

“Laypeople actively participate in these meetings,” Sylvester told UCA News. However, more classes on the role of laypeople would be helpful, he said.

Soe Naing from Mandalay said his archdiocese has been conducting family gatherings and women’s meetings to establish a commission for women.

A diocesan-level women’s desk has been set up and it has started to carry out activities, Soe Naing said.

The archdiocese also runs a training course to help the laity understand their role and obligations as per Canon Law.

“If we can ensure the effective empowerment of the laity, the Church will benefit and make further progress,” he added.

Help UCA News to be independent
Dear reader,
Lent is the season during which catechumens make their final preparations to be welcomed into the Church.
Each year during Lent, UCA News presents the stories of people who will join the Church in proclaiming that Jesus Christ is their Lord. The stories of how women and men who will be baptized came to believe in Christ are inspirations for all of us as we prepare to celebrate the Church's chief feast.
Help us with your donations to bring such stories of faith that make a difference in the Church and society.
A small contribution of US$5 will support us continue our mission…
William J. Grimm
UCA News
1 Comments on this Story
Thank you for highlighting the challenging situation in Myanmar. I am a Catholic in Malaysia and would like to collaborate with Ms Sherley Margaret who penned the article published by UCA News. Is there any avenue to contact Ms Sherley? Would very much appreciate your assistance. Thank you.