Myanmar Catholic Church 2007

Myanmar Catholic Church 2007
Catholic Bishops' Conference Myanmar.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

History of Myanmar Catholic Church

As early as 1287, presence of Christianity was found in the form of frescos containing crosses, Latin and Greek words in some places in Pagan, which was once a flourishing kingdom. After the discovery of the route to India by Vasco da Gama in 1497, Portuguese Missionaries set out for the Far East as Chaplains to Portuguese soldiers, sailors and settlers. The rich land of Burma attracted these Portuguese traders and by 1510, after having founded Goa as the Sea port to the East, they came to Mergui, Tavoy, Syriam and Akyab befriending the King of Pegu.

The great Portuguese Missionary, Francis Xavier whose name is connected with Goa, Malaya and Japan wrote to his Jesuits in Europe mentioning Pegu and making it clear that the kind of missionary sent out should be of such stuff that it would be safe to send him unaccompanied or accompanied wherever needed, be it to the Moluccas, or China or Japan, or to the KINGDOM OF PEGU.

The commercial relations between Portugal and the Kingdom of Pegu and Ava increased day by day and in 1556 there were about one thousand Portuguese soldiers and sailors commanded by Antonio Ferreira de Branganza serving the King (Bayintnaung). Friar Peter Bonfer, a French Franciscan spent three years learning the language and customs of the people and wrote a book of his missionary experience in the Kingdom of Pegu between 1554-57.

Around 1595, serious troubles began among all various kings in Burma and the king of Arakan entrusted a certain Philip de Britto, a captain of a band of mercenary troops to capture the port of Syriam. Philip de Britto captured Syriam but refused to return it to his master the Arakanese king. He won over the Poutuguese Viceroy at Goa and was given the rank of captain General and the Governor of Syriam. De Britto ruled supreme by this time.

In the north, King Anaukphetlun succeeded to the throne of Ava in 1610 and immediately began uniting the kingdom. He conquered Prome and Toungoo and marched south with his victorious army. De Britto formed alliance with a petty king, Nat Shin Naung and resisted King Anukphetlun but to no avail.

The king's army besieged the fortress till De Britto and Nat Shin Naung were captured alive and put to death. The remainder of the garrison with their wives and children a total of 5000 were taken as prisoners to the North. These prisoners had a harsh time when they arrived the kingdom of Ava. Along with them was a certain Father de Fonseca who was respected by the infidels, revered by the nobles of the court and regarded as a saint by his fellow captives. He was being helped with Mass vestments and cash by the Brothers of Mercy in Cochin.

King Thalun, who succeeded Anaukphetlun was a good administrator and made use of the services of the prisoners in whatever way they seemed qualified, gave them portions of land for their own use and allowed them to build a church of their own. Fr. Augustin de Jesus from Lisbon wrote saying that on his visit to Ava he found more than 4000 Christians, all of whom had been taken prisoners at the fortress of Syriam.

The "Annual letter" of the Jesuits in India mentioned some very valuable data about the growth of Christianity in the kingdom of Ava. The famous letter of 1644, listed the statistics of the Catholic Church at that time. There were eight villages.

1. Ava. Patron: Our Lady of Hope. 150 Christians
2. Nabaca, the south of Ava, a distance of 30 leagues.
Patron: St John The Baptist 300 Christians
3. Latora ( Chaung Oo ) 400 Christians
4. Tabayam ( Tabayin ) 400 Christians
5. Machobo ( Shwe Bo ) 70 Christians
6. Allam ( Halin ) 60 Christians
7. Sikim 200 Christians
8. Simguem 80 Christians

Fr. Da Fonseca still continued working alone with a few helpers who used to come to him.

Meanwhile, 1622-Pope Gregory XV set up the Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith to take care of Christian missions i ndependently of the secular governments like Spain and Portugal which had too many ulterior motives. The Foreign Mission of Paris which was purely a missionary body was approved in 1659.

Throughout the 17th century, there were Christians and their priests in the ports of the kingdom of Pegu and Arakan: Fr. Sebastian Manrique, Augustinian in Arakan; other Augustinians in Syriam and Martaban; a Franciscan and a Dominican in Pegu; two Theatines, Fr. Gallo in Arakan and Fr. Bernard Arconati in Pegu.

The first M.E.P. Fathers Genoud and Joret came to Burma from Siam helped by the Burmese Ambassador in Siam. These two reached Pegu and set up a hospital work that achieved enormous success. But the King of Ava fearing their influence over the people condemned them to death.

In 1719 Pope Clement XI sent a mission to China headed by Msgr. Carlambrogio Mezzabarba from the Barnabite society. The papal legate that returned from China selected Fr. Calchi, a Barnabite priest, for the kingdoms of Ava and Pegu. This formal act gave Burma her first papal missionary. Fr. Calchi became the first Vicar Apostolic of Burma, though he was still a priest, and Fr. Vittoni, a secular priest was appointed to assist Fr. Calchi. Because of some misunderstanding Fr. Calchi was taken to the north and was given permission to preach Christianity in the kingdom of Ava.

The Holy See divided the Mission of Burma into two. The secular priests were entrusted with the Mission of Ava and the Mission of Pegu was left to the Barnabites.

the Barnabite Mission After the death of Fr. Calchi in 1730, the separation of the two kingdoms did not work effectively as it was planned previously because of lack of personnel. Listening to the difficulties of Fr. Gallizia, the Holy See eventually combined the two kingdoms into one unit thus creating a Vicariate Apostolic and Father Gallizia was appointed as its first Vicar.

The First Group of Barnabites (1743) Bishop Gallizia returned to Burma from Rome after his Episcopal consecration with three other learned priests for the mission in Burma, Fr. Paul Marie Nerini, Fr. Alexander Mondelli and Fr. John del Conte. They were accompanied by an experienced surgeon Br. Angelo Cappello. Barely after two years the Peguans suspecting that the people of Syriam favoured the Burmese, made a plot and massacred several people including Bishop Gallizia, Fr. Mondelli and Fr. John del Conte. Fr. Nerini and Br. Angelo somehow escaped this tragedy.

Second Group of Barnabites (1754) Pope Benedict XIV elected Fr. Nerini as Bishop of Priense and Vicar Apostolic of the two kingdoms of Ava and Pegu and four new missionaries were sent out for the work. Fr. Vincent Casanova, Fr. Leo Lindermann, Fr. Armadeo Gazzei and Fr. Hermingild Quardrio. They all belonged to the Barnabite order. They set out from Paris in two different ships which never arrived Burma. The first sank in the Atlantic and the other in the Gulf of Martaban. In the war between the Talaings and the Burmese under the leadership of King Alaungpaya of Shwebo, Fr. Nerini was suspected of French ties and was beheaded. Br. Angelo too was killed by a canon ball during the siege.

Third Group of Barnabites ( 1760 ) Following this tragedy three more Barnabites were sent out : Fr.John Mary Percotto, Fr. Sebastian Donati and Fr. Pio Gallizia. Fr. Donati and Fr. Gallizia arrived on the 8th June 1760. Fr. Donati left for Ava but died of dropsy on 20th January 1761at Chaung U.
Pope Clement XIII recommended the two Barnabites, Fr. Avenati and Fr. Percotto to the Bishop of Mylapore to help the mission in Burma. These two arrived in Rangoon in October 1761. Fr. Avenati remained in the south and Fr. Percotto went on to join Fr. Gallizia in Chaung U, Ava. What Fr. Precotto founded out was the amazing existence of several Catholic preserving the Faith they had received some 150 years ago, from the fall of Syriam.
Fr. Gallizia died in 1763 at Shwebo and in the same year Fr. Avenati also died in Rangoon while celebrating Holy Mass on Easter Sunday. These tragedies left Fr. Percotto alone in his missionary apostolate. Fr. Percotto despite his heavy schedule and responsibility found time to write various works in Burmese. Catechism Books, Mass Books, translation of the Gospels and the Epistles. This is just to mention a few of his multiple works.

Fourth Group of Barnabites (1767)
Rome sent out another batch of missionaries.
Fr. Gherardo Cortenovis, Fr. Melchior Carpani, Fr. Antonio Filiberto Re and Fr. Ambrose Miconi. Rome appointed Fr. Percotto as Bishop. He was consecrated bishop on 31th January, 1768. On account of the influence of a Frenchman Chevalier Millard and his band of Christian soldiers in the court, Bishop Percotto received many favours from the King. In 1772 two more missionaries arrived in Burma. Fr. Marcello Cortenovis and Fr. Gaetano Montegazza. The latter became a scholar in Burmese and Pali. Bishop Percotto died on 12th December 1776 at the age of 47. Fr. Gherardo Cortenovis succeeded Bishop Percotto as Bishop. At this time there was a new King on the throne of Ava who made it difficult for the Christians to practice their faith, and Bishop Gherardo too left for Rome but never to return to Burma. He died in Mylapore, Madras.
Bishop Montegazza was appointed Bishop of Ava and some more missionaries were sent to help the mission in Burma. Gradually the presence of the Barnabite Missionaries dwindled and Oblates of the Blessed Virgin Mary initiated their work in Burma. The first group was led by Msgr. Frederick Cao with two priests, Fr. Tarolli and Fr. Ricca. By 1837, there were quite many of these missionaries found in Burma. Moulmein and Bassein became the headquarters for their mission activities.

The Oblates in Burma (1830-1860)
The arrival of the Oblates revived once again the faith in the kingdom of Ava. Old villages like Monhla, Chanthaywa, Chaung U, Amarapura, Nabeck received close attention by young and energetic priests. Bishop Frederick returned to Italy with a local student Moses Nga U to study in the college of Propaganda and later on was ordained a priest. Bishop Ceretti was appointed as Bishop. He brought in the Sisters of St. Joseph to begin their work in Moulmein. When the British-Burmese war began in 1852, things were becoming very difficult for British-Burmese war began in 1852, things were becoming very difficult for the Oblates both in Italy and also in Burma and therefore Bishop Balma, the superior incharge at that time, sought the help of some other suitable missionary society to continue the work. The Foreign Missions of Paris Society accepted this proposal and Bishop Paul Bigandet arrived in 1856. After having toured the whole country and practically visiting all the old and new catholic villages, fixed his headquarters at Rangoon in St. John's Church. During his time Rangoon developed fast, becoming a great port and a booming city. The amount of activities done by Bishop Bigandet for Burma will always remain a legend. His literary works, his tours including his trip to Yunan, his personal contacts with the Kings and civil authorities, his new foundations and Church constructions are amazing. A man of his calibre will not be so easily found even in our times. This is what the influential London Times wrote when Bishop Bigandet passed away in 1894 at the age of 81. "He was both a predominant religious influence and a commanding intellectual power".

At his death, there were 35,000 Catholics in Burma.

By now as a result of the undauntable courage and effort of so many zealous foreign missionaries, the Catholic Church in Burma has taken strong roots and established herself firmly in the various parts of the country. The diocese of Rangoon, Mandalay, and Toungoo were already well established by the end of the 19th century. In Mandalay, great men like Bishop Bourdon, Bishop Usse, Bishop Foulquier and Bishop Faliere did much to spearhead the work of missionary activities in new territories. Also in Toungoo with the arrival of the first PIME Fathers in 1868, under the leadership of Fr. Biffi missionary activities developed fast.

Taungoo was made a Prefecture Apostolic in 1870 and Fr. Biffi was appointed as its first Prefect Apostolic. Bishop Sagrada, Bishop Lanfranconi were great men who put in their very best in bringing the Good News of the Kingdom to the hill tribes of Toungoo.

The Second World War (1939-1945) wrought great disasters in Burma. Churches were bombed, foreign priests were deported, people were forced to flee to distant places and in several places priests, sisters and lay people were ruthlessly murdered. In 1945, when the war was over, the Catholic Church had difficult time recontructing the churches, schools and parishes.

On the 1st January 1955, Archbishop Martin Lucas, SVD, Internuncio to India and Apostolic Delegate to Burma established the Archdioceses of Rangoon and Mandalay. Toungoo, Bassein and Akyab suffragans of Rangoon.

At this time the Salesians of St. John Bosco, who had arrived Burma in 1939 to take care of the parish and the orphanage of St. Joseph in Mandalay entrusted to them by Fr. Louis Lafon, extended their pastoral and educational activities in the parish of Thingangyun, Rangoon.

In 1954, Msgr. Joseph U Win was the first of the local clergy to be raised to the Order of Episcopacy as Auxiliary Bishop of Mandalay. Msgr. George U Kyaw followed as the new Bishop of Pathein in 1955.
During the first national Eucharistic Congress held in Rangoon in 1956 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Bishop Paul Bigandet in 1856, His Eiminence Valerian Cardinal Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, India and Papal Legate to the Eucharistic Congress, laid the foundation stone of the Catholic Major Seminary on February 4, 1956 in the presence of Bishops of Burma, large number of priests, religious and people of Burma. The Jesuits arrived from the United States of America to take charge of the Seminary and regular classes began soon with 8 students from all the various dioceses in the country.

In 1961, Msgr. Sebastian U Shwe Yauk became the Bishop of the newly erected Diocese of Taungoo and Msgr. Gabriel Thohey Mahn-Gaby became the Auxiliary Bishop of Yangon in 1965.

In 1966, all the foreign missionaries who had come to Burma before the Independence (4 January, 1948) and were not directly incharge of schools were permitted to stay and the others had to leave the country. From then onwards the indigenous priests and religious took up the responsibility of the Church in Burma. At the time of the hand over there were altogether two Archdioceses and six suffragan dioceses with about 120 priests and 350,000 Catholic population.

Since 1975, many more local bishops were consecreted and the missionary activities of the Church flourished. Msgr. Matthias U Shwe was consecrated as Auxiliary Bishop on December 13, 1980 and later succeeded Bishop J.B. Gobatto, on August 8, 1990. He was appointed Archbishop of the Diocese on Januay 17, 1998.

Vocations to the priesthood and to the religious life increased annually and as a result a separate Major Seminary was established for the students of Philosophy in Yangon itself close to the National Major Seminary. Later on it was transferred to Pyin Oo Lwin in the Archdiocese of Mandalay with a proper set of faculty members. During this period the steady growth of the Church was seen visibly inspite of the existence of adverse conditions. To cite an instance, the northern ecclesiastical territory belonging to the diocese of Kengtung was entrusted to the Salasian Fathers by the Holy See creating it into a Apostolic Prefecture of Lashio. Msgr. Jocelyn Madden, SDB was the first Prefect Apostolic. In 1986, Msgr. Charles Bo succeeded Msgr. Jocelyn Madden.

In the diocese of Prome in 1985, Bishop Gregory Taik Maung was appointed as Apostolic Administrator to assist Bishop Joseph U Thaung Shwe.

In 1985, Bishop Isaac Danu succeeded Bishop Sebastian U Shwe Yauk in the diocese of Toungoo and Bishop V. Sequeira succeeded Bishop Joseph Mahn Erie in the diocese of Bassein.

In 1987, Bishop Raymond Saw Po Ray was nominated as the Auxiliary Bishop of Rangoon.

In 1989, the diocese of Taunggyi portioned out into another territory creating the diocese of Loikaw with Bishop Sotero Phamo as its first bishop. The following year Bishop John Gabriel succeeded Bishop V. Sequiera in the diocese of Pathein (Bassein).

In 1991, the Hakha diocese was created in the Chin State separating it from the Archdiocese of Mandalay. Bishop Nicholas Mang Thang was appointed as the first Bishop of this new diocese.

In 1993, the diocese of Mawlamyine was created dividing it from the Archdiocese of Yangon. Bishop Raymond Saw Po Ray was installed as the first Bishop of the new diocese.

In April 1994, Fr. Philip Lasap Za Hawng was consecrated Auxiliary Bishop of Myintkyina diocese.

In August 1994, Bishop John Gabriel passed away and Msgr Paulinus Mahn Ei Shaung was elected to be Vicar Capitular of the diocese of Pathein. Bishop Charles Bo, SDB, was elected as Bishop of Pathein and installed on 25th August 1996.Then, Bishop Philip Lasap Zahawng was installed as the Ordinary of Lashio.

Msgr. Peter Louis Ca Ku, consecrated on December 8, 1997 as Auxiliary Bishop of Kyaingtong succeded Bishop Abraham Than and was installed as Bishop of that Diocese on January 25, 2002.

In December 2001, Fr. Peter Hla was consecrated Auxiliary Bishop of Taunggyi Archdiocese and in April 2002, Fr. Francis Daw Tang was consecrated Auxiliary Bishop of Myitkyina Diocese.

The Holy Father transferred Archbishop Alphonse U Than Aung of Mandalay to the titular episcopal see of Cusira, still retaining the rank as Archbishop and Bishop Charles Bo, SDB of Pathein was appointed Apostolic Administrator "sede vacante et ad nutum Sanctae Sedis" of Mandalay on April 3, 2002.

Archbishop Gabriel Thohey Mahn Gaby resigned as Archbishop of Yangon in accordance with Can. 401§1 of the Code of Canon Law, on 28 September 2002 and Bishop Sotero Phamo of Loikaw was appointed as Apostolic Administrator "sede vacante et ad nutum Sanctae Sedis"of Yangon.

Fr. John Hsane Hgyi was consecrated Auxiliary Bishop of Pathein on 22 March 2003.

The Holy Father on May 24, 2003, appointed as Metropolitan Archbishop of Yangon, His Excellency Msgr. Charles Bo, as Metropolitan Archbishop of Mandalay, His Excellency Msgr. Paul Zinghtung Grawng, and as Bishop of Pathein, His Excellency Msgr. John Hsane Hgyi. Then, His Excellency Msgr. Francis Daw Tang, Auxiliary Bishop of Myitkyina was appointed as Apostolic Administrator "sede vacante et nutum Sanctae Sedis"of Myitkyina.

On 3 December 2004, the Holy Father Pope John Paul II appointed His Excellency Msgr. Francis Daw Tang as Bishop of Myitkyina.

As the mission territory was far distant and the number of believers was considerably increasing the Diocese of Pekhon, primarily belonged to the Archdiocese of Taunggyi was established as a New Diocese by His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI on December 15, 2005, as a Suffragan of Archdiocese of Taunggyi. It was inaugurated as a new diocese by His Grace Msgr. Salvatore Pennacchio, the Apostolic Delegate to the Union of Myanmar on 1 April 2006. Msgr. Peter Hla was elected as the first Bishop of Pekhon and was installed on the same day.

Considering a better and more effective mission and administration of Hakha Diocese, on 3 March 2006, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI raised Msgr Felix Lian Khen Thang to the dignity of the episcopacy and appointed him as auxiliary bishop of Hakha diocese. His episcopal ordination was held on 6 May 2006 .

On 28 August 2006 His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI created the new diocese of Banmaw, and appointed Fr. Raymond Sumlut Gam as its first bishop. The territory and bishop of the new diocese was taken from the diocese of Myitkyina. On 17 November 2006 the new Diocese of Banmaw was established and Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam was consecrated as the first bishop of Banmaw on 18 November 2006.

After fifty years of the establishment of the hierarchy of Myanmar, there are now altogether fourteen dioceses (three Archdioceses and eleven Dioceses), and currently (15) Bishops, (677) priests, (333) men religious, and (1958) women religious are working actively and serving tirelessly in the vineyard of the Lord.

The Catholic Church in Myanmar is gradually gaining momentum in its work of Evangelization. It celebrated the Golden Jubilee of the establishment of the local hierarchy with the first National Pastoral Assembly from 24 - 27 November 2005. It is one of the few countries in Southeast Asia where most of the priests and religious are indigenous. It is also to be noted that the Church's activities are more on the pastoral and social basis without involving much into secular educational systems. As things are moving in a positive direction, it can be said that the Catholic Church is enjoying God's abundant blessings in various forms with a bright future.

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