Fr Leo Kyaw Win is the spiritual director of the Taunggyi Seminary, one of the biggest in the country. AsiaNews met him in Rome, where he is attending a refresher course. Son of converts, he works at the seminary and for the poor. He sees the first signs of change since the end of the military dictatorship. “Now we have more authorisations to celebrate our holidays” in public, he said.
Rome (AsiaNews) – Before Aung San Suu Kyi’s election victory, "whenever we wanted to celebrate a religious festival, we had to ask the government, who never gave us the permit. Now things are different: we are freer to commemorate our solemnities in public,” said Fr Leo Kyaw Win, spiritual director at Taunggyi seminary (eastern Myanmar).
Fr Win met with AsiaNews in Rome, where he is taking a refresher course. During the conversation he spoke about the life of the Church in Myanmar and how it is benefitting from the political change that took place on 30 March when the National League for Democracy (NLD) took office, replacing the outgoing military-backed government.
"I come from Nyanung Gon parish, in the Archdiocese of Yangon,” said the clergyman who was born on 9 November 1973. “I was ordained a priest on 9 February 2008. My grandparents were Buddhists and animists, but my parents became Catholics. My father changed religion when he realised that the spirits my grandfather believed in did not protect him. My grandfather drowned in a river as he was returning from a ritual sacrifice."
Taunggyi Seminar and life of the Church
After years as a parish priest and a study trip to the Philippines, Fr Win was appointed spiritual director at the Major Seminary in Taunggyi, one of the biggest in the country. "I have to follow the seminarians in their path. I talk to them once a month. They tell me about their difficulties and I guide them."
"Seminarians range in age between 23 to 35 years,” Fr Win said. “Currently, there are 59. The Taunggyi seminary is home to the Institute of Spirituality, which every seminarian of the country must attend for at least a year. The Institute of Philosophy, where they study two years, is located instead in Pyin Oo Lwin, whilst the seminary in Yangon offers theological studies." Together, these three seminaries have more than 350 seminarians.
In addition to studying, a seminarian’s life is punctuated by pastoral work. Every weekend they travel to the parishes to teach catechism to children. In the diocese, life is difficult for people, especially for the Catholic minority, the priest noted.
“People are very poor and sometimes they have nothing to eat, not to mention their limited education. We have various NGOs and religious congregations that work for the people together with Caritas, bringing food and medicine."
Under the military junta, the Church could not directly help people, but “now we have more freedom,” he explained.
Although small (700,000 or 1 per cent of the population), the Catholic Church is growing at a steady pace. "In my diocese, we baptise at least 100 people a year,” Fr Win said.
New hopes and the education issue
For the clergyman, the first signs of change appeared soon after the military lost the election. "Before public gatherings were not allowed, not even those for religious purposes. Now we have more authorisations to celebrate our holidays, although religious freedom still suffers some limitations. For example, if you are a Christian you cannot find a good job with the State.”
“We also need to be very cautious and careful not to offend the majority Buddhist or other religions. But things are changing. We have a Christian vice president and we are tasting democracy for the first time,” he added.
In the past, under the government of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the junta’s political wing, the Church could not engage in many activities, especially education. “In the 1960s, the military seized schools run by the Church and religious congregations.”
“For years, the government would not allow the seminary to expand even though it was too small for all the seminarians,” Fr Win explained. “Once, when we built a new wing, the military seized it right away. Hopefully, in the coming months the new government will start to return Church assets. That would be a huge step forward for peace and prosperity in Myanmar."