Fr John’s vocation for the missionary life began with an encounter with a PIME priest. From distant Loikaw, he arrived in Africa "ready and willing to accept any destination". His modus operandi is "listen, see, learn" to overcome the impact with such a different reality.
Rome (AsiaNews) – Moved by a desire to pass on the faith in Christ to others, which he had received through the sacrifice of many missionaries, Fr John Phe Thu, a Burmese priest of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), was driven to travel 12,000 kilometres to proclaim the Gospel in Guinea-Bissau, the West African nation that has been his land of mission since 2011.
The priest was born in 1976 in Mye Ni Kone, Loikaw (Kayah State). Together with Taunggyi (archdiocese), Toungoo, Kengtung, Lashio and Pekhon, it is one of the six dioceses created by PIME missionaries in its 150 years of presence in Myanmar.
In the Asian nation, the Milan-based Institute has gone through some of the most critical moments of its history. The memory of the missionaries is still alive among Catholics but Fr John never thought he would share his priestly experience.
"My vocation was born when, as a teenager, I still did not know where to get information or what to do to become a priest,” he said. “In the beginning, I wanted to become a diocesan priest because I was not aware of the various priestly figures.
"At 21 I began my religious training in Taunggy, where I met some PIME missionaries, in particular, Fr Adriano Pelosin. By involving us in charitable programmes and initiatives in neighbouring villages, he showed us the meaning of missionary life."
Fr John thus discovered "another model of consecrated life. From the history of the Church in Loikaw, I understood that the faith that I had received was the result of the sacrifice of the many missionaries. This gave birth to my desire to pass it on to others, as they had done.”
"Back home, I met my bishop. There were three of us who wanted to join PIME. 'A difficult life awaits you, but if this is your will, go,' he told us. So, we entered the Institute’s seminary: two years in Rome and four in Monza. I was ready and willing to accept any destination," Fr John explained.
Ordained priest in 2010, the missionary arrived in Guinea-Bissau in 2011. "The joy of leaving was greater than the fear. Faced with such a different culture, I had to have patience and learn to understand the local population, without judging them. I repeated to myself what my brothers had taught me: listen, see, learn'."
Fr John spent the first three years of his mission in Bambadinca, in the Diocese of Bafata, and another three in the parish of Nossa Senhora de Fatima, in Bissau. On 1 October 2017, he became parish priest in Catió, in the south of the country.
"In Guinea-Bissau, Catholics are used to Western missionaries,” Fr John said. "In the beginning it was difficult for them to accept a priest from Asia. Even an African priest is something strange. Often, Catholic families oppose the priesthood of a young man because in their mind only whites can be priests."
"In Catiò, where PIME arrived 40 years ago, the work of evangelisation is proceeding slowly. Catholics are a minority, about 15 per cent of the population. Locals are mainly animists, but there are also many Muslims.”
“Christians are seen as a model for society. The work by the missionaries nurtures the trust they place in the Church. There are many conversions, but it is up to us priests to accompany people on the path of faith.
“Last year, we baptised ten young people. Becoming Catholics requires a journey of at least seven years. Catechumens often have to deal with family pressures and the weight of local traditions. There are aspects of this culture that they often cannot abandon.
"For our part, we try to enhance what is positive in these customs. But there are things that, as Christians, we cannot accept. These are issues that we face with every catechumen because the Gospel enters every culture, purifies it and exalts it." (PF)