The high point of the celebration, which lasted two days, was a solemn Jubilee Mass. The missionaries’ work of evangelisation began in 1868 in the village of LaikThoo. Their action touched distant and remote ethnic groups in the eastern regions. PIME contributed to the founding of the local Church with six dioceses: Taungngu, Kengtung, Lashio, Loikaw and Pekhon.
Taungngu (AsiaNews) – The participation of some 20,000 Catholics at the solemn celebration of the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first missionaries of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in Eastern Burma shows how much local ethnic groups remember and are devoted to the priests of the Milan-based institute.
The church in Taungngu, the first diocese founded by PIME missionaries, hosted the celebrations for the anniversary on 7 and 8 April.
Preparations for the event required time and a lot of work from all the dioceses in which the PIME missionaries served, since such occasions represent an important moment of coming together and unity for local Catholics and nurture a strong sense of belonging of locals with the Catholic community.
Sent by the Holy See to evangelise the region, the Institute’s first missionaries (Fathers Tancredi Conti, Sebastiano Carbone and Rocco Tornatore) arrived in Toungoo on the Sittang River in 1867, led by the apostolic prefect Eugenio Biffi. Taungngu was the last city in the East under British rule.
Beyond the river lay a vast mountainous and forested area where ethnic groups lived warring among themselves, under indigenous rulers (saophas). These groups – Shan, Karen, Kayan – were despised by both the Burmese and the British because they were deemed “savages”.
PIME’s work of evangelisation began in 1868 in the village of LaikThoo, located in a valley in the mountains of Kayin State.
To mark the 150th anniversary, the Superior General of the Institute, Fr Ferruccio Brambillasca, and the Superior Delegate to Thailand and Myanmar, Fr Maurizio Arioldi, arrived in LaikThoo on last Saturday, in the morning (pictures).
They received a warm welcome from Mgr Isaac Danu, bishop of Taungngu, and Card Charles Maung Bo, archbishop of Yangon and Myanmar’s first cardinal. Seven other prelates came from every corner of the country. Thousands of believers also travelled for the occasion.
The delegation visited the village cemetery (pictured), where some of the early PIME missionaries rest, including bishops Tornatore and Vittorio Emanuele Sagrada.
The visitors blessed the graveyard followed by a memorial Mass for all the missionaries, attended by about 20,000 people with 200 priests and many nuns.
At the end of the service, a procession led the crowd to the parish’s new Eucharistic chapel. Located about three kilometers down from the cemetery, it provides the faithful with a place to pray at any time, day or night.
This was followed by a meal, token of the local hospitality, and by festivities led by young people performing the traditional dances of the various ethnic groups with whom the missionaries worked. The latter’s achievements include writing down their languages and preserving their cultural heritage.
In the afternoon, the PIME delegation, Card Bo and the bishops attended the inauguration and blessing of a monument dedicated by the diocese to the missionaries of the Institute (pictures).
The next day, at 7.00 am, the solemn Jubilee Mass, the high and final point of the festivities (pictures), took place. The service, which lasted three and a half hours, was celebrated in Latin. Worshippers were particularly involved and composed, as they followed the Gregorian chants performed by the priests.
During the Mass, the Myanmar Church was also blessed by the ordination of four new priests.
Speaking to AsiaNews, a local missionary shared the emotions he experienced during the two-day festival. "It was a unique event, felt very much by the Catholic community.”
“The last PIME missionary, Fr Paolo Noè, died in 2007. It is striking that locals still remember those who brought the faith, dignity and pride. The devotion they still have for the Fathers and missionaries is still great. This anniversary is proof of that."
PIME played a crucial role in the emergence of the local Church. PIME missionaries founded six dioceses: Taunggyi (archdiocese), Toungoo, Kengtung, Lashio, Loikaw and Pekhon.
The Institute’s presence in the country was shaped by some of the most critical pages of its history, such as the expulsion in 1966 of all foreign religious who had arrived in the country before independence in 1948, and the seizure of Church properties.
At that time 29 missionaries chose to stay, and remained until their death, including Fr Clemente Vismara, who was beatified in 2011. He was later raised to the honour of the altars like Fr Paolo Manna and Fr Mario Vergara.
For his part, Fr Vergara was one of five PIME martyrs killed in Burma between 1950 and 1953. He was beatified in 2014 with Isidore Ngei Ko Lat, the first native martyr of the Church of Myanmar.
Meanwhile, the process of beatification of Brother Felice Tantardini is currently underway.