Grateful to PIME missionaries, Mgr Sotero says it is time for people to personalise the faith they received
by Bernardo Cervellera
A delegation from the Diocese of Loikaw will attend the beatification of Fr Mario Vergara and catechist Isidore Ngei Ko Lat. As the diocese marks the start of its jubilee, Mgr Sotero Phamo resigned on health grounds. The task for the future is to "educate people to have an adult faith." This is the second part of a report about Myanmar.

Loikaw (AsiaNews) - The Jubilee of the Diocese of Loikaw is closely linked to the beatification of Fr Mario Vergara and catechist Isidore Ngei Ko Lat. Both martyrs are closely connected to the Diocese of Loikaw. For this reason, when the ceremony is held in Italy on 24 May, a delegation from the diocese will be there.

Loikaw's jubilee also marks Mgr Sotero Phamo's 25 years as its bishop. A determined and enterprising 71-year-old, the prelate has seen led the diocese in its evangelisation drive, and the growth in vocations, building up its infrastructure - offices, pastoral centres, and dispensaries.

His episcopate has become a home for the clergy, a place where priests can rest for a few days, eat and hone their training. During the war years, he also mediated between the Burmese military and Karen guerrillas. And a good part of the vigil that began the diocese's jubilee was dedicated to showcasing his life and work.

At one point, young violinists and the choir sang 'Happy Birthday to You', followed by an endless line of people walking up the stage to offer him and the diocese a gift. Most of it was food: baskets with rice, sauces, coffee cans, bananas, grapes, mangoes, but there were also blankets, some small statues of Our Lady and Christ, crosses, and liturgical garments. Some people brought small plastic bags with small things and food, perhaps just bought at the market.

A solemn mass was celebrated the next day at 6 am (to avoid the heat). It included the ordination of three new priests: deacons Titus Thin Mg, a Jesuit; Isaac Aye Sei, a Dominican; and Charlie Thizhu of the Diocese of Loikaw.

Mgr Charles Bo, archbishop of Yangon, delivered the homily. Curiously, instead of speaking about the priestly vocations or the mission, he focused on the diocese's achievements, about how much Bishop Sotero did for it, about his life, etc. Eventually, after communion, we understood why.

Because of his health - two heart attacks and a near-paralysis a few years ago - Mgr Sotero asked to relieve of his functions four years before the normal retirement age, and the Vatican accepted.

When Mgr Charles Bo read the Vatican message, everyone was stunned. At a time when the diocese and its bishop had reached their pinnacle, Mgr Sotero Phamo's pastoral work was coming to an end. The bishop added very little to the announcement.

In private, after the celebration, he explained that his stroke had led to a speech impediment, and he could speak only by making short haggard sentences. He therefore decided to ask for early retirement because he could not do his work well anymore.

Mgr Tjephe Stephen, who was the auxiliary bishop of the diocese, was appointed apostolic administrator in his place on 12 May.

For some priests, the resignation could not come at the worst time; for others though, the diocese now has everything it needs: staff, facilities, organisations. A new bishop will not find any major problems because the road has already been mapped out.

In my interview with him, Mgr Sotero looked relaxed, his main concern being his desire to see Catholics better assimilate the faith they received from PIME missionaries. As grateful he was to them for the faith they brought, it was now time, he said, to "educate people to have an adult faith."

Here is the full interview:

Your Excellency, the book for the 25th anniversary of the diocese showcases what your community set out to do and what it achieved: hundreds of priests; catechists; Fidei donum priests in Asia, Oceania, Italy, Latin America; female religious vocations. Above all it presents the most important thing, namely that Catholics in Kaya State are 25 per cent of the population. This is significant because in Myanmar, Catholics are not even 1 percent. How did this happen?

I think this is due to the fact that most of the villages are Catholic. The faith has become part of the local culture, so much so that many young people want to become priests, enter the seminary, and are helped by relatives. This is a legacy from the past whose fruits we now enjoy.

Here the faith has been spread along with human and social development. What is the situation now?

In the past, when there were no NGOs, we especially always tried to do something for the poor, the displaced (by civil war). With some help from foreign nations, we tried to help these people and these groups. This has become an effective tool for evangelisation. We found it useful to send young people towards into the villages, especially farming villages, and help them through their difficulties, to become village leaders and educate effectively.

The diocese is now celebrating its 25th anniversary. In a man's life, 25 years are the years of maturity. What prospects or problems do you see in the next 25 years?

I think the faith of our people is still very simple and devotional. I would like to see them achieve a mature faith so that they can understand what they believe. I have spent 25 years building up the infrastructure and organisation. For the next 25 years, we want to educate people to have an adult faith.

Do you have a message for the PIME?

The PIME came almost a century and a half ago to evangelise in this area. For this reason, we are truly filled with gratitude. However, after so many years, there is a danger that our people might forget this gift. We do not want our people to forget. We want them to know their history, the history of the faith. For this reason, we have prepared the book to mark [the diocese's] 25 years, full of historical details about the way we learnt about the faith. I want people to know better the story of the missionaries and imitate them. Thank you, really thank you for the example and the care you have provided us.