04/25/2014, 00.00
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Raised to the altars, Isidoro Ngei Ko Lat, first Burmese Blessed, and Mario Vergara, 19th PIME martyr

by Piero Gheddo
They will be beatified on May 24. The young Burmese, who became a catechist, was killed alongside the missionary. The bishops of the Church of Myanmar have defined their beatification "a great encouragement for the entire Catholic community in Myanmar to live their faith more in line with the Gospel and to be courageous and heroic witnesses’.

Milan (AsiaNews) - On the afternoon of Saturday, May 24, 2014, in the Cathedral of Aversa (Caserta) Father Mario Vergara and his catechist Isidore Ngei Ko Lat will be beatified.  They were martyred at dawn on 25 May 1950 in Shadaw, eastern Burma (Myanmar). Father Vergara is the 19th missionary of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) to die a martyr, and the fifth to be raised to the glory of the altars by the Church. In a time of serious difficulties in the Missionary Institute, with a strong decline in vocations to the priesthood and lay mission, the Lord gives us this new Blessed, who was also a witness to the tradition of holiness and total dedication to mission to the ends of the earth, which characterizes the history of the PIME.

The beatification ceremony will be preceded by a historical convention, the afternoon of May 15 at the De Rosa cinema in Frattamaggiore; a prayer vigil will be held the evening of May 22 in Frattaminore in the parish of St. Simeon, presided by the Superior General of PIME Father Ferruccio Brambillasca. On Saturday, May 24 at 17.30 in the cathedral of Aversa Card. Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, will preside at the beatification ceremony of Mario Vergara and Isidoro Ngei Ko Lat; May 25 a Thanksgiving Mass will be celebrated at 6 pm in the Basilica of San Sossius in Frattamaggiore, presided by the Bishop of Aversa Msgr. Angelo Spinillo. Finally, Sunday, June 1 at the home of PIME in Ducenta (Caserta) the 69th missionary congress will take place.

The catechist Isidoro Ngei Ko Lat is the first Burmese to be beatified. There is very little information about this active collaborator of Father Vergara, but Father Mario's letter's shed some light on his character, depicting a humble, but beautiful lay apostle: a life given in service of the Gospel and of others, crowned with martyrdom. Baptized by Father Dominic Pedrotti September 7, 1918 at Taw Pon Athet where he was born, Isidoro came from a family of farmers, who had already converted to Catholicism under Blessed Father Paolo Manna. He lost his parents as a teenager and he and his brother went to live with an aunt. During the Diocesan phase of the process in Loikaw, his cousin, who lived in the same village, testified that as a child Isidore followed missionaries about and often went with them. Thus the desire to become a priest was born in him and he entered the minor seminary of Toungoo. His old classmates testify to his zeal and earnestness. He was a simple, honest and humble young man. He also had an exquisite religious sensibility and a strong aptitude for study.

But due to poor health - he suffered from bronchial asthma - he was forced to return to his family . He could not fulfill his dream of becoming a priest, but his desire to do something for the Lord was great. So he decided not to marry, rather help the catechist of the village. In his village of Dorokhò he opened a free private school to teach the children Burmese and English, he gave catechism lessons and taught them music and hymns. He had good relations with the people and everyone loved him.

He first encountered Father Vergara, who was always looking for catechists, at Leikthò in 1948. Isidoro immediately jumped at the chance to become a catechist in Shadaw. From that moment onwards he remained at the Frattese missionary's side right up to their martyrdom. Isidore was also an interpreter for Father Galastri who still did not know the local language well. The population of Shadaw was composed of illiterate crop farmers, most of who had been evangelized by the Baptists, hostile to Catholics. Isidore, despite the many and often great difficulties, worked closely with Fr. Vergara in enhancing the cultural, social and religious awareness of the local people.

Even before the May 24, 1950 threats and intimidation were registered against Catholic missionaries by a rebel faction of fanatical Baptists. There were armed gangs headed at a military level by a certain Commander Richmond and at the political-religious level by the local district chief Tiré. Catechists, who worked closely with the missionaries Vergara and Galastri, were targeted by rebel soldiers. The arrest of one of these catechists, James Còlei, led to the martyrdom of Isidore and Vergara. Fearing for Còlei's life, they bravely decided to risk going to meet the district chief to induce him to release the prisoner. But it was probably a trap engineered to suppress the apostles of the Gospel. Instead of Tiré, they met with commander of Richmond, complicit with the district chief in their hatred of missionaries . The rest of the story the story I will speak of below in the martyrdom of Father Vergara.

The bishops of the Church of Myanmar have defined the beatification of Father Vergara and his catechist , "a great encouragement to the entire Catholic community in Myanmar to live their faith more in line with the Gospel and to witness it in a courageous and heroic way, following the example the catechist Isidore who did not hesitate to offer his life for the Gospel together with Father Vergara".

Father Mario Vergara was born in Frattamaggiore (Naples), the Diocese of Aversa , November 18, 1910. Ordained a priest in PIME on August 28, 1934 , at the end of September he left for Burma, for the Diocese of Toungoo. In 1935, he was entrusted the district Citaciò in the mountains and forests of Soku, one of the Kayin. He experienced truly harsh times including a great famine caused by abnormal multiplication of mice. During World War II, in 1941 he was interned, with all the Italian missionaries in British concentration camps in India. On return to Burma in 1946 physically greatly weakened, he risked death after the removal of a kidney.

He generously offered his service to the Bishop of Toungoo, Msgr. Alfredo Lanfranconi for the opening of a new district in the east of Loikaw, towards the Salween River, with numerous villages to evangelize. Without any means at his disposal, opposed by Protestants and Baptists, he studied the local language, bearing all kinds of sacrifices, covering long distances on foot, loving and taking care of all Catholics, catechumens, non-believers. Since 1948, he was assisted by a young confrere, Father Peter Galastri, Partina (Arezzo), who built buildings useful to the mission: school, church, orphanage and clinic. Following independence from England (1948), riots and civil war broke out between the government and the rebels.

The guerrilla was supported by the Protestant Baptists, present among the local tribes before the arrival of the Catholic missionaries and they had already formed the tribal elite. The Kayins wanted independence from the Rangoon government formed by the Buddhist majority Burmese people. Father Vergara condemned war and took the side of the people oppressed by a war that brought death and destruction, without any chance to gain independence and international recognition. His peacemaking efforts won him the hatred of the rebels.

On May 24, 1950 Father Vergara went to the center of Shadaw together with the master catechist Isidore to convince the district chief Tire to release another Catholic catechist who had been arrested. Instead, the rebel leader Richmond is lying in wait for him.  After subjecting the men to a harsh interrogation he ordered their arrest. After being dragged through the forest at night, the missionary priest and his catechist Isidore were killed at dawn on May 25, 1950.  They were shot on the banks of the Salween River, with gunfire heard in the nearby village. Their bodies, sealed in bags, were thrown into the Salween River and never found. Father Peter Galastri, captured while praying with the orphans in the mission chapel, was also killed by the rebels and thrown into the great river. Fr. Galastri, no less generous and heroic than his confrere, also deserves to be beatified.


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