05/23/2014, 00.00
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The epic story of PIME missionaries in Myanmar would impress Pope Francis

by Bernardo Cervellera
Their method was to go to the "edges" of the world, visit remote villages and live among the people. Some natives, seeing a Westerner for the first time, mistook him for a strange animal and forced him to sleep in the pigsty. People bore witness to the faith in the dialogue between cultures and development. Many take pride in belonging to the Catholic Church. This is the third part of a report about Myanmar.

Loikaw (AsiaNews) - The beatification of Fr Mario Vergara, a PIME priest, and catechist Isidore Ngei Ko Lat, which is set for tomorrow at Aversa, is a token of gratitude of the whole Church towards these martyrs, but also to all those who evangelise among nations.

In talking about the beatification on Wednesday, Pope Francis praised the missionaries and catechists "who in missionary lands carry out a precious and irreplaceable apostolic work, for which the entire Church is grateful.

PIME missionaries have worked on evangelisation in Eastern Burma since 1867. Here they founded the archdiocese and five dioceses (out of 16). In Missione Birmania (in Italian, Bologna, 2007, p. 462), Fr Piero Gheddo wrote that the missionaries' method was not to stop in the cities, but to go and visit remote villages and live among the people, a method that appeals to Pope Francis, who is always calling on Christians to "go out" to the "existential and geographical edges" of the world.

Given this, the epic story of the PIME mission in Myanmar is worthy of inclusion in cross-cultural studies. When the missionaries arrived in these regions, they were the first Westerners locals ever met. They arrived without weapons or power, driven only by a great love for these people and a desire to communicate the love of Jesus Christ.

Some of the priests I met in Loikaw, like Fr William, told me about a famous episode in the history of the mission.

After days of walking on foot, some missionaries arrived in a village, where local tribals met face to face for the first time in their lives light-skinned people with a long beard (the natives are mostly hairless), who did not speak their language and had strange feet.

Since they were unfamiliar with shoes, the tribals thought that the shoes the missionaries wore were part of their feet, and that either they did not have fingers or they just had one big finger. They got scared wondering whether he was a new species of wild animal or a fiend.

Even when good native catechists tried to tell them about these people, locals would not let go of their suspicions and fear. Yet they were hospitable; they let the strangers stay, not in their homes, but in the pigsty under the house. Only after a few days, when they saw these "monsters" eat what they ate, that they were not ferocious, did they start to mingle with them.

Since they came from another country and another tribe, the missionaries did not speak the local language, but began repeating the names and words they heard; and so little by little, with a patience that defies all belief, they became friends to the tribe.

They began explaining that they wanted to help the people, bring medicines to heal them and teach them to speak and write in Burmese, which locals did not know, and in English. Eventually, they told them why they had come to show them so much love, and began introducing them to faith.

There is no one person that I have met who does not remember this or that missionary. "I met Mgr Gobbato, a saint," said one; "I was baptised by Fr Mattarucco;" said another; "I always ran behind Fr Galbusera," remembered a third. "When he came for a celebration or other, he used to throw handfuls of candy in the air and we had to race to get them" . . .

In the photographs that can be found on display in every episcopal house (pictured), these long-bearded missionaries had an austere face that seemed rough and yest everyone remembers them for their sweetness and holiness.

"Not only Clemente Vismara," a priest told me, "but all the PIME missionaries should be beatified. What they did for us, our people, giving us the faith and leading us in the early stages of development, is of paramount importance ".

With PIME missionaries, these tribes discovered the use of brick, toilets, writing, and the existence of a world beyond their tribe. It was a conscious introduction to the shared history of the world.

This is why faith, for many local believers in Myanmar, brings a certain amount of pride for belonging to the Catholic Church, i.e. something bigger, a universal, as evinced by the display of Vatican flags at celebrations, hoisted and waved at each point, on each truck or bus carrying pilgrims.

Even the balloons decorating the windows are all yellow and white.

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