GREAT FIGURES OF THE MISSIONARY WORK – Christian Pioneers in Burma (13)

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

As we approach our destination, a series of details immediately bring me to the interior of rural Portugal: the cornfields, the tower of the church standing out from the grove, the sound of ox-carts in the distance … However, if one had to compare such landscape of cultivated fields with another European one, it would be more northern or central than South-Atlantic. To begin with, the hills were missing: rolling hills; and the sea spread almost a thousand miles away. The rural landscape was totally different. Let us now look at it from the distance, since a closer observation would place us irremediably in Southeast Asia, and all patterns of comparison with Europe would vanish.

We were in one of the granaries of Myanmar, an immense meadow that extended beyond the banks of the Mu river. Amazing! There, halfway between the northern capital Mandalay and Bagan, the mythical city of Buddhist pagodas, there were those who buried their dead in Catholic cemeteries and sang carols for Christmas!

At Monhla, “a stronghold of rice culture and ox-drawn carts in the middle of nowhere,” as an anonymous chronicler wrote, the first Portuguese prisoners arrived, in 1613. At that time there were only two hundred men, some of them accompanied by relatives. In Sirião (Thanlin) they were warriors and boat builders, in the north remote plains they would become mere farmers.

“The Burmese kings knew well what they were doing when they sent them here,” said Father Kolay.

Of this population, now a thousand in total, eight hundred inhabitants remained Catholic. The same is to say “bayingyis”, because, throughout the entire valley of Mu, Catholic was synonymous with a descendant of Portuguese.

“Faith is the only way to preserve our identity,” pronounced Joseph Zaw Ou, almost in a prophetic tone. Joseph was the cousin of father Kolay, who had honored the house, since I, the illustrious visitor, was now officially guests of the Kolay family.

“We were all Catholics once, but during World War II there was no longer a priest in the village, and the monks took advantage of it to convert a lot of people,” continued Zaw Ou, seeking to justify the two spiritual faces of the village, forgetting, though, to emphasize the more than many who had gone to the city in search of eldorados, thus contributing to a significant diminution of the “bayingyi brotherhood”.

A landmark revealing the growing increase of followers of the teachings of Gautama — a formidable stupa — announced the Buddhist monastery in the northern part of the town. To the south, it was the bell in the steeple of the church that rang every morning, calling the faithful to Mass, in a challenge to the cocks singing.

Both communities, Buddhist and Christian, were keen to demarcate themselves, having marked an imaginary “frontier”, drawn at a crossroads of narrow alleys, where  there could barely pass a cart of oxen, compressed by fences, that delimited the properties, guarding the courtyard, the threshing floor and the houses, in the center, all built in teak wood. Beautiful dwellings profusely decorated with lace and high relief, the work of artificers who were beginning to be scarce.

As for the “bayingyi” community, religion was deeply involved in people’s daily lives. No doubt the Vatican had an elite of devout followers there, despite the sheep straying along the way.

“We can not complain about the lack of vocations in the village,” reported Fr Kolay. “Since 1920, sixteen priests, born and raised in Monhla, have been ordained.”

The religiosity was very visible on the walls of the homes, where I was enthusiastically received, always with tea and “lepete”, as it was imposed. After all, for them, I was a representative of their overseas patricians, although they had no idea where Portugal was on the globe.

Pictures with the most diverse saints, representations of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper or next to the Holy Family, were set side by side with the family photos. John Paul II appeared, not infrequently, vying for space with the most famous stars of the Burmese cinematographic panorama. In fact, some of the inhabitants were proud of being “personally blessed by the Holy Father.” This was the case with Father Kolay’s octogenarian mother, who spoke to me in Burmese, as if I were one of them.

When I told her that I was from Portugal, she asked me, very naturally: “And from what village?”

Zaw Ou, one of the rare English-speaking “bayingyis,” who was enthusiastic about the opportunity to learn more about what he had learned, went on to inform me more about his family by telling me that his mother had had thirteen children, two of them priests, “one named Joaquim and another who live in America,” and still a sister that was a nun. 

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