BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
After returning from his Jan. 24-Feb. 13, 2020 pastoral visit to India and Myanmar (also known as Burma) with Fr. John Thomas, Bishop William F. Medley said the journey “gave me hope that the Gospel and the Church are thriving.”
“We anguish over the statistics of our (Western) culture” that young people are leaving the Church and vocations numbers are down, the bishop told The Western Kentucky Catholic on Feb. 14, 2020.
But in India and in Myanmar, Bishop Medley said it was powerful “to see the Church so vibrant.”
Planning a pilgrimage
Fr. John Thomas, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Bowling Green – home to a large community of parishioners who are Burmese refugees – traveled with Bishop Medley.
“As a diocese, we have been so blessed with international priests and international seminarians,” said Fr. Thomas in a WKC interview on Feb. 14, 2020. “I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with our international priests over the years.”
On April 13, 2019, Bishop Medley presided over the transitional diaconate ordination of seminarian Stephen Van Lal Than, one of two Burmese seminarians currently studying for the priesthood in the Diocese of Owensboro, and the first Burmese seminarian to be ordained a deacon for the diocese.
(When Deacon Than is ordained on May 23, 2020, he will be the first Burmese seminarian ordained a priest for the diocese.)
The bishop was so moved by the ordination liturgy, and the faith of the Burmese community present, that he emailed Fr. Thomas a week later that it was time to make the trip.
“They’ve given the Church too much not to go there and say thank-you,” the bishop told the WKC.
This trip, which would take them first to India and then to Myanmar, “was not sightseeing,” Fr. Thomas told the WKC.
“The bishop said to me, ‘My goal is the people, and the families’” of the priests and seminarians who minister in the diocese, Fr. Thomas recalled.
The bishop told the WKC that he saw the trip “as a pilgrimage and a pastoral visit.”
“There wasn’t a time that I didn’t feel the grace of the moment,” said Bishop Medley.
Bishop Medley and Fr. Thomas arrived in India on Jan. 26.
Fr. Thomas said that in planning the trip, they coordinated with the Heralds of Good News – the religious community to which the majority of western Kentucky’s Indian priests belong. That way, during their time in India they had the chance to visit the families of most of the Indian priests serving the diocese.
“Sometimes even two homes in one day,” added Fr. Thomas.
They visited with the families of Fr. Jegin Puthenpurackal, HGN; Fr. Sinoj Pynadath, HGN; Fr. Suneesh Mathew, HGN; Fr. Shaju Thomas Madhavappallil, HGN; Fr. Jojy Joseph, HGN; as well as with the family of Fr. Babu Kalathumkal Joseph, who had belonged to the Heralds previously, but has since incardinated in the Diocese of Owensboro (become a diocesan priest).
Fr. Thomas said that in many cultures, food is a symbol of hospitality, and that this was certainly apparent in India. He said that visiting home after home in India – along with all of the feasting – felt like Christmastime.
“In India they were so proud to introduce us to their families, to have us at their homes, to meet parents, brothers, sisters,” said Fr. Thomas – an experience that both he and the bishop considered very humbling.
They also met the superior of the Heralds of Good News, visited the Heralds’ minor seminary, and had the chance to participate in Mass at a home for indigent elderly, ministered to by the Heralds’ St. Paul Province.
The bishop and Fr. Thomas arrived in Myanmar on Feb. 2, immediately welcomed by Fr. Timothy Khui Shing Ling’s family in Yangon. (Fr. Shing Ling served the Burmese refugee population in the Diocese of Owensboro for a number of years and has remained close with the diocese.)
Later, they visited the families of Burmese seminarians Deacon Stephen Van Lal Than and Martin Ma Na Ling. They even had the chance to visit the home of and share a meal with Ling’s family.
Fr. Thomas said the experience was different from meeting the families of the Indian priests. For the most part, the Heralds priests – belonging to a missionary congregation— are in the U.S. temporarily, until they are sent to other mission territory.
“But Stephen and Martin’s families, they did not just give their children to the Church, but to us (in the United States) for the rest of their lives,” said Fr. Thomas.
He said the seminarians’ families were so grateful, so thankful that their sons had been welcomed and cared for in the U.S.
As the seminarians’ parents thanked Bishop Medley for accepting their sons, he responded, “You gave him – through God – a vocation to the priesthood!”
“A call to the priesthood comes through the family, and you’ve given him that call,” said the bishop.
Fr. Thomas said he was impacted by the families’ “warmth, genuineness, and sincerity.”
“We’ve experienced that through the priests and the seminarians, but to experience their families was profoundly beautiful,” said Fr. Thomas.
While in Myanmar, they met up with the local bishop in Myanmar, and attended a large Mass of what the bishop guessed to be “well over 1,000 people” at St. Theresa, the parish of Fr. Shing Ling.
They also visited a Catholic Montessori school operated by Fr. Shing Ling, which included a boarding house for the students. (The children’s families lived too remotely for the children to travel to school every day.)
Everywhere they went in Myanmar, Bishop Medley and Fr. Thomas were warmly welcomed with celebrations, feasting, and sometimes even dance performances.
The bishop was humbled by this reception. He said he realized that, “It wasn’t me. It’s that I was something special of a Church that they love.”
To the ends of the earth
The bishop said he has thought a lot about how Myanmar and India are countries that “even a century ago, the United States was sending missionaries to. But now they are sending missionaries to us.”
Fr. Thomas agrees.
“In our country, religious vocations are not prevalent; we have a need for priests’ vocations and religious vocations,” said Fr. Thomas. And yet, the Church in the West continues to survive “because of these people, their families, who are so kind, who offered their (sons) in service to our Church.”
The bishop said it is clear that in countries like India and Myanmar, “missionary discipleship is still thriving.”
“This has affected me for the rest of my life, especially when I think of ‘losing’ the Church in the West,” said Bishop Medley. “We prayed that that Gospel would go to the ends of the earth – and now, that it will hopefully come back around to us.”
Originally printed in the March 2020 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Copyright © 2020 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic