BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
Locust Street in front of St. Stephen Cathedral had an unusual sight in the late morning of May 23, 2020: a drive-by car parade of honking, cheering St. Pius X parishioners holding up homemade signs to congratulate Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than, who had been ordained just an hour or so earlier.
It was quite the joyful surprise for the new priest – but then again, “My whole journey has been full of ‘surprises,’” Fr. Van Lal Than later told The Western Kentucky Catholic.
“All these things happen in God’s time,” he said. “When it is not in God’s time, we cannot force it: when it is in God’s time, we cannot stop it.”
Fr. Van Lal Than was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Owensboro that day by Bishop William F. Medley at the cathedral. This ordination was one of several “firsts.” He is the first priest ordained for the diocese since 2016, and the first priest ordained in the diocese – as well as in the entire United States – to have been born in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
“Even when I came here to study for the priesthood, I did not imagine or foresee getting ordained a priest in the time of a global pandemic,” said Fr. Van Lal Than. “Despite all these challenges and difficulties, I am convinced that God wants me to be here. When God wills it, he always provides.”
The Mass of Ordination was by invitation-only to keep numbers down; the cathedral needed to stay below a 1/3 capacity, following the diocese’s safety guidelines in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just several days prior, on May 20, the diocese’s suspension of public Masses had been lifted, but multiple restrictions were in place in order to prevent the possible spread of the virus.
Guidelines during ordination liturgy included but were not limited to requiring distances of six feet between people in the pews; frequent application of hand sanitizer throughout the movements of the Mass; and no singing by the congregation to prevent the wide spread of airborne droplets.
A particularly conspicuous difference from previous ordinations was that masks needed to be worn by everyone participating, and were only removed when the bishop or others needed to speak clearly and be heard by all.
“I believe the whole drama surrounding my vocation journey and my ordination is a reminder (or a lesson) to me (and to all of us) that God is the one in charge; he is the one who can control and who can help us,” said Fr. Van Lal Than. “I am his servant who is tasked with the care of His people, leading them to Him.”
‘I never imagined…’
For nearly 12 years, the future Fr. Van Lal Than had studied for the Catholic priesthood in Myanmar.
He was about to finish his second year of theology in 2016 when he was informed that he and fellow seminarian, Martin Ma Na Ling, had been called to the groundbreaking ministry of permanently serving the growing population of Burmese refugees in Kentucky, in the United States.
The plan was that they would study for the priesthood in the Diocese of Owensboro and ultimately become diocesan priests.
“We arrived here on January 20, 2017 (Friday midnight),” said Fr. Van Lal Than. That Monday, they began classes at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, where they would work on several course requirements.
Later on, they would transfer their studies to St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, where Diocese of Owensboro seminarians complete their major seminary.
“When I entered my first seminary, I never imagined I would be coming here,” said Fr. Van Lal Than. “Now here I am: He has called me, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, to the priesthood to be his living instrument for the sanctification of the whole world and for the salvation of souls.”
In his homily at the May 23 ordination, speaking to the small crowd gathered physically, and to countless others watching the Mass via live-stream, Bishop Medley said he had visited India and Myanmar in early 2020.
The trip was largely in part to thank the local dioceses and bishops for permitting the Diocese of Owensboro to take several of their priests and seminarians, as the diocese continues a focus of ministering to immigrants and refugees.
“In Myanmar, I met with Stephen’s and Martin’s families,” said Bishop Medley.
He said that when he met the family of Fr. Van Lal Than, “Stephen’s parents humbled me to the point of tears.”
“They thanked me for giving Stephen the opportunity to come to Kentucky, and to conclude his seminary studies,” said the bishop, who responded that a vocation has its roots in “a family of faith, in the domestic church,” such as their own.
Bishop Medley was moved by the family’s sacrifice to give their son to his vocation – especially a vocation that “would take him away from their family for the rest of his life, save for visits home.”
The bishop said he was told by Fr. Van Lal Than’s father that even 12,000 miles away, “Stephen still needs a father.”
“He asked me to be a father to Stephen,” said Bishop Medley, his voice full of emotion. “While that is precisely what the Church calls me to be, I cannot think of a more humbling moment in my own life, than to have this father who loves his son so deeply – and yet trusting God’s will – to have allowed his son to move to the other side of the earth, to ask me to be a father to this fine young man.”
The bishop promised to be a father to the new priest, but added that this does not diminish the role of Fr. Van Lal Than’s own parents who raised him and fostered his vocation.
“On behalf of the Catholic Church of the Diocese of Owensboro, I want to thank Stephen’s mother and father and family,” said Bishop Medley.
Ma Na Ling told the WKC he was happy for Fr. Van Lal Than’s ordination, since they had been in the seminary together for many years.
“I prayed for him so that he may serve God and the Church through his whole life,” said Ma Na Ling, who, following the distribution of Holy Communion at the ordination Mass, played his guitar and sang a worship song in the Burmese language.
Ma Na Ling said the song spoke of “difficulties we face, how we are weak, how we are worried for life, when we fall into sins, when we walk in the darkness of life, (but) God is with us and gives courage and strength, and gives the blessing to walk in his way.”
Asking for prayers for his seminarian brother, Ma Na Ling said Fr. Van Lal Than “fulfilled their hope” of the diocese and Bishop Medley wanting to minister to the local Burmese.
“That makes me so happy,” said Ma Na Ling, who will be ordained to the transitional diaconate next year. “As he is the first Burmese seminarian to be ordained in the U.S.A., he makes history both for Burmese refugees and Americans.”
Only the essentials
Lauren Johnson, the co-coordinator of the diocese’s Office of Worship, said that preparing for an ordination during this pandemic meant evaluating every step of the liturgy.
“We went through the ritual and pinpointed every instance of physical contact and had to decide if it was essential or could be omitted,” said Johnson. “Those that were essential had to be reevaluated to see how it could be done more safely, or if the risk would have to be accepted (such as the anointing with Sacred Chrism with bare hands).”
Johnson said that while it may seem over the past several months that the liturgy has been stripped down of many beautiful rituals, “it has become even clearer to me that the Lord is powerfully present when we celebrate the liturgy together.”
“Even though we had to wear masks, even though we couldn’t sing, even though we couldn’t embrace Fr. Stephen in congratulations or celebrate with a reception, God’s presence was abundant still,” she said.
Fr. John Thomas, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Bowling Green, has worked with many international priests over the years. (Fr. Van Lal Than will be serving as parochial vicar at Holy Spirit, in part to minister to the parish’s Burmese community.)
He told the WKC that when international priests arrive in the United States, they are usually “shocked at how well we live and how everything is ‘so accessible.’”
“It struck me during the ordination ceremony how Fr. Stephen has come from an area of such poverty,” said Fr. Thomas. “How interesting that his ordination ceremony here in America was beautiful, of course, but only the ‘essentials.’”
“It has been a pleasure to get to know Fr. Stephen and watch him grow into a priest,” Fr. Thomas added. “I look forward with him to his service to the diocese with the people of Holy Spirit.”
God is the one in charge
Sr. Suzanne Sims, OSU, the director of faith formation at St. Pius X Parish in Owensboro – who had coordinated the drive-by car parade after the ordination – said that Fr. Van Lal Than is “very well prepared to serve as a priest in our diocese.”
“His willingness and tenacity to serve so far away from home is extraordinary,” said Sr. Sims. “He will be a caring and compassionate, thoughtful and discerning minister for everyone.”
Sr. Sims added that she is glad that the new priest is particularly attuned “to the spiritual needs of our growing population of young Myanmar Catholic families. It is a blessing to call him ‘friend.’”
Fr. Van Lal Than knows his journey may be considered remarkable. But he doesn’t think this “unusual path” of his vocation equips him with any special readiness more than other priests.
“What I know for sure is that God by his grace has called me to be one of his priests, despite my unworthiness,” he said. “All I need to do is to rely on him, to work not merely for him, but to work with him.”
Copyright © 2020 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic