As early as 1287, evidence of Christianity was found in the form of frescos containing crosses, Latin and Greek in some places in Pagan which was once a flourishing kingdom. After the discovery of the route to India by Vasco da Gama in 1497, Portuguese Missionaries set out for the Far East as chaplains to Portuguese soldiers, sailors and settlers. The rich land of Burma attracted these Portugese traders and by 1510 founded Goa as the sea port to the East. In 1511, their admiral, Don Alfibse de Albuquerque, captured Malacca and accordingly he sent embassies to Siam and to Pegu assuring them that their trade with Malacca would continue.
The great Portuguese Missionary, Francis Xavier whose name is connected with Goa, Malaya and Japan wrote to his Jesuits in Europe mentioning Pegu and making it clear that the kind of missionary sent out should be of such staff that it would be safe to send him unaccompanied or accompanied wherever needed, be it to the Moluccas or China or Japan or to the Kingdom of Pegu.
The commercial relations between Portugal and Kingdom of Pegu and Ava increased. By 1556 there were about 1,000 Portuguese soldiers and sailors commanded by Antonio Ferreira de Branganza serving the King (Bayintnaung). Friar Peter Bonfer, a French Franciscan spent three years learning the language and customs of the people and wrote a book of his missionary experience in the Kingdom of Pegu between 1554-57.
Around 1595, serious troubles began among all various kings in Burma and the king of Arakan entrusted a certain Philip de Britto, a captain of a band of mercenary troops to capture the port of Syriam. Philip de Britto captured Syriam but refused to return it to his master the Arakanese king. He won over the Portuguese Viceroy at Goa and was given the rank of captain General and the Governor of Syriam. De Britto ruled supreme by this time.
In the north, King Anaukphetlun succeeded to the throne of Ava in 1610 and immediately began uniting the kingdom. He conquered Prome and Taungoo and marched south with his victorious army. De Britto formed alliance with a petty king, Nat Shin Naung and resisted King Anaukphetlun but to no avail.
The king’s army besieged the fortress till De Britto and Nat Shin Naung were captured alive and put to death. The remainder of the garrison with their wives and children a total of 5,000 were taken as prisoners to the North. These prisoners had a harsh time when they arrived in the kingdom of Ava. Along with them was a certain Fr. Manoel de Fonseca (SJ) who was respected by the infidels, revered by the nobles of the court and regarded as a saint by his fellow captives. He was being helped with Mass vestments and cash by the Brothers of Mercy in Cochin.
King Thalun, who succeeded Anaukphetlun was a good administrator and made use of the services of the prisners in whatever way they seemed qualified, gave them portions of land for their own use allowed them to build a church of their own. Fr. Augustine de Jesus from Lisbon wrote saying that on his visit to Ava he found more than 4,000 Christians, all of whom had been taken prisoners at the fortress of Syriam.
The “Annual letter” of the Jesuits in India mentioned some very valuable data about the growth of Christianity in the kingdom of Ava. The famous letter of 1644, listed the statistics of the Catholic Church at that time. There were eight villages with these comments:
- Ava. Patron: Our Lady of Hope 150 Christians
- Nabacca, south of Ava, a distance of
30 league, Patron: St. John the Baptist 300 Christians
- Latora (Chaung Oo) 400 Christians
- Tabayam (Tabayin) 400 Christians
- Machabo (Shwe Bo) 70 Christians
- Allam (Halin) 60 Christians
- Sikim 200 Christians
- Simguem 80 Christians
Fr. De Fonseca still continued working alone with a few helpers who used to come to him. Meanwhile, in 1622 Pope Gregory XV set up the Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith to take care of Christian missions independently of the secular governments like Spain and Portugal which had too many ulterior motives. The Foreign Mission of Paris (M.E.P) which was purely a missionary body was approved in 1659.
Throughout the 17th century, there were Christians and their priests in the ports of the kingdom of Pegu and Arakan: Fr. Sebastian Manrique, Augustinian in Arakan; other Augustinians in Syriam and Martaban; a Franciscan and a Dominican in Pegu; two Theatines, Fr. Gallo in Arakan and Fr. Bernard Arconati in Pegu.
The first M.E.P. Fathers Genoud and Joret came to Burma from Siam, helped by the Burmese Ambassador in Siam. These two reached Pegu and set up hospital work that achieved enormous success. But the King of Ava, fearing their influence over the people, condemned them to death.
In 1719 Pope Clement XI sent a mission to China headed by Msgr. Carlo Ambrogio Mezzabarba, Patriarch of Alexandria. The papal legate who returned from China selected Fr. Sigismondo Calchi, a Barnabite priest, for the kingdoms of Ava and Pegu. This forma act gave Burma her first papal missionary. Fr. Calchi became the first Vicar Apostolic of Burma, though he was still a priest, and Fr. Giuseppe Vittoni, a secular priest was appointed to assist Fr. Calchi. Because of some misunderstanding, Fr. Calchi was taken to the north and was given permission to preach Christianity in the kingdom of Ava.
The Holy See divided the Mission of Burma into two. The secular priests were entrusted with the Mission of Ava, and the Mission of Pegu was left to the Barnabites.
After the death of Fr. Calchi in March 1728, the separation of the two kingdoms did not work effectively as it was planned previously because of lack of personnel. Listening to the difficulties of Fr. Pio Gallizia, the Holy See eventually combined the two kingdoms into one unit thus creating a Vicariate Apostolic, and Fr. Gallizia was appointed as its first Vicar.
THE FIRST GROUP OF BARNABITES (1743)
Bishop Pio Galliziia returned to Burma from Rome after his episcopal consecration with three other learned priests for the mission in Burma. Frs. Paul Marie Nerini, Alexander Mondelli and John del Conte. They were accompanied by an experienced surgeon Br. Angelo Cappello. After barely two years, the Peguans, suspecting that the people of Syriam favoured that Burmese, made a plot and massacred several people including Bishop Gallizia, Fr. Mondelli and Fr. Del Conte. Fr. Nerini and Br. Cappello somehow escaped this tragedy.
SECOND GROUP OF BARNABITES (1754)
Pope Benedict XIV elected Fr. Nerini as Bishop of Priense and Vicar Apostolic of the two kingdoms of Ava and Pegu. Four new missionaries were sent out for the work. They were Frs. Vincent Casanova, Leo Lindermann, Amadeo Gazzei and Hermingild Quardrio. They all belonged to the Barnabite order. They set out from Paris in two different ships which never arrived in Burma. The first sank in the Atlantic and the other in the Gulf of Martaban. In the war between the Talaings and the Burmese under the leadership of King Alaungpaya of Shwebo, Fr. Nerini was suspected of French ties and was beheaded. Br. Angelo too was killed by a cannon ball during the siege.
THE THIRD GROUP OF BARNABITES (1760)
Following these lost three more Barnabites were sent out: Frs. John Mary Percoto, Sebastian Donati and Pio Gallizia (nephew of the late Bishop). Fr. Donati and Fr. Gallizia arrived on the 8th June 1760. Fr. Donati left for Ava but died on 20th January 1761 at Chaung U.
Pope Clement XIII recommended the two Barnabites, Frs. Avenati and Percoto, to the Bishop of Malapore (Madras) India, to help the mission in Burma. These two arrived in Rangoon in October 1761. Fr. Avenati remained in the south and Fr. Percoto went to join Fr. Gallizia in Chaung U, Ava. What Fr. Percoto found out was the amazing existence of several Catholics preserving the Faith they had received some 150 years ago, since the fall of Syriam.
Fr. Gallizia died in 1763 at Shwebo. In the same year Fr. Avenati died in Rangoon while celebrating Holy Mass on Easter Sunday. These deaths left Fr. Percoto alone in his missionary apostolate. Fr. Percoto, despite his heavy schedule and responsibility, found time to write various works in Burmese: catechism books, Mass books, translation of the Gospels and the Epistles. This is just to mention a few of his multiple works.
FOURTH GROUP OF BARNABITES (1767)
Rome sent out another batch of missionaries in 1767, Frs. Gherardo Cortenovis, Melchior Carpani, Antonio Filiberto Re and Ambrose Miconi. Rome appointed Fr. Percoto as Bishop. He was consecrated bishop on 31st January, 1768. On account of the influence of a Frenchman, Chevalier Millard, and his band of Christian soldiers in the court, Bishop Percoto received many favours from the King. In 1772 two more missionaries: Frs. Marcello Cortenovis and Gaetano Mantegazza arrived in Burma. The latter became a scholar in Burmese and Pali. Bishop Percoto died on 12th December 1776 at the age of 47. Fr. Gherardo Cortenovis succeeded him as Bishop. At this time there was a new King on the throne of Ava who made it difficult for the Christians to practice their faith. Bishop Gherardo left for Rome, never to return to Burma. He died in Mylapore, Mdras.
Fr. Mantegazza was appointed Bishop of Ava and more missionaries were sent to help the mission in Burma. Gradually the presence of the Barnabite Missionaries dwindled. At the beginning of the year 1830, the Barnabites officially renounced the mission of Ava and Pegu into the hands of Pope Pius VIII.
SACRED CONGREGATION FOR EVANGELIZATION OF PEOPLES (PROPAGANDA FIDE)
Propganda Fide took direct care of Burma and sent out some labourers. The first group was led by Msgr. Frederick Cao with two priests, Frs. Domenico Tarolli and Antonio Ricca. By 1837, many of these missionaries served in Burma such as Frs. Ignatius Stork, Nicolo Polognani, Gaetano Boccaci and Francis Bartelli. Moulmein and Bassein became the headquarters for their mission activities. Bishop Cao returned to Italy with a local student, Moses Nga U, to study in the college of Propaganda Fide and later on was ordained a priest.
THE OBLATES IN BURMA (1842-1856)
Rome officially entrusted Burmese mission, in 1842 to the Oblates of Virgin Mary from Turin. Fr. Giovanni Ceretti (1842-48) was appointed as Bishop. The arrival of the Oblates revived once again the faith in the kingdom of Ava. Old villages like Monhla, Chanthaywa, Chaung U, Amapura, Nabeck received close attention by young and energetic priests. He brought in the Sisters of St. Joseph (SJA) to begin their work in Moulmein, Mon State, in 1847. These were the first Sisters to serve in Burma. When the second British-Burmese war began in 1852, things were very difficult for the Oblates both in Italy and also in Burma. Therefore, Bishop Giovanni Balma (1848-56), the superior in-charge at that time, sought the help of another missionary society to continue the work.
FOREIGN MISSIONS OF PARIS, MEP (1856-1966)
The Foreign Missions of Paris Society accepted this proposal and Bishop Paul Ambrose Bigandet arrived in 1856. After having toured the whole country and practically visiting all the old and new catholic villages, he fixed his headquarters at St. John’s Church in Rangoon. During his time, Rangoon developed fast, becoming a great port and a booming city. The extent of activities done by Bishop Bigandet for Burma will always remain a legend. His literary works, his tours including his trip to Yunan in China, his personal contacts with the kings and civil authorities, his new foundations and Church constructions are amazing. A man of his caliber will not be so easily found even in our present times. This is what the influential London Times wrote when Bishop Bigandet passed away in 1894 at the age of 81. “He was both a predominant religious influence and a commanding intellectual power”. At his death, there were 35,000 Catholics in Burma. In 1860, De La Salle Brothers arrived in Moulmein to take care of boys’ education.
By now, as a result of the undaunted courage and effort of so many zealous foreign missionaries, the Catholic Church in Burma has taken strong roots and established herself firmly in the various parts of the country. The diocese of Rangoon, Mandalay and Taungoo were already well established by the end of the 19th century. In Mandalay, great men like Bishop Charles Bourdon, Bishop Antoine Usse, Bishop Eugene Foulquier, Bishop Albert Faliere did much to spearhead the work of missionary activities in new territories.
ARRIVAL OF P.I.M.E & OTHER GROUPS OF MISSIONARIES
In Taungoo with the arrival of the first PIME Fathers in 1868, under the leadership of Fr. Eugenio Biffi, missionary activities developed fast.
Taungoo was made a Prefecture Apostolic in 1870 and Fr. Biffi was appointed as its first Prefect Apostolic. Bishop Emmanuele Sagrada and Bishop Alfredo Lanfranconi were great men who gave their very best in bringing the Good News of the Kingdom to the hill tribes of Taungoo.
Missionaries from Society of St. Columban (SSC), Ireland arrived at Banmaw and Myitkyina in 1936. In 1937, the La Salette Fathers (MS) arrived in Pyay headed by Msgr. Thomas Newman as the Apostolic Vicar. Salesians of St. John Bosco (SDB) who had arrived Burma in 1939 to take care of the parish and the orphanage of St. Joseph in Mandalay entrusted to them by Fr. Jean-Leon Lafon, extended their pastoral and educational activities to the parish of Thingangyun in Rangoon.
The Second World War (1939-1945) wrought great disasters in Burma. Churches were bombed, foreign priests were deported, people were forced to flee to distant places and in several places priests, sisters and lay people were ruthlessly murdered. In 1945, when the war was over, the Catholic Church had a difficult time reconstructing churches, schools and parishes.
On January 1, 1955, Archbishop Martin Lucas (SVD), Internuncio to India and Apostolic Delegate to Burma, established the Archdioceses of Rangoon and Mandalay. Taungoo, Bassein and Akyab were suffragans of Rangoon. Kengtung and Banmaw were suffragans of Mandalay.
INDIGENOUS HIERARCHY & BISHOPS
In 1954, Msgr. Joseph U Win was the first of the local clergy to be raised to the Order of Episcopacy as Auxiliary Bishop of Mandalay. Msgr. George U Kyaw followed as the new Bishop of Pathein in 1955.
In February 1956, during the first national Eucharistic Congress held in Rangoon to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Bishop Bigandet in 1856, His Eminence Valerian Cardinal Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, India and Papal Legate to the Eucharist Congress, laid the foundation stone of the Catholic Major Seminary on February 4, in the presence of Bishops of Burma, large number of priests, religious and people of Burma. Jesuits from the New York Province of the United States arrived that same year to take charge of the Seminary. Regular classes began soon with (8) students from the dioceses in the country. Before then, major seminarians from Burma had to study in other countries. In 1961, Msgr. Sebastian U Shwe Yauk became the Bishop of the newly erected Diocese of Taungoo.
In 1962, the government became socialist. All schools and major businesses were nationalized between 1962 and 1966. Foreign missionaries including 232 Catholic priests and religious were forced to leave the country; only those who had come to Burma before the country’s independence from England (January 4, 1948) were allowed to stay on condition that they were not in charge of any education or health institution. If those would leave the country for any reason, they would not be permitted to return. The Burmese major seminary had ordained just one or two classes by that time. So the new faculty relied mostly on the available local priests.
From then onwards the indigenous priests and religious took up the responsibility of the Church in Burma. At the time of the hand over there were altogether two Archdioceses, and six suffragan dioceses with about 120 priests and 350,000 Catholic populations. Travel to and from Burma was not allowed. Communications with other countries was prohibited; books and magazines from outside the country were not allowed. These changes happened just before the Vatican Council II, thus blocking information regarding major changes in the Church’s understanding of itself and the world. Also, all church-owned schools and hospitals were nationalized by the government. In 1965 Msgr. Gabriel Thohey Mahn Gaby became the Auxiliary Bishop of Rangoon.
The Catholic Church in Myanmar celebrated the Golden Jubilee of the establishment of the local hierarchy with the First National Pastoral Assembly from 24-27 November, 2005. It is gradually gaining momentum in its work of Evangelization. It is to be noted that the Church’s activities are on the pastoral and social concern with very limited access.
The Union of Myanmar covers an area of 677,000 square kilometers (261,228 square miles) ranging 936 kilometers (581 miles) from east to west and 2,051 kilometers (1,275 miles) from north to south. It is a land of hills and valleys and is rimmed in the north, east and west by mountain ranges forming a giant horseshoe. Enclosed within the mountain barriers are the flat lands of Ayeyarwaddy, Chindwin and Sittaung river valleys where most of the country’s agricultural land and population are concentrated. (http://www.mofa.gov.mm/aboutmyanmar/geography.html)
The country is made up of 135 national races, of which the main national races are Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Bamar, Mon, Rakhine and Shan. Population of the country is estimated at 52.4 million (July 2019) and the population growth rate is 1.84 percent.
The main religions of the country are Theravada Buddhism 89.2%, Christianity 5.0%, Islam 3.5%, Hinduism 0.5%, Spiritualism 1.2% and others 0.2%.
There are now (16) archdioceses and dioceses with (17) active bishops and 6 retired bishops – all from Myanmar. Catholics remain a minority with the estimated numbers of 675745, Diocesan and Religious priests 939, Religious (women and men) 1398, Cathchists 2695. (Dec 2016)
Most of the dioceses are very extensive; most have extensive jungle and mountainous areas with extremely poor transportation and practically non-existent telephone or internet communications, except for city areas. In most rural parishes, it might take the priest for several hours to 2 to 5 days to reach some of the villages.
Almost all dioceses have trained adult catechists who are responsible for the instruction of the faithful in the villages. In most dioceses, the catechetical training is a 2 year program for those who have finished high school, and 3 years for those who had only primary or middle school background.