April 1, 2022

Archbishop Thompson shares his concern for refugees during Mass for peace in Myanmar

Paul Hnin of St. Barnabas Parish invites the congregation to respond to a petition during a Mass for peace in Myanmar celebrated at St. Mark the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis on March 20. Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, to the right of Hnin, served as principal celebrant. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Paul Hnin of St. Barnabas Parish invites the congregation to respond to a petition during a Mass for peace in Myanmar celebrated at St. Mark the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis on March 20. Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, to the right of Hnin, served as principal celebrant. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

Since Feb. 24, the world has turned its eyes to the war in Ukraine. The devastation and loss of life there are nothing short of tragic, and the number of refugees and displaced persons has soared.

But just 13 months prior, the world was focused on another country, Myanmar (formerly Burma), where a sudden military coup on Feb. 1, 2021, led to protests, bloodshed, loss of freedom and the fleeing of many citizens to the country’s jungles or beyond.

The ongoing crisis there remains an open wound for members of the archdiocese’s three Burmese Catholic refugee communities.

“Most of our family members from Kayan are displaced persons now,” said Rita Lwin, wiping a tear from her cheek. She, like many of her fellow Burmese parishioners at St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis, is from Myanmar’s Kayan State.

The same situation is true for Dominic Ahua, also of St. Pius X Parish. Shadows of concern cross his face as he mentions his parents, siblings and relatives still in Myanmar.

“They have run away from the war zone,” he said.

“I work here [in Indianapolis] so I can support them. The situation is not good for them.”

Lwin and Ahua were two of nearly 500 Catholic Burmese refugees and sympathetic members of the archdiocese who worshiped at a special Mass at

St. Mark the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis on March 20. Archbishop Charles C. Thompson served as the principal celebrant.

As the Mass began, he declared its specific intention: “We gather here to pray for peace in Myanmar and for the consolation of the Burmese people.”

‘The ultimate goal: our salvation’

The sanctuary was filled with colors and patterns of the traditional dress of the various Burmese tribes present. Most belong to three tribes, each based at various Indianapolis parishes, primarily the Hakha Chin of St. Barnabas, the Zomi Chin of St. Mark the Evangelist and the Kayen of St. Pius X.

“There is much uncertainty in our lives, in our world, particularly in places like Myanmar these days,” Archbishop Thompson said in his homily, which was delivered first by him in English, then in the national Burmese language by Father Eustace Thang, parochial vicar of St. Barnabas.

But the liturgical season of Lent draws attention from the uncertainty back to the higher call of surrendering “our lives more fully to live the divine plan for our salvation,” the archbishop said.

“The spiritual practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving enable us to remain rooted in faith and hope, trusting in divine grace, divine providence, amid the uncertainties of life, both now and in the future.

“Wherever we may be at any given moment—whether here in Indiana, Myanmar or some other place in the world—the Lord is ever present and ever faithful in leading us to the ultimate goal and destination: our salvation.”

Archbishop Thompson closed his homily with words of consolation: “Despite whatever uncertainties that might lie between this moment and Easter, as well as beyond, Jesus Christ’s victory is already assured.”

‘For me, it’s tragedy’

Uncertainties continue to unravel in Myanmar.

“Security is deteriorating rapidly across the country as fighting and armed conflict intensifies with no sign of abating,” said United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees Matthew Saltmarsh in a Feb. 11 article on news.un.org.

According to a January 17 report on reliefweb.net, roughly 19,000 refugees have fled Myanmar since February 2021.

A March 19 report on the same site estimates 519,500 people have been displaced in Burma since the beginning of the coup—up 48,000 from the month prior—and that roughly 1,600 have been killed.

Those statistics are more than numbers for Lwin—they are known faces and beloved family members.

“For me, it’s tragedy,” she said, a single tear tracing her cheek. “Within six months, I lost four family members from war, bombing and COVID. I am so sad, but other families have the same situation, the same thing.”

The situation in Myanmar “is really terrible,” said Lwin, who serves as coordinator of Burmese ministry at St. Pius X Parish. “We don’t know how to describe the situation over there. That’s why we are here [at the Mass] because we can only pray.”

Monica Cing agreed.

“We came here to pray for our family left in Burma,” said the 13-year-old student at St. Mark School whose family is of the Zomi Chin tribe. “The country has been really bad these days because of the government.”

Several non-refugees worshipped at the Mass, including St. Barnabas parishioner Laura Sheehan.

“A lot of my students were born in Myanmar or have parents that were born in Myanmar,” said the teacher of St. Barnabas’ first-grade Sunday school class. “I came to show solidarity with them.”

So did the priests who serve in the three parishes with Burmese faith communities: Father Thang and Father Guy Roberts of St. Barnabas, Father Tim Wyciskalla of St. Mark and Father Francis Kalapurackal of St. Pius X.

Father Kalapurackal empathizes with the Burmese refugees. The priest, a refugee himself of an insurgency war in India, served as pastor of a missionary parish in India near the Myanmar border.

“My heart goes out to them,” he said. “I have an idea what they’re going through.”

Even before the coup, life was not easy in Myanmar, he said.

“I’ve been there many times. It’s a very poor country,” said Father Kalapurackal. “People live hand-to-mouth, really.

“And now they have no freedom there. The people are suffering so much. They come here with nothing and no one to turn to.”

But that does not deter their faith, he said.

“They’re a wonderful, faith-filled, God-loving, caring people.”

‘We keep you in our prayers’

That faith rang out in jubilant song and radiant smiles at the Mass.

The three Burmese communities each speak a different language. But many refugees also know the national language of Myanmar, making it possible for them to worship as a whole three times a year, said Lwin.

But having Mass with Archbishop Thompson—that was special.

“Especially I want to see [the] archbishop,” said Kam Tung, smiling broadly. Tung is a Zomi Chin and member of St. Mark. “I wanted to see him and have Mass with all of our Burmese community.”

It was worshipping with that large community that filled the heart of Thomas Chan with joy.

“It’s amazing to be here,” said Chan, a member of the Karen tribe and of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. “I really miss my country. Even though the Mass is not all Burmese language, I feel like I’m in my old country. There is nothing like to have Mass in your own language.”

To honor the languages of the different tribes present at the Mass, six representatives read petitions, each in their tribe’s native tongue.

The celebration ended with an outpouring of gratitude for Archbishop Thompson. He received a standing ovation, as well as the gift of a framed, embroidered image of two angels brought from Myanmar.

The archbishop thanked the whole community.

“You have so much to give to the Church,” he said. “You are a blessing, you are a gift to the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

“We are grateful to you for your wonderful witness. And we are grateful for the two wonderful seminarians you have given us.

“We keep you in our prayers, and the suffering of your loved ones.” †

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