Fr. Alexander Cho goes where he's needed. The Burmese priest came to Kansas in 2007 to help fill a shortage of priests, but he'll soon be returning home to become the Bishop of Pyay, Myanmar.
Pope Benedict XVI announced the new appointment of the bishop-designate on Dec. 3. He will leave behind his two parishes in Kansas and return to the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar –also known as Burma– after Christmas. There, he expects to be consecrated as a bishop next spring.
While his adopted country struggles with a priest shortage and many cultural challenges, those difficulties pale before the obstacles facing the Catholic Church in Myanmar. The country became a military dictatorship in 1962, and citizens have almost none of the religious and civil rights that Americans take for granted. While worship is allowed, most other religious activities are not.
Four priests from Myanmar, where Western countries once sent their own Catholic missionaries, currently work in the Diocese of Salina in Kansas. Fr. Cho was ordained a priest for the Burmese Diocese of Pyay in 1975, and served for more than two decades as a pastor there. The bishop-designate was also rector of Myanmar's major seminary for seven years.
“The priests in Burma heard about the need for priests in the United States,” he told CNA on Dec. 3. One of their compatriots who had come to America noted the clerical shortage, and put the word out back home. That was how Fr. Cho ended up coming to Salina to work double-duty as the pastor of St. Mary's and St. Aloysius Gonzaga parishes.
That experience, the bishop-designate said, provided important lessons that he would take back with him to his native Pyay. “I've learned many, many things,” he reflected, especially from observing the “systematic running of the diocese,” and sharing in the “very friendly and very brotherly” spirit in which the hard-working priests support one another.
This lesson in mutual support could prove to be especially important for Burmese Catholics, who comprise less than two percent of a nation that is around 80 percent Buddhist. An even smaller proportion of the people residing in the Diocese of Pyay are Catholic, reportedly less than one percent.
The future bishop of the diocese noted it would be “very hard” to convert some residents whose Buddhist practice is closely tied to their regional and tribal identity. Yet he was optimistic about opportunities for evangelism, mentioning a “very great hope” for the Church's growth in areas where Buddhism is less dominant.
Fr. Cho predicted it will be difficult to fulfill the Church's entire social and cultural mandate, under a regime that grants almost no freedom to its citizens. In this context, he said, the Church in Myanmar will have to be “very careful” to preserve its current small measure of freedom.
“The government is trying to control everything,” he observed. “At present, it is very hard to change the whole system … they have their power, they have their guns. So it is not easy to change the situation at present. I don't see a very good future yet.”
The bishop-designate's leadership will be urgently needed. “Because of the improper governing, people are also becoming worse in their morality, in their livelihood, in their education, all these … The situation is becoming worse.”