Myanmar – Young at heart

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     Myanmar is now a world-famous country because of Aung San Suu Kyi, heroine of democracy. But she is not alone. In his autobiography, From the Land of Green Ghosts, Pascal Khoo Thwe wrote about his experience as a guerrilla fighter who had a chance to go and study in the UK. In the opening chapter about his life as a village boy, he speaks of an Italian missionary: “Indeed we children loved him. He clothed us, fed us and taught us until his death. He never returned to Italy. He became accustomed to being a quasi tribal chief, so far had he gone in adopting our customs… Like the ghosts of our ancestors, he and the other Italian priests became, after death, part of our society, pleasantly haunting and guarding our village.” When Pascal wrote this, he was far from imagining that one of his Italian priest-friends, Fr. Clement Vismara (1897-1988), would be declared Blessed and in this way attract again the world attention on Myanmar.

      Born in 1897 in Agrate Brianza, Italy, Fr. Clement Vismara took part in the First World War. From his war experience he understood that “life has value only if you give it for others”, and thus he became a priest and missionary the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in 1923 and left for Burma. Arriving in Toungoo, he spent six months in the bishop’s house to learn English, then he set off for Kengtung, an almost unexplored land of forests and mountains. After fourteen days on horseback, he arrived at Kengtung where he remained for three months to be introduced to the local languages and then the superior of the mission accompanied him to Monglin, another six days on horseback away, his last destination, on the border between Laos, Thailand and China. 

      Fr. Clement, out of nowhere, built three parishes: Monglin, Mong Phyak and Kenglap. He used to live with three orphans in a mud and straw shed. His apostolate was to tour the tribal villages on horseback, to pitch his tent and make himself known: he brought medicine, pulled rotten teeth, adapted to the life of the tribal people, the climate, the dangers, the food of rice and spicy sauce, the hunting for meat. From the outset, he took in orphans and abandoned children in Monglin to educate them. Later, he founded an orphanage that became home to 250 orphans.

In his simplicity, Fr. Clement was clever and cunning: he had a kind of Gospel ingenuity. He tended to trust everybody, even those who did not deserve it. One time, he was stopped by some brigands who relieved him of everything he had. He exclaimed: “Poor people! They too were hungry!” Another time, when he was travelling with a group of people, the brigands appeared, but Fr. Clement faced them by saying: “Aren’t you ashamed of robbing all these poor people the little they have?” He was an impressive man, big and more than six feet tall. The brigands listened to him.

Blessed Clement founded the Church in a corner of the world where there are no tourists, but only opium smugglers, black magicians and guerillas from different backgrounds. He brought peace and helped the nomadic tribes to settle within the territory. Gradually a Christian community was born. Through schooling and health care, the indigenous people raised their standards of living and now have doctors and nurses, artisans and teachers, priests and nuns, bishops and civil authorities. Many of them are called Clement and Clementine. He died June 15, 1988 in Mongping and is buried near the church and the Grotto of Lourdes, which he built. His grave is visited also by many non-Christians. Now, Father Clement Vismara was declared Blessed, the first step towards recognized sainthood.

Father Clement, even at 80, he had the same enthusiasm for his vocation, as priest and missionary, as when he was 20. He was always peaceful and joyful, generous to all, a man of God despite the tragic situations in which he lived. He had an adventurous and poetic vision of the missionary vocation that made him a fascinating character also through his writings.

      His trust in Divine Providence was proverbial. He had no budgets or estimates; he never counted the money he had. In a country where the majority of people during some months of the year suffer from hunger, Fr. Clement gave food to all. He never turned anyone away empty-handed.

      Pope Benedict has said “The saints are the great luminous trail on which God passes through history. In them we see that there truly is a force of good which resists the millennia; there truly is the light of light.” One of these lights was brought to wider attention on June 26 when, Fr. Clement Vismara who died in 1988 at the age of 91 in a remote corner of Burma was beatified. In Buddhist Burma, today called Myanmar, Catholics are little more than one percent. If the Christian faith is rooted there, it is due precisely to a missionary like Fr. Clement Vismara, to the “luminous trail” radiated by his holiness.


Lorenzo Carraro





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