Diary of a Priest Overcome Who, in Turn, Overcame

This is how a man of faith and action can heal and build up the Church.

Fr. Firmin and some members of his flock.
Fr. Firmin and some members of his flock. (photo: Photo provided)

There the priest stood before the Mandalay’s bishop’s desk. The ordinary sat looking up at the man before him, who hadn’t as yet celebrated his first-year anniversary of ordination. The 30-year-old Fr. Firmin Aung Kyaw Zawl was to be assigned to a large parish in the Burmese jungle — not as an assistant pastor, as was the custom for the newly-ordained in the Archdiocese, but rather as a full-fledged pastor.

Perfectly unprecedented.

His assignment started in five days. There was no time for ifs, ands or buts―the clock was ticking and the salvation of souls hung in the balance. 

You might recall Fr. Firmin from a previous article. He was one behind the wheel during my very first car accident, for which I thank Our Lady of Myanmar for protecting the two of us and those in the other vehicle. The damage was limited to nothing more than what a few shekels could smooth over. 

The young priest trembled under the weight of such staggering responsibility. 

“I’ve wanted to be a priest and specifically a parish priest all of my life,” said Fr. Firmin, upon whose hands the holy chrism of ordination had yet to dry. “I trust in the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,” he admitted with a grave tone that comes more from shock than fear in his voice. “I must. Otherwise I’d be too afraid to take this assignment.”

As a lay missionary, the local bishop gave me permission to shadow the young priest with the admonition to “be as useful as you can be.”

All the Catholic priests of Burma speak English and those who don’t, often speak Italian. For this, I am eternally grateful as there was little chance of me mastering their language. Otherwise I’d be as useful as the next exotic and useless decoration.

Fr. Firmin’s new assignment was Assumption Parish in the Catholic village of Chaung Oo in the highlands of Burma―a devout and traditional Catholic pocket in the otherwise Buddhist region. The area is served by 12 parishes. Assumption was the first and most important.

It wasn’t merely the size of the parish that was daunting. Rather, it was its historicity. The parish was started by the Barnabites Fathers in 1760. The administration of the parish was transferred to the Oblates of Mary Fathers about a hundred years later and then, finally transferred to the local diocese when enough local vocations could be produced.

The parish is comprised of 237 families with approximately 2000 parishioners. This represents a doubling in numbers of families in the past three years because young Catholic adults are now more likely marrying Buddhist spouses. The children from such mixed marriages are inevitably raised Catholic, as the Church holds a place of high regard in Burma for its educational standards and for its philanthropic emphasis―we don’t discriminate between “our” poor and “their” poor and this has built up the Church’s reputation in the eyes of Buddhists across the country especially their monks.

The parish and its priests and the local Buddhist monastery have always had good relations ever since the first missionaries came here. This continues even to this day. Each community is invited to the other for major celebrations. Gifts are exchanged as are kindnesses. This has mercifully resulted in a steady stream of conversions to Christ.

When I looked at Fr. Firmin in those shared silent moments that marked our walks from one parishioner’s house to another, he seemed deep in thought and I could see the worry in his face.

It turned out that his initial fears were greatly exaggerated. His new parishioners welcomed the priest with open arms and open hearts. They welcomed him as one would a lost child that had been, by the grace of God, returned to the village.

The previous priest had left in a cloud of financial scandal and ultimately left the priesthood barely two weeks earlier. The village was grateful to have a caring priest once again. 

Fr. Firmin, being completely unfamiliar with even basic accounting practices, enlisted the help of every college-educated parishioner to get a grip on the fast-and-loose fiscal irresponsibilities that marred the administration of his predecessor.

He immediately befriended the youth of the parish endearing them to him with his fancy footwork on the soccer field. The kids quickly realized that the side that had him on it would win the game hands-down. 

Every family insisted he eat a meal with them. Breakfast, lunch, dinner or midnight snack―anything, just to have this young priest in their home. This is the reason why so many Burmese priests are a bit on the chunky side. In Burma, one should be suspicious of a skinny priest―perhaps he’s unloved and uncared for by his flock.

He would sit down with each family and listen to their concerns and their hopes for the parish. And with a wisdom whose origin is God, Fr. Firmin nodded and winnowed the chaff from the wheat, taking the good ideas and letting the rest die a natural death. 

I had already worked with Fr. Firmin previously on other evangelical projects but he had never had such a position of authority or responsibility as he did now. I had known him as happy-go-lucky. Perhaps even whimsical. However, all that changed when he got to Assumption Parish. 

Now he has shown his true colors. Fr. Firmin is no slouch. His baptism by fire showed him to be an unrelating and fearless crusader for Christ. I had to catch my breath just keeping up with him. Any fears he had before taking up his pastorship of Assumption Parish, quickly dissipated, buoyed as he was by the Holy Spirit.

“As unworthy as I am, I promised Jesus that I would strive to be the best priest possible if He only filled me with the energy and wisdom to put my convictions into action,” Fr. Firmin said, a curious mixture of resignation and determination in his voice. 

“I also prayed to the Virgin Mary―she will not let me down. Nor can I let down the parishioners here. My chief task is to repair any damage that my predecessor may have caused―spiritual and financial. I feel very sorry for these wonderful people if they’ve been scandalized by the previous priest. Whatever I need to do, I will do. I just need God to tell me what it is that I should do!”

That prayer should sound familiar to every Christian.

If only God would tell us―as specifically as possible―what He wants from us and yet He rarely does. To the same request, even St. Francis of Assisi only got a general, “Francis! Go and repair My house which is in a state of disrepair!” And, for those familiar with the story, please recall that even Francis initially misunderstood God’s directive and literally repaired the San Damiano Chapel where the saint had received his vision. How can any of the rest of us ask for better treatment―or more specific instructions―than what God gave Francis?

And yet, Fr. Firmin moved into the parish and, within one month, established a youth choir, financed the rewiring and repairs to the rectory’s roof. He doubled the outreach to the poor of the parish in terms of food and clothing. He’s a cross between a whirlwind and a dynamo. A tireless man on a holy mission who is determined to not be stopped until his flock finds God in their lives and their souls are converted to the Lord. He can’t afford to say, “no” but rather says, “give me time.”

I had to step back so as not to be trampled in his holy and determined wake. But it’s his gentility and firmness of faith that impresses most. He’s a man given to pray, as we should all be. More specifically, Fr. Firmin doesn’t make a move without first calling upon God. He is a man close to the saints, which is born of equal measures of desperation and faith.

And so, as I my time at Assumption Parish in the jungles of Burma came to a close, I envied the sheep of Fr. Firmin’s flock. Theirs was a living, working and indefatigable example of how a man of faith and action can heal and build up the Church.