Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Bishop Philip Lasap Zahawng

One’s typical experience of Bishops entails the stereotypical picture of miter, skull cap, staff and long pontifical masses. Often enough, bishops outside this usual cut come dancing or quietly walking into the scene. Some years ago, a dancing, singing, joking bishop brought the warmth and life of humanity to his diocese and the Philippine Church. His name was synonymous to laughter, fun, poetry as well as serious sharing on the need for justice, love, respect and compassion between Christians and Muslims.

His name was Benie Tudtud. Biship Benie perished in a plane crash in the mountains of Baguio city, 250 kilometers north of Manila. To those who knew him Benie is still singing and greeting everyone with his “Magandang Good Morning.” He is not dead. “How can he when we hear him singing, laughing and joking”, insists Fr. Sean McNulty, a Columban friend who still admits that he has not gotten over the lost of Benie. Thank God for Benie who continues to live in the hearts of so many.

These past few days, I had the honor and pleasure of being with a bishop who did not sing, dance and joke. This bishop walked and spoke with quiet dignity and much love for church and people. Bishop Philip Lasap Zahawng of the Diocese of Lashio, Shan State, Myanmar came to Hong Kong to visit people and institutions that have shown keen interest in Myanmar. He dropped by to visit Fr Robert Astorino MM, Executive Director of UCA News; Mr. Anthony S.K Lam of the Holy Spirit Study Center and Fr. Emile Louis-Tisserand of the MEP. He also met with Bishop Tong of the Diocese of Hong Kong. His brief stay in Hong Kong which is just his second in the last twenty two years since 1984, gave him the chance to see, discuss and understand the crucial importance of a number of elements in preaching the good news of salvation.

As we took taxi cabs, busses, trains on the MTR routes, I could see the bishop looking with keen observing eyes. I can only wonder what went through his mind and heart. What could one be thinking and feeling whose people suffer extremes of poverty, hunger and disease? Bishop Philip’s own family from parents down to his last sibling all died young. His farther died at 46, his mother at 43, his eldest sister died as an infant, his elder brother died at 45 (of appendicitis after complaining about severe stomach ache as he toss back and forth, being so far from a hospital, his other siblings tried to relieve his pain by massaging his abdomen ), the fourth brother died at 46, the fourth and fifth siblings, a boy and a girl died between 3 and 4 years old and his last sister died between 17 and 18 years of age. He is the only surviving member of his family. He is now 61 and thanks God for the years given him since his birth on February 12, 1945.

This poverty became so evident when he explains how one of his missions was to buy breviaries for three newly ordained priests. A breviary which will cost about $US200 is no small amount. It is more than what most of the people in Myanmar would earn within an entire year. For instance, a primary school principal in his province would receive 12,000 Kyat a month which is roughly equivalent to US$12. Multiply this by 12, you only have US$144, which is less than the price of one set of breviary for one priest. What can 12,000Kyat buy? The cheapest variety of rice sells at 20,000Kyat. The Government sells this to workers at cost for 5 to 6 thousand Kyat. To augment their income, school teachers would normally wake up very early to sell vegetables in the market or to take on tutorials before proceeding to school.

Aside from very low incomes, poor and extremely inadequate communication technology is another consequence of poverty. In order to communicate to 27 Priests assigned to 16 parishes, Bishop Philip has to rely on an informal courier system as telephone lines and mail service are unreliable. There are only four parishes with telephone connections. The absence of regular electricity rules out computers and the internet which most people even in underdeveloped countries take for granted. “Because of the prohibitive cost of diesel fuel, I only have electricity three hours a day, from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., “ the Bishop explains in a matter of fact way. Sick calls at night are done by candle light. Emergency operations in the hospitals are very expensive because the patient’s family would have to pay more because the hospital’s generator would have to be turned on.

A given geographical reality with real pastoral challenges is the fact that Myanmar shares a 200 kilometer boundary with Yunnan Province of China. The borders are not really protected so to speak. Chinese immigrants have come in big waves over the past years. “How I regret not having learned Mandarin earlier,” muses the Bishop. Language is in fact one of his pastoral concerns. Lashio according to the Bishop is almost Chinese dominated. Hence, it would be ideal if Church workers knew and spoke Chinese. Another pastoral challenge is how to gradually transform the whole Northern Shan State practice of Poppy growing. Government, NGO’s and Churches are working in close collaboration to help farmers plant alternative crops. However, soil which essentially limestone is sandy and not quite suitable to agriculture. As an alternative, hollow block manufacturing is being pursued.

When asked about his dream for his people, Bishop Philip reflects on both Traditional Religion and Buddhism. Traditional religion use animal sacrifices (cows and chicken) to placate the gods. Buddhism is very good for peace work but is sometimes distorted by some to promote pacifism. How to make people recognize the living God of love, justice and peace is both dream and concrete commitment.

My short time with this quiet but most interesting Bishop ends in a simple but memorable way. The house minister had to buy groceries and needed some help. Both Bishop Philip and I walk to the supermarket. The Bishop naturally takes a grocery cart and starts pushing. I offer to push the cart myself. The Bishop holds the pushcart bar firmly and says with a smile, “I like pushing.” I smiled and teased the Bishop, “…I hope not people…” I walked quietly behind and watched for the first time a bishop pushing a grocery cart. I prayed for him, “ Lord bless Bishop Philip, keep gently pushing him and his flock towards your Kingdom of justice, love, freedom and peace.

July 11, 2006


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