YANGON, Myanmar – When Pope Francis travels around the world, he often makes time to visit with local Jesuit communities. This week Jesuit Father Wilbert Mireh took part in the pope’s visit with the Jesuits of Myanmar, also known as Burma. Mireh’s role in the visit was unique: He is the first Burmese Jesuit to be ordained a priest.
A Burmese Jesuit “is a gift of God to the Society of Jesus, which has been invited back to the country after its previous expulsion by the country’s military regime in the 1960s,” Mireh told Catholic News Agency.
Mireh entered the Society of Jesus in 2000, and was ordained a priest in May 2013, becoming the first Jesuit priest from Myanmar in more than 470 years of Jesuit history. He is director of the country’s Campion Institute, and works in a parish in Loikaw. He is one of 32 Jesuits who work and operate in Myanmar.
Mireh explained that “the priority of the Society of Jesus for the past decade has been the formation of local Jesuits.”
He added that “the Society is also committed to other apostolic ministries, including, educational, social, spiritual and pastoral apostolates, although these are still in the beginning stages.”
Mireh underscored that “with the immense needs of the country, but with limited manpower and resources in a developing country where the Catholics make up just one percent of the total population, the challenge is to prioritize ministries in a realistic way.”
It is a “time of great challenges and sorrows,” Mireh noted, and the Jesuits “share the joy of the people in heartily welcoming Pope Francis’s visit,” which “signifies the Lord’s call to the Jesuits in Burma.”
Jesuits have been missionaries in the country since the early years of the Society of Jesus. St. Francis Xavier, a companion of Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola, asked Ignatius to send Jesuits as missionaries in the kingdom of Pegu, a territory now a part of Myanmar.
Jesuits missionaries also worked in the city of Mandalay.
In the 1950s and 1960s, American Jesuits were asked to lead a new Catholic seminary in the country. Because of the socialist dictatorship, the Jesuits had to flee the country again in the middle of the 1960s, after the military regime forbid contact with foreigners.
During the 1990s, Burmese bishops, who had been formed in the Jesuit-run seminary, personally asked Father Hans Kolvenbach, then General of the Society of Jesus, to send more Jesuits to the country. A group of Jesuits came back to the territory in 1998.
The Jesuits opened a novitiate, which Mireh attended, and began other apostolic projects.
Mireh is among the many fruits of 500 years of evangelization in the territory and 400 years of Jesuit apostolates in Myanmar.
Mireh lives his vocation and exceptionality in a very serene way.
“Despite my unworthiness – he said – I believe that it is also my personal response to the call of the Eternal King and I have been trying to integrate it faithfully as part of my daily life.”