It is almost impossible to describe the appreciation and love that Catholic Kachins in Myanmar have for Columbans. One of the Kachin traditions that shows this appreciation in a very ‘sacred’ way is the ‘adoption’ of an individual Columban by a Kachin family. It is their way of showing their deep gratitude to Columban missionaries who left their own country and families to be with the Kachin people. This was particularly true of those Columbans who stayed on in Burma after 1966 when missionaries were expelled from the country. Only those who had arrived in Burma before 1948 were permitted to stay. However, if they left the country for any reason they were not allowed to return. As a result, the Columbans who stayed on after 1966 did not take any vacation outside of Burma; they remained in the country until illness or something else forced them to leave. Some remained without a break until 1979 when the last three Columbans left.
In a very real and literal sense they ‘belonged’ to the Kachin people and this is what the Kachin people tell us now. They may have had their idiosyncrasies but their gift of themselves and their loyalty to the people was without question. Older Kachins still tell us: “They loved us, and we loved them.” The sincerity is clearly evident.
This love of the Kachins for the Columbans found a practical expression when families would formally ‘adopt’ an individual Columban. This ritual showed not only appreciation but also ensured that the Columban would always be cared for. He was now family. Though circumstances have changed, the people have continued the tradition with the Columbans who have ‘come back’ to Kachinland in more recent years, beginning with the Columban Sisters, five of whom arrived in Myitkyina in 2003. They have also extended this same privilege to some other missionaries. Since May 2019, I was aware that my ‘adoption’ was being “talked about” though I was not told who my “adopting family” might be. Rumour was that it would take place close to St Columban’s Day on 23rd November. However, in late October I received a phone call asking me if I would be free on the evening of 30th October. I was then informed that I would be adopted by the Zingthung family. I was very touched and humbled. Archbishop Paul Zingthung Grawng, the former Bishop of Myitkyina and emeritus Archbishop of Mandalay, was the first Kachin ordained to the priesthood and the first Kachin bishop. I have known him since 2003 when I first came here and have always deeply respected him – a simple and humble man. Bishop Paul is now my ‘elder brother’! I have been adopted into his extended family.
A particular member of the family takes the primary responsibility – in this case Bishop Paul’s younger brother Johnny and his wife Mary. It was at their house that I was ‘adopted’ by the Zingthung family in a ceremony attended by my fellow Columbans, priests and Sisters, and some friends. The ceremony was simple but had a quiet solemnity and was deeply moving for me. The senior Catechist in Edin, Myitkyina, where we live, officiated at the ceremony, which included prayers, a Gospel reading, Bishop Paul’s words on the Gospel and a warm welcome into the family. As the prayers continued, Sara Kaba Yawhan, the Catechist, mixed together three ingredients – fish eggs, ginger and salt, each with its own significance – that would later be used at the meal. The meaning of each was explained as we went along; they were all very biblical. At the same time the name by which I am now to be also known was revealed – Wa Jau (which means Father) Patrick Zingthung Aung Li – Aung Li being my ‘given’ name within the family.
In the few days prior to the ceremony there had been speculation about what name I would be given. Many things come into play: your place in your birth family, firstborn, second son or daughter etc, your date of birth and some other things. Many felt that I would be called Hkun Naw which can mean second son or good son! Aung Li, my name, has many meanings including ‘a great harvest’. In my case it refers to my many years as a missionary priest as well as the Columbans’ fruitful harvest over the last 80 years in Kachinland. Rose, one of my new sisters, explained that it can also mean a “welcoming bush” which could refer to the little mustard seed that becomes a bush for the birds of the air. So, no shortage of symbolism!
During the final part of the ceremony I was given a bag and a sword to symbolise mutual protection and care. Then we had a lot of fun as we enjoyed our dinner together. What stays with me is the solemnity, reverence and prayerfulness of it all and how deeply moved I was by the genuine warmth and happiness of all the family, especially the younger ones, in welcoming me as one of their family. When you are over 70 and a family wants to adopt you… it might seem a little odd but it’s really kind of special!
Pat O’Donoghue was ordained in 1974 and was assigned to the Philippines. He first went to Myanmar in 2003. He is a member of the Myanmar Mission Unit which was established in 2015. He lives in Myitkyina.