Saturday, December 14, 2013

Pope: Fr Mario Vergara and Isidore Ngei Ko Lat, martyrs for the faith in Myanmar, to become blessed

The Servants of God, Fr Mario Vergara, a priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), and lay catechist Isidore Ngei Ko Lat will be beatified. They were killed in hatred of the faith in Shadaw (Myanmar) on 24 May 1950.

Pope Francis made the decision after authorising the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate the decree concerning their martyrdom. Mgr Phamo Soter, bishop of Loikaw who was the son of a catechist trained by Fr Mario, began the diocesan process for the case in 2003. 

Hence, the Burmese Church will celebrate its first blessed.

Fr Mario Vergara was born in Frattamaggiore (Aversa) on 16 November 1910. In 1929, after studying at the Jesuit minor seminary in Posillipo, he was admitted to the PIME seminary in Monza. In 1932 he received the tonsure and minor orders by the Bishop of Aversa Carmine Cesarano. In August 1933, he was admitted to the PIME novitiate in Sant'Ilario Ligure under the guidance of Fr Emilio Milani, who was a missionary in China. 

On August 26, 1934 he was ordained priest by Card Ildefonso Schuster in the church of Bernareggio. By the end of September, he had joined the PIME mission in Burma.

At that time, the country was a British colony. Upon his arrival, Fr Vergara was greeted by Bishop Sagrada, apostolic vicar in Toungoo. In 1936, he was entrusted with the care of the mountainous district of Citaciò, home to a Karen tribe, the Soku, one of the poorest and most primitive in Burma. 

Here Fr Vergara fine-tuned his missionary method. He thus brought the catechesis to all the villages, celebrated the sacraments and established various training and aid activities, including an orphanage for 82 Burmese children and a sanatorium.

In 1941, after the outbreak of the Second World War, he was interned in British concentration camps in India along with other Italian missionaries, deemed "fascists" by the British. After four years during which he experienced health problems and had a kidney removed, he was released and travelled by train across India to Delhi and Hyderabad. 

In the fall of 1946, he got back to Burma. In December, Bishop Lanfranconi sent him to the Kayah-Karen Mountains, east of Loikaw, where alone he rebuilt the mission that the war had swept away. He taught catechesis in the villages and built medical posts and clinics. 

Starting in September 1948, another young PIME missionary, Fr Pietro Galastri joined him.

After Burma's independence in 1948, the places where Fr Mario, Fr Piero and their catechists operated saw fighting break out between local groups trying to assert their various traditions, religious beliefs and ideologies. 

Still, he did not slow down. Instead, he travelled on foot to distant communities and brought care to mountain people, without distinction of religion, and this despite the fact that some rebel forces had started to persecute Catholics. Against this background, Fr Vergara came to the defence of the oppressed, sparking hatred Baptist rebels.

Soon, the situation worsened. On 24 May 1950 he was arrested together with master catechist Isidore Ngei Ko Lat. The two were killed by rebels the next day and their bodies, placed in a bag, were thrown into the Salween River. Fr Galastri, who was praying, was also arrested and killed shortly afterwards.

For the Church in Burma, the beatification is a source of great joy as Isidore Ngei will  be its first blessed.

In May 2008, the local Bishops' Conference wrote a letter to Pope Benedict XVI to "ask humbly the Pope to authorise the study of the cause." 

The beatification of Fr Vergara and his catechist, the bishops wrote, "would greatly encourage the entire Catholic community in Myanmar to live their faith more in line with the Gospel." 

It will also help its members "bear witness in a courageous and heroic fashion to their faith, encouraged by the example of the catechist Isidore who did not hesitate to offer his life for the Gospel together with Fr Vergara."

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