June 28, 2022 | Local News
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

Newly-ordained Dcn. Martin Ma Na Ling laughs with Bishop William F. Medley after Dcn. Ma Na Ling’s March 20, 2021 ordination to the transitional diaconate. ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD | WKC

‘God will be with me; in God I will go’

Seminarian to be only second Myanmar-born priest ordained in U.S.

BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC

Becoming a priest has been “my dream since my childhood” for Dcn. Martin Ma Na Ling, who will be ordained a priest of the Diocese of Owensboro, Ky., on July 2 at the Owensboro Sportscenter.

Dcn. Ma Na Ling grew up in a small village in Myanmar, also known as Burma. The village was so isolated that priests could only travel out to it once a year – which was always the cause of great celebration among the local Catholics, who are a minority faith tradition in Myanmar.

When he was very small, Dcn. Ma Na Ling liked that the priests were fed excellent food during their visits to the village, and he wanted to be a priest for that reason. But as he got older, he realized his desire was about more than just physical nourishment.

“I was maybe 10 or 13 when I realized I wanted to be a priest, realized it was my vocation,” said Dcn. Ma Na Ling.

In fifth through 10th grade young Martin attended a Catholic boarding school and lived with a local priest to continue discerning his vocation. He entered the seminary in 2010 and continued to study, pray and discern.

(Left to right) Dcn. Christopher Grief, Dcn. Martin Ma Na Ling and Dcn. Christopher Kight shortly after Dcn. Grief and Dcn. Kight’s April 9, 2022 ordinations to the transitional diaconate. RILEY GREIF | WKC

While at St. Michael’s Major Seminary in Taunggyi, Myanmar, for his pastoral year – during which the seminarians took no exams and instead focused on their spiritual formation – Martin was asked by his bishop’s secretary if he would consider going “to another country.”

Martin was unsure, since his plan was “to be a priest and serve the people in a small village.”

Plus, he considered himself “a joyful man” while discerning with his large, familiar community of fellow seminarians.

But God’s plans are not the same as human plans.

Martin was told that this other country would be the United States, in the Diocese of Owensboro. With the growing population of Burmese Catholics resettling in the U.S. – including western Kentucky – to escape the social and political turmoil of Myanmar, they needed shepherds who closely understood their situation.

The U.S. has a number of Burmese priests, but at the time all had studied and were ordained in Myanmar before being sent to serve Burmese refugees.

This opportunity being offered to Martin would provide the chance to study in a U.S. seminary, be ordained a priest of the Diocese of Owensboro, and permanently reside in the U.S. to serve Burmese Catholics making their new homes in western Kentucky.

Before Martin agreed, he asked “with whom shall I go?” since he had been told he would be sent with one other seminarian.

The other seminarian turned out to be Stephen Van Lal Than, whom Martin had befriended over a shared love of music. Stephen had even taught music theory to Martin, who originally only knew how to play by ear.

Still thinking and discerning, Martin asked the bishop’s secretary if he could answer the next day. In the meantime, Martin reached out to a few mentors for advice.

Dcn. Martin Ma Na Ling. FILE PHOTO

One of his priest mentors said that in asking Martin, they were not just seeking a seminarian who was intellectually smart; that they looked at all aspects of the person – “human, spiritual.”

“He had confidence in me because he knew me very well,” said Dcn. Ma Na Ling.

The next morning, he called the secretary and said, “I am going. God will be with me; in God I will go.”

Martin and Stephen arrived in Kentucky in January 2017. After studying in the ESLI (English as a Second Language International) program at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, they continued their education and formation at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in southern Indiana.

Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than was ordained to the diaconate in April 2019 and to the priesthood in May 2020. Dcn. Ling was ordained to the transitional diaconate in March 2021.

It has been a long journey, both geographically and spiritually, but Dcn. Ma Na Ling says he is “so happy – God has been so good.”

“I look forward to learning from the other priests,” said Dcn. Ma Na Ling, adding that Bishop William F. Medley “will be a wonderful father and pastor for me.”

Dcn. Ling’s July ordination will be the centerpiece of the weekend-long National Catholic Burmese-American Conference (NCBAC), drawing more than a thousand Burmese Catholics to celebrate their faith in Owensboro.

The NCBAC will take place at the Owensboro Sportscenter and at nearby Owensboro Catholic High School from July 1-4.

Dcn. Ma Na Ling is eager to reunite with fellow Burmese Catholics after the separation and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is thankful they will all be able to witness his ordination.

Multiple ethnicities will be represented at the conference, said Dcn. Ma Na Ling, which parallels the face of the Burmese Catholic population of western Kentucky.

“Even though we are of different tribes and dialects, in worship we are one,” he said.

Dcn. Ma Na Ling said that “even though I was born in a small village, God’s grace has been so good.”

He said he is grateful for Bishop Medley, the priests of the diocese, the Knights of Columbus, “and everyone for supporting me.”

“The Mighty One has done great things for me,” said Dcn. Ma Na Ling.

Seminarian Martin Ma Na Ling sings during the ordination of Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than on May 23, 2020. ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD | WKC

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Publisher |  Bishop William F. Medley
Editor |  Elizabeth Wong Barnstead
Contributors |  Riley Greif, Tina Kasey
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