MARION—As a boy in Burma, Father Marcian Thet Kyaw considered two careers: the military or the priesthood. Each night, he asked God to help him choose.
The sisters and priests he saw every day in his hometown helped make the choice for him.
“The sisters followed the ‘Little Way’ of St. Theresa of Lisieux, which teaches that little things we do are always something in the eyes of God,” he said.
“Those sisters I knew put a seed in my heart when I was 12. It was growing for years without me knowing, and when the time came for me to choose at age 16, then the priests helped me to step into my vocation.”
This year, Father Kyaw celebrates the 15th anniversary of his ordination, serving two small Catholic communities thousands of miles from his home in the Archdiocese of Yangon, formerly Rangoon.
Since early 2008, he has been administrator of St. Louis Church in Dillon and Church of the Infant Jesus Mission in Marion.
Father Kyaw grew up in southern Burma, raised Catholic in a family with diverse beliefs. His late father’s family was Catholic, his mother was raised Baptist and then converted, and some of his relatives were Buddhist. He started seminary at age 16, and eventually completed his studies at St. Joseph’s Catholic Major Seminary in Yangon.
Father Kyaw said his mother and father were proud of his vocation, and that parents in Burma actively encourage their sons to become priests. His father, however, became ill and died the day he was ordained.
“He knew I was getting ordained that morning, and he passed away later that night,” Father Kyaw said. “I celebrated my first Mass the next day for him.”
For seven years, Father Kyaw worked in parishes and helped to train young men at a seminary in Burma before being sent to the United States in 2002. He wanted to travel, and was fortunate that his bishop at the time encouraged priests to take on mission work in other countries.
He has returned to his country, now called Myanmar, for only one visit in eight years. He keeps in touch with his mother and five siblings through e-mail and phone calls. In 2008, he could only watch and pray as his community dealt first with political violence and then with the devastation from Cyclone Nargis, which killed thousands.
Being so far from home is a challenge he readily accepts as part of his vocation.
“As priests, we are there for the people,” Father Kyaw said. “As a priest, it is like you are a member of every family but you belong to none of them. As a priest, you have the privilege of celebrating the Mass, the privilege to sanctify people through the sacraments and confession. You are not going to get that kind of privilege and experience in any other kind of career.”
Father Kyaw also has served at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston, Prince of Peace Church in Taylors, and St. Ann Church in Florence.
“In the beginning, I had a tough time adjusting to the language system, to the culture, but everyone in the diocese has welcomed me,” he said.
Father Kyaw said one big difference is how Americans relate to their parish priests. In Burma, where Catholics are a minority of 850,000 in a nation of 52 million, people are often hesitant to criticize a priest’s decisions or give an opinion on a homily.
“Here in America, it’s more open, and people are very prompt to react to something a priest does and give their opinions,” he said.
He wants to help parishes develop a strong devotion to Mary, because he believes it helps create a stronger faith and sense of Catholic community. He worked to have a rosary garden built at St. Ann, and another in Marion is nearly complete, thanks to the help of dedicated volunteers and an anonymous donor.
“I believe Mary is the mother of the priest, and you can’t be a good priest unless you have devotion and love for her,” he said. “She’s the model of our spirituality.”
In Dillon, Father Kyaw focuses on developing a sense of community in the small parish of 62 households. A small but active youth group now meets regularly, and he hopes to remodel and expand the old house, which has been the parish center for more than 40 years.
Free time is rare because he spends much of the week shuttling back and forth between the two churches, about 30 minutes apart. He enjoys playing golf and tennis and likes to sing along with a karaoke machine in his Dillon rectory.
Father Kyaw said more young people would choose religious vocations if they received the same encouragement he did as a child.
“We have to approach the young and ask them serious questions, to put the seed of the idea in their hearts,” he said. “We have to ask ‘Do you want to be a priest?’ There wouldn’t have been disciples unless Jesus personally approached them and said ‘Follow me!’ He didn’t ask the disciples’ opinions. He approached the people personally and called them by name. The life of a priest is challenging, and it’s a life-long commitment. No one is going to make that commitment unless you inspire them.”