July 8, 2019: When deliberating over whether or not to become a priest, Kinley Tshering – an extremely rare Catholic convert in his native Bhutan – asked God for a sign.
The sign came on an ensuing airplane flight when he discovered he was sitting next to Mother Teresa (now St. Teresa of Calcutta). He soon joined the Jesuit Order and in 1995 became the first Catholic priest born in Bhutan – a landlocked South Asian country, surrounded by India and China, with a total population of about 800,000, some three-fourths of whom are Buddhists; most of the remaining one-fourth are Hindus, and Christians account for less than 1% of the population.
As a devout Buddhist family, Tshering’s parents actually took him as an infant to a monastery and dedicated him as a Buddhist monk. And yet he proceeded to receive a Catholic education. He tells how, as a small child in the early 1960s, “there weren’t many good schools in Bhutan.” So his family sent him to Catholic boarding schools in Darjeeling, India.
There he attended a school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny before heading on to a school run by Jesuits. In Grade 9, he was baptized into the Catholic faith, an incident that left his family “confused.”
Tshering later attended the Jesuit institutions of St. Joseph’s College in Bangalore and St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, before obtaining his MBA from the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore.
He proceeded to work in the business industry. But something about his conventional way of life left him unsatisfied and he continued to deliberate about becoming a priest.
For a long time, he had been praying to God to give him a sign to let him know that he should enter the priestly vocation.
The sign arrived in rather dramatic fashion one day in 1985, when Tshering – on board a flight headed from Hyderabad to Calcutta – realized that the diminutive old lady praying next to him was none other than Mother Teresa.
She eventually took a break from her prayers to ask him where he was from.
Tshering told Aleteia that their ensuing conversation, which took place in the English language, was not “long or chatty” and consisted primarily of his uncertainty about becoming a priest. “She encouraged me to say yes,” he adds.
Tshering emphasizes that his having met Mother Teresa was not a “chance encounter” but, rather, a “providential one that changed [his] entire life.” He joined the Jesuit Order as a novitiate in Darjeeling on June 21, 1986.
He met Mother Teresa once again, in an October 1995 visit to Calcutta, subsequent to his ordination as a priest. “She was happy about it and told me she had been praying for me for the last 10 years,” he relates.
She told me she had been praying for me for the last 10 years
Tshering spent a total of 33 years in Darjeeling, where he would serve as the principal of one college and the headmaster of two schools before becoming the Provincial of the Darjeeling Province of the Jesuit community. Owing to his business background, he was also given an opportunity to teach business, but he declined. “I felt that It was not my calling to go back to that culture and climate,” he says.
He has since returned to his homeland, where he looks after the tiny Catholic population and celebrates Mass for them on Sundays. He does not know of any other ethnic Bhutanese converts to Catholicism but says that there are a few Catholics in Bhutan of Nepali origin.
As for openness to other religions, Tshering views Bhutan as “’pretty good,” especially “compared to many countries.” And he adds that the Fourth King of Bhutan granted and guaranteed freedom of religion. However, no Christian denomination is currently recognized as a formal religion. He hopes this changes in the future but feels that certain “fundamentalist Christians” in his country are acting in a way that is counterproductive. They “continue to provoke and try fraudulent evangelizing.”
Tshering remains the only Bhutan native to have become a priest. He says that many persons in Bhutan are “aware there is a Catholic priest” but no one has ever approached him to express disapproval about his unique status. And his family, though initially startled and resistant, has come to accept his vocation.
Despite Mother Teresa’s impact on the world and on him personally, Tshering says that his sole spiritual mentor is Jesus Himself. “The rest are all human.”