Trust in God and carry on

POST BY MHolman

Fr Holman with Fr Carlos in Golra Sharif
Fr Holman with Fr Carlos in Golra Sharif

I spent the month of July this year in Pakistan, responding to a request from the Jesuits there for assistance with retreats for religious. I directed the Presentation sisters and some of the Jesuits, while another Jesuit directed the Sisters of Jesus and Mary and the Daughters of the Heart of Mary.

For much of the time we were based in the northern hill town of Murree, 7000 feet above the cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, where the climate was cool in contrast to the oppressive summer heat and humidity of the cities below. Wherever we went, we received a warm welcome and generous hospitality and learnt something about the history and religious traditions of the country. Despite having regions of outstanding natural beauty, Pakistan benefits little from tourism due to the uncertain security situation in much of the country, the everyday context of work for many of those we met.

There are only nine Jesuits in the Pakistan mission. The superior of the mission, Fr Renato Zecchin, is one of two from Australia and others come from Sri Lanka and Indonesia as well as Pakistan. As relations between Pakistan and India are so volatile, and the citizens of one cannot gain visas for entry into the other, the mission is unable to benefit from the substantial manpower resources of the Society in India and for the past twenty years it been the responsibility of the province of Sri Lanka. 

There is just one Jesuit house, Loyola Hall in Lahore, which includes a residential retreat centre and accommodation for Jesuit candidates, young men discerning their vocation to the Society, of whom there are currently nine. There is also a large library of mainly Catholic theology and Islamic thought and culture named after Fr Robert Butler, a Swiss Jesuit who was one of those who founded the mission in the 1960s. The Jesuits are also responsible for three schools in the city.

Education and social work are the principal ministries of the religious we met. In the southern Sindh province, sisters are involved in medical care and health and pastoral work with the poorest of the poor in the city of Karachi and in the tribal communities. Their informal educational work has an emphasis on basic reading and writing skills for adults in a region where illiteracy is a major problem.

The small Catholic community experiences much discrimination and employment opportunities are few. This puts a premium on a quality education. Catholic schools are valued by people of all faiths for their high academic standards and the values they teach, and the great majority of their students are Muslims. Security needs to be a high priority. There was an incident in December 2014 in Peshawar, in the border region near Afghanistan, in which six gunmen killed 132 students in a military school, an outrage for which the Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility. Since then, all schools have been required by the government to increase security with high walls, look-out posts, armed guards and similar measures.

Promoting inter-religious dialogue is one of the priorities for the Jesuits in Pakistan, a project led by Fr Juan Carlos Pallardel, a Peruvian Jesuit who completed his studies for the priesthood at Heythrop College in 2012. Much of his work involves conversations with Muslim academics in the Islamic universities aimed at building trust and forming fruitful collaborative relationships. Each year, a symposium is held at Loyola Hall in which scholars reflect on an issue of common interest. Towards the end of my stay I reviewed the papers of a symposium held two years ago on the concept of “sacred space” in Christian and Muslim traditions. 

We came across many examples of real heroism which made a deep impression. In 2008, the Presentation sisters’ school in Sangota, in the Swat Valley in the Afghan border region, was destroyed by the Taliban in their campaign against women’s education. The Pakistani army has now cleared the area of terrorists and the sisters have gallantly rebuilt the school, which reopened in 2015.

Eleven Daughters of the Heart of Mary attended the retreat in Karachi.  There was a twelfth sister who was too ill to attend, Sr Ruth Pfau. She was known as the “Mother Teresa of Pakistan”. A convert to Catholicism from Leipzig in Germany, she founded 160 leprosy clinics during her 50 years in the country.  She died in August and was afforded the honour of a state funeral by the Pakistani government.

Early in my stay I visited St John’s Catholic Church in the Lahore suburb of Yohannabad. The father of one of the Jesuit scholastics is the parish catechist and I went to have lunch with his family. In the absence of many priests, theologically trained full-time catechists run parishes and lead much of the Church’s formation work. In March 2015, 22 mass-goers were killed in a bomb blast. The number of dead would have been far higher had the young security guard at the gate, himself a Catholic, not jumped on the suicide bomber before he could enter the packed church, giving up his life in the process. Despite threats to their safety, 1500 people still regularly attend each of the two Sunday masses in the church where this young man is considered a martyr. 

When I asked how people can minister in circumstances as challenging as these, I was told “We trust in God and carry on”. I would hope that we in Britain, with our spirituality, educational and theological resources, might find ways of supporting the small Jesuit community in Pakistan and their collaborators, committed to working at such challenging and often dangerous frontiers.

Michael Holman SJ
Parish Priest, St Aloysius, Garnethill, Glasgow

This article first appeared int eh winter 2017 edition of Jesuits and Friends magazine which can be read online

Fr Peter with the Sisters of Jesus and Mary