My Special Stole
In the Summer of 1983 I was appointed as a member of a new team of four Columban Missionary Priests to work in the Diocese of Hyderabad Pakistan. I was to be the new Parish Priest of St. Joseph’s in the town of Matli.
Matli is in the province of Sindh, the southern part of Pakistan, some 60klm south of the City of Hyderabad. The Parish as I was soon to realise covered a vast area, 90klm North to South and about 150klm East to West. The Parish included several large towns and hundreds of small villages.
The people of Sindh Province were made up of many different ethnic groups and languages and various sects of the Islamic faith.
The majority of the Catholics in the parish were of the Parkari Kholi tribe an aboriginal people of this land, who lived in small groups scattered across the countryside. There was also a minority of Punjabi people who had migrated from the North living for the most part in the towns.
Many of the Parkari people had converted to the Catholic Faith in the late 1940s and early 1950s through the pioneering work of the Dutch Franciscans. But most of the tribe still practised a version of the Hindu faith.
My life in those days was filled with adventures and challenges that stretched my abilities and faith.
Having spent many months studying Urdu in the Punjab, I then found myself struggling to cope with learning the Parkari and Sindhi languages through the medium of Urdu, but had a good teacher.
My days would be spent with the administration of Parish work, liturgy, trying to improve the condition of our people in the area with simple things such as purification of water and basic hygiene. The highlight of the day would be our evening visits to a Parkari village.
Most afternoons my Co-Paster Fr. Pat McCaffrey, would head off with his team in one direction and I would go with my team in another. My team would be two catechists, a sister from the local convent and or a lay Missionary.
One evening I set off as usual to a little village that I had not visited before. A two hour drive across a barren plain following the directions of Master Jagsi we arrived at a substantial wall of thorn-branches and a narrow opening. I parked the Jeep and stood in the entrance to the village, it opened out to a neat scene of several houses, mud walls thatched roofs, and an open space of white sun-baked mud surface and an animal pen to my right.
I called out in my best Parkari ‘Anyone Home?’
after a moment or two an old lady peered out of the shade of a lean-to. She scowled and shook her head, No! Who are you?
Master Jagsi stepped forward and explained to her who I was and a smile of recognition spread across her face. They are all in the fields working she said, and then called a small child out of the shade to go and tell everyone that we had arrived.
Very soon the place was filled with people greeting us with a warm welcome. And exchange of news and and bits of gossip, water was brought to wash off the sweat and dust, drinks were offered and we were invited to rest after our long journey.
The adults and older children started to prepare for a celebration. The girls dashed off to the canal to bring back water in large earthenware jars, the boys collected firewood and dried dung, the men and women started to prepare a couple of chickens and the little food that was there in the village.
While all this preparation was going on Master Jagsi and sister Anastasia collected the smaller children and started to teach through song and pictures the basics of our faith.
Shortly I noticed that many more people started to arrive carrying a little bundle of food to mix into the pot. As the sun set the meal was ready and everyone sat down on the ground to eat, quickly and quietly. The meal over and getting quite dark the men started to shake out the rugs we had been sitting on and lit all the lanterns and hung them up on whatever was available. More rugs and quilts appeared and one that was declared the best was put down for me.
The preparations for Mass were made I dressed in my Saffron Vestments and sat on the quilt and laid out the Mass kit before me.
Masters Jagsi and Vhera arranged the crowd to sit around me, the children in front, the men behind keeping the little ones close and the women behind them telling the men what to do.
I knew that only a couple of families were Christian the rest were Hindu but as this was an event, it was for everyone.
As usual on such an evening someone called out to remind me to take my time No quickie Mass, at least 2 hours.
The Gospel was eventually read and I had to preach, realising that most of the people before me were not Christians and probably never heard nor understood what our faith is about.
My fluency in Parkari was not very good at that time, but slowly and using the most simple words I knew started.
‘I have come here tonight to tell you something wonderful.’
Pointing at them and making eye contact, I continued.
‘God Loves You!…He Loves you and cares for You!’
‘It does not matter who you are or what you have done, or what your cast is, He Loves You!’
‘All of you! … And He wants you, All of You, to live in His heart of Love!’
‘When you live in the loving Heart of God, you will become a Mirror of His Love. A reflection of that love for others.’
‘And that will draw other people into His Loving Heart.
And when that happens God will come and live in your Hearts and make His home there. ‘
‘And that Means you will be His Children, Brothers and Sisters of Jesus and you will find eternal Life.’
I stopped there and asked Master Jagsi to continue.
He asked the people, did you understand Father? What did he mean? Can you believe him?
The people answered and in turn asked questions of us to explain more, and we asked more and so on for quite some time. Eventually I was allowed to continue the Mass, some children and a couple of young adults were baptised. At Communion only the Christians received, but at the end of the Mass just before the final prayer, I blessed a tray of Bhav, a white disc of a sugary substance which was passed round to everyone to share to remember the sweetness of God’s word.
After the Mass people moved away in groups and chatted together while tea was made. Some stayed close to me and talked long into the night sharing their life and stories. When at last sleep overtook us we settled down on the quilts and slept under the bright starlit sky.
The Next morning my team and I returned to Matli, visiting some other small communities on the way to make arrangements for other events.
Some two months later, one of the parish workers called me out of the office to meet some women. Which was a surprise since women were not usually allowed to go out alone. I was introduce to two Parkari women carrying bundles and with small children in tow. They greeted me in the Hindu way and grinning radiantly. Puzzled I returned the greeting and invited them to sit. They told me that months ago they had been at the same village where I had celebrated.
They said that they had understood my message and was very impressed with what I had said and had thought about it for days. Finally they said we had to do something to remember my words.
They had a skill in making beautiful cloth collages, table clothes and quilt covers.
They went on to explain that in their culture they had symbols denoting love, life and god. And so they made a special collage to try and capture my message. Unrolling a bundle, out came a brilliantly coloured strip of cloth. Red, Blue Yellow covered in sequins and tiny mirrors and intricate threads of different colour. On closer inspection I could see the centre section of blue cloth was one long strip cut into delicate shapes of harts and another shape I was not sure about.
One of the ladies held it first one way then the other and explained. This she said is your message of that night.
First the colour blue is divine and symbol of God. In Hindu art God is always blue.
Then she turned the cloth to show me the hearts and in the centre of each heart was a little mirror. This she said is the heart of God. What do you see when you look into the heart of God? I said the mirror. And what do you see in the mirror? Myself, I said. Beginning to feel a lump in my throat. Yes, she said you are in the heart of God.
Then turning the cloth upside down she showed me the other design which she said represented the peacock, which also had a little mirror in the centre.
For us the peacock is a sign of eternal life. So you said that if we live in the heart of God we will find eternal life. The heart of God and eternal life is one piece of the same cloth, our hearts and God’s heart and eternal life all one.
She insisted that I take the cloth as a memory of that night. I wanted to pay her for her work which must have taken many hours. She refused but asked me to buy other samples she had brought to sell in the town. Which I did.
When they had gone I rushed over to the convent to see the sisters and show it to them. I had an idea of making it into something that I could use and remember that night. I asked Sister Anastasia to make a Mass Stole out of it. Some days later she gave it to me during a Sunday Mass and told the story to the congregation.
This stole is still a prized possession and after more than 30 years of carrying it around the world it still looks wonderful but some of the mirrors and sequins have tarnished or dropped off, so only on special occasions I wear my very special stole.