I was assigned to St Joseph’s Parish, Gujranwala from 1980-1983. It was my first assignment in Pakistan. During that time I came to know one family particularly well. The father worked in Kuwait. The mother, daughter and four sons lived in the parish. The eldest son, Fredrick, was in the choir and youth group. Sometimes on a Sunday evening, when I was not busy, I would drop in to their home to relax, have a meal, watch TV with the family. Tragically, the father died in an accident in Kuwait. I did the funeral in Gujranwala. After that, I visited more often, to console and encourage them. I was perhaps a father figure to the younger ones and a support for Fredrick. As the younger children were still in school, I helped them with school fees. Then I left the parish and went to Rome for studies. After returning to Pakistan, I was assigned to other parishes, but visited the family from time to time. I did Frederick’s wedding and rejoiced with them in the births of their children, a daughter and three sons, including almost identical twins. Then in 2000 I left Pakistan and returned to Australia. We kept in touch occasionally through Christmas cards, but my two previous visits to Pakistan were too short for me to be able to go to see them in Gujranwala.
This visit, I made sure I had time to see them for the first time in fourteen years. On Friday I caught a bus to Gujranwala. I remembered the general location but couldn’t remember the precise streets to follow. I had an address, but did not know whether they would be at home, were still there, had moved, or gone overseas. I arrived in the locality and asked around and eventually came to a familiar gate. When a young boy answered my knock, I knew immediately I was in the right place. His features were very familiar. He was definitely of the family (he turned out to be a nephew). My visit was a complete surprise to them. I had not been able to give any previous notice. I was received with great joy and delight. Hugs and kisses! Their welcome was very touching.
The children were fixed in my mind as I had last seen them fourteen years ago. I was astonished to find them now young adults, very good-looking too! The eldest daughter and one of the twins had completed nursing training and are working fulltime, the other twin is doing B-Com, and the youngest is in his fourth year in the seminary! It was wonderful to see them making such progress.
As we settled down to talk, to reminisce, to chat, the years suddenly fell away. It was just like old times. I was among the family again. In fact, the twins are the same age now as Fredrick was when I first met him, so it was all very familiar, getting to know them now just I had their father over thirty years previously! Fredrick told them I was a Father and like a brother to him. Stories flowed, memories of people and events flooded back. Happily, my Urdu has come back too! We had a meal and talked long into the night, including Skype calls to his sister in Karachi and his two brothers in UK and Hungary. I caught up on events in the extended family, how the parents related to each other, how they had made sacrifices for their children, forgoing their own personal interests to invest in the childrens’ education. It was a delight to be with them. I had planned to stay only one night, but since Fredrick had the weekend off I agreed to stay an extra day. As it turned out, Fredrick and his wife had to go to a funeral on the Saturday, but I was hosted by his brother and family who had a room in the same house. I enjoyed the quiet time, the slow pace, the women of the house chatting in Punjabi about nothing in particular, an elderly Muslim woman from next door dropping in to sit in the sunshine, watching the adults investing much time in playing with the infant children. It was a snapshot of home life in the Punjab!
On the Sunday, we went to Mass. I had called in to see the parish priest the day before and he insisted I be the main celebrant. We could not find an alb big enough, so I used the missionary charism of adaptability and donned a stole and chasuble only. There were some familiar faces in the congregation. The children had become youth; the youth had become the adults; and the adults had become elders! I had been a youth, with black hair and black beard, but with grey hair and grey beard I now count myself among the elders!!
After Sunday lunch and photos with the family, Fredrick took me to the bus-stand to get a bus back to Lahore. In typical Punjabi hospitality, he paid my bus fare. I said to him, “Fredrick, please forgive me. After so many years, I came to you empty-handed. I didn’t bring you anything, but I am leaving with a heart full of gratitude for your great kindness.” He replied with these wonderful words, “Father, we don’t need things from you. God has provided for us. I have a good wife, good children, a job, a house, food and clothing. They are all blessings from God. After so many years you came to visit and you stayed with us for two days. That is your great generosity. It is more than enough.” As the bus pulled away, I was almost in tears at the sheer goodness of this very good friend of mine. I am truly blessed to have such a friend who has made me part of his family. Such is the blessing of the missionary life.
I had another similar visit to another family in Lahore. I worked in the parish of Shadbagh for around ten years. Javed had been a youth leader, became an RE teacher and also Secretary in the school, as well as a part-time Catechist. He become not just a co-worker but a friend, and I and other Columbans visited his house on many occasions. I was at his wedding and baptised his children.
This week I had a meal with him and his wife and children. Again, I was amazed to find the children now on the verge of adulthood. I know my amazement is silly, as if time froze people as I remembered them fourteen years ago, but I suppose it is simply how I remember them. It is good that this current visit is updating my memories!
I am astonished and pleased that my Urdu is still very good. I get to use it occasionally in Sydney. But here I am again immersed in it. Words that I haven’t thought of for years are there on the tip of my tongue when I need them. Words that I haven’t heard for years, I know them immediately I hear them. Although I was hesitant to say a parish mass in Urdu – I hadn’t done so for years – when I was put on the spot, to my relief, it all came back easily enough. The regular Mass texts were in my memory so flowed quite easily, but I was even able to read the prayers of the day without too much difficulty. I have even given a couple of off-the-cuff speeches. I am also hearing and understanding Punjabi fairly well, and can still carry on some of the basic conversation that people enjoy, but I was never as fluent in Punjabi as I was in Urdu, so can switch to the latter if needs be. So far, I have not been at a loss for words.
I have been meeting other friends for shorter and longer conversations, former parishioners, co-workers, priests and sisters. Always the welcome is heart-warming! So I continue having a wonderful time!