The life of a priest in Pakistan is by no means an easy mission. Most of the Catholic priests in the country have to minister to vast areas, and the threat of Islamic extremism is a growing and ever present danger. Again and again Christians are victims of violence and false accusations of blasphemy, and even in their ordinary everyday lives they face constant hostility and discrimination. Socially speaking, most Christians are on the bottom rung of society. They look to their priests not only for pastoral and spiritual help but also turn to them in every kind of need. Often, if a rural worker employed as an indentured labourer by a wealthy local landowner should die, his wife and children will find themselves suddenly thrown out onto the streets because their landlord has evicted them. Such people will naturally turn to their priest, as will the parents of sick children, the victims of violent attacks and all who are in need and despair.
Meanwhile, the priests themselves are often living in a state of constant tension. Most of them have already been the targets of threatening phone calls and letters, and even the bishops have received letters demanding that they convert to Islam. Almost all of them can also confirm that their telephones have been tapped and that they have received strange phone calls, for example by someone claiming to be a Muslim who wishes to convert to Christianity. If a priest should say the wrong thing at such a moment, he can find himself in all sorts of trouble.
Given this difficult situation, it is vitally important for the priests to be able to meet together regularly in order to encourage and strengthen one another and foster the fraternal spirit between them, while at the same time deepening their spiritual and theological knowledge.
In the diocese of Multan there are 18 diocesan priests and 19 priests belonging to different religious orders. Large parts of the diocese are in desert regions and there are numerous terrorist camps in these areas. The now deceased predecessor of the present Bishop actually himself survived a murder attempt in 1996, while in one of the churches in his diocese.
The Catholic Church in this region not only provides pastoral support for its own faithful but also supplies humanitarian aid in some of the areas where the government itself does not dare to venture, on account of the dangers. Many Muslims are also very grateful for this help and frequently ask the priests for their prayers.
The priests of the diocese meet together once a year for a joint retreat. There are also monthly meetings in various places. The fraternal spirit of communion between them helps to strengthen them and give new energy and impetus to their spiritual lives, so that they can return to their communities, refreshed and reinvigorated.
We have helped before, and this year we are helping once again, with 8,000 Euros so that the 37 priests of the diocese can continue to meet together. That represents a total of just 216 Euros per priest per year, to cover everything from travel costs to board and lodging.