A cross cultural missionary

Fr. Pat Visanti is a Columban missionary from Rotuma, a Polynesian island in Fiji. On a recent visit home, he spoke to Fr. Frank Hoare about some of his experiences of being on mission in Pakistan. This article first featured in the November 2022 issue of the Far East magazine.

When Pakistani people first meet me wearing a shalwar kameez (long shirt with loose fitting trousers) they think that I am a Pathan, from the north of Pakistan. A Pathan seller in the market last Christmas was packing stuff for me and asked me, “What place in the north are you from?” I explained to him that I am not Pakistani. We laughed together.

At a military checkpoint a soldier got on the bus I was travelling on. He began talking to me. I didn’t understand a single word. Realising that there was a problem he asked for my ID. He looked at me and said, “So you are not Pakistani!” We both started laughing. I heard then that he had been speaking in Pashto, the language of the Pathans.

The toughest thing in Pakistan for me is the culture. It is different. It takes a while to learn why they do what they do. If one doesn’t learn to like the culture, forget about working here. I have come to appreciate the Muslim religion. I admire the way Muslims pray five times a day. Sometimes I feel ashamed. They pray when they hear the call to prayer. We struggle to do our prayers. It is a challenge. We can learn good things from each other.

Columban Missionary Fr. Pat Visanti in shalwar kameez, with some friends
Columban Missionary Fr. Pat Visanti, who has been working in Pakistan since his ordination in 2017, in shalwar kameez, with some friends

There are three mosques near our church compound. We have a good relationship with the nearest mosque and their loudspeakers are no longer facing in towards us. It can be crazy when they go off. One of the maulvi’s daughters is teaching in our school for the last 25 years. She attends many of our programmes. We have Muslim friends with whom we work.

Interreligious dialogue is easy where Christians are in the majority. In Pakistan, Muslims are in the majority, so you have to do things on their terms. Christian-Muslim dialogue happens in our daily interactions with people. I found it hard to approach people in the beginning but as my language skills improved, I was able to chat to them.

In our parish of Badin in southern Pakistan we have a TB clinic because TB is a big issue in Pakistan – children as young as one suffer from it. The people live in poor conditions – the water is not clean and the sewerage system is not good. At the TB clinic we try to educate people about hygiene.  About 60 to 70 people come to the clinic every morning from Monday to Saturday. A small fee of about 20 cents is charged so that they feel they are contributing. Two employees do outreach in the villages on Thursdays, following up on patients who have stopped coming to the clinic.

Fr. Pat sits on a charpai bed in a Pakistani village of the tribal Pakhari Kholi
Fr. Pat sits on a charpai bed in a Pakistani village of the tribal Pakhari Kholi

We have an ambulance in the parish which I normally drive. One day I drove the ambulance to bring six Sisters to the parish to experience the tribal apostolate. I met them at the train station dressed in overalls. “So, you are the driver,” they asked. “Yes, I am the ambulance driver.” Only when we reached the church did they learn that I was a priest.

We have a primary and secondary school with about 460 students in the church compound. During the Covid outbreak the classes were divided with half coming on successive days to achieve social distancing. Every student went to school three days a week. Masks and hand sanitation were obligatory. Most of the teachers are Catholic but there are more Muslim students than Catholic students. Our Christians are spoiled! At enrolment Muslims and Hindus fight to get a place at the school. But we have to announce the registration over and over at Mass to get our Christians to enrol their children. They think that they own the school!

Some of our Catholics abuse Columban and Church generosity. If they come to me, I ask them questions. There are genuine cases of course, but there are chancers too. One guy asked for 22,000 Rupees (around US$100) because he was preparing to harvest his mango orchards. He came twice to me, but I said no. A week later he came to the TB clinic and asked for the fare for a patient in the village who needed to go to Karachi. He asked for 22,000 Rupees. We called the patient and were told that his clinic was in one month’s time, and he had no knowledge that this fellow was asking for money on his behalf!

But despite all that, I really enjoy being in Pakistan. I love all aspects of life there.

Fr. Pat at a Pakhari Kholi wedding
Fr. Pat at a Pakhari Kholi wedding