by Father Brian Muzás

There is a certain fragrance to Pakistan which, when newly arrived, one notices when stepping into the cool night air after passing innumerable hours in the stale atmosphere of an intercontinental jetliner. No one seems quite sure of the source of the sweetness, but it is as unexpected as it is memorable.

Pakistan can be a great source of unexpected sweetness. The following story, from the US-Pakistan Interreligious Coalition’s 2016 trip to Pakistan, is in full accord with the trip’s mission theme that year, “Deepening the Discovery.”

The UPIC delegation made its way to the slums in Sector F-6 of Islamabad to visit a Christian community and was twice hosted, once in a private home and once in a small church. Christians number between 2.5 and 3 million in a country of 200 million and so are the second largest religious minority in Pakistan. UPIC delegates wanted to get to know some members of this community in order to understand their lives and their struggles.

UPIC’s hosts were among the most impoverished, but they received us with joy and generosity. When we entered our host’s home, she and her neighbors welcomed us with a shower of rose petals; we were similarly greeted with garlands of roses at the local church.

It was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the beginning of the Christian season of preparation for Easter. Accordingly, the Pakistani Christians were fasting to recall Jesus’s 40 days of fasting in the desert and to enter more deeply into self-control, repentance, and conversion.

In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus instructed his followers, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting.” These followers of Jesus clearly took this teaching to heart: every face was smiling, every word was hopeful, every song was cheerful, and every prayer was grateful.

After all too brief a stay, it was time to leave. Our gracious hosts wished us well.

As we put on our shoes to leave the church and walk the muddy paths of the slum, a young girl came to me. We did not share a common tongue, but she communicated that she wanted to give me a gift.

She ran home and returned with a brightly-colored rosary, a set of prayer beads, which she had made with her own hands. She entrusted it to me and asked me to pray for her. I promised I would, and that evening I celebrated Mass for her protection and intentions.

Best Ash Wednesday ever. The discovery deepens. I can only imagine how much more awaits discovery now that UPIC has found a home with Seton Hall University’s Diplomacy School.

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