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Friendship: A Lifework

Bob McCahill has been writing an annual Christmas letter to the National Catholic Reporter every year since 1984. This year, his letter provided vignettes on his long-time mission in Bangladesh.

“Occasionally,” he wrote, “a child will run his or her hand along my reddish, sun-burned forearms and through a fascinating thicket of white hairs. I do not deliberately invite such stroking, but I do realize it is a normal reaction for Bangladeshi children (but not only for children). They feel the need to explore and examine every puzzle.”

Before the worldwide revelations of clergy abuse of minors, McCahill, a priest of the missionary order called Maryknoll, would probably not have felt the need to write the sentence beginning, “I do not deliberately invite such stroking….”

An Unknown Duration

The damage done by the clergy-abuse scandal, however – and the abuse of children that is endemic in society – has not only affected its victims in numerous ways and for an unknown duration, but has infected society itself.

It’s as if all of us lost whatever innocence we thought we had.

Until a couple of years ago, I volunteered at a Catholic school where 90 percent of the students were children of immigrants – from Latin America, Asia and mostly Africa. The children were always wanting to give me a hug. I was a grandfather figure to them, many of whose own grandparents were lost to them through immigration. It was something I enjoyed but worried about. Would someone see the hugs and misunderstand?

Must Have Seemed Strange

And as we sat around miniscule tables coloring or playing word games, the African children, especially, liked to stroke the hair on my arms. Hair growing there must have seemed strange to them, and like the Bangladeshi children, their natural inclination was to check it out by touching. I liked it, but it made me a bit uncomfortable because of how it could be interpreted.

Such worries are warranted, perhaps, but sad just the same. It also makes me sad to hear about parents who tell their children never to speak to strangers, or about children taught not to respond to people who greet them at the market or in the street.

As for the abuse by Catholic clergy, I believe that such cases, and the cases of cover-up by bishops, represent a small minority. And the only research I know on the subject, the John Jay Study, bears that out. It reported that accusations of abuse have been made toward about 4 percent of Catholic clergy. (I understand that is no comfort to the victims of abuse, but perspective is important.)

But back to Fr. McCahill and his letter from Bangladesh. McCahill does an uncommon kind of missionary work. And I can attest to that because I was a missionary myself. His work, basically, is simply one of friendship without expectation of anything in return.

Starting Over

“Not long ago,” he writes, “I left that district, Shariatpur, where I had lived during the previous three years. ‘To other towns I must go,’ he said (quoting Jesus in Luke’s gospel), so now I am starting over, once more, in a new area. Chandpur district is my 13th mission since 1975. I see no Christians here. Muslims and Hindus account for, perhaps, 90 percent and 10 percent of the population, respectively.

“We shall get to know and appreciate one another,” he writes.

“Pope Francis,” he adds, “recently quoted Pope Paul VI: ‘If we want to be pastors, fathers and teachers, we must also act as brothers. Dialogue thrives on friendship, and most especially on service.’ A more fitting declaration about our mission among Muslims would be hard to find.”

McCahill doesn’t proselytize, much less tend to the needs of the already converted. What he does may seem ill-defined and feckless to some. But who can say what effects his years of such work, and the part God has played in its results, have had on the thousands of people with whom he’s come into contact?

The lesson for us who are searching for God?

McCahill’s is everybody’s mission. The search for God engages the intellect and the emotions, and part of both is being a friend to others – no matter how much we think they are unlike us.

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