When Columban Fr Dan O'Connor first arrived at the Columban House in Lahore in 1983, he was greeted with "There's a Kiwi in the house". And indeed he was a Kiwi hailing from Hokitika on New Zealand's South Island. He had been posted to Pakistan for two years on the Columban Overseas Training Program.
Dan's family were dairy farmers and he describes himself as being "a farmer at heart, working close to the land and so close to God ''. Yet he was feeling the call to leave his beautiful valley to join the Columbans. The family used to receive The Far East magazine and his father would read stories to his children from it. "Why do you have to go to another country?" enquired his mother when Dan sounded his parents out about joining but they were supportive when, at the age of 26, he first contacted the Columbans.
Dan's life path could have gone in several directions. He worked in a hospital for a time, but even more important to him was his running. In 1977 he ran in the New Zealand cross country and marathon championships for the Canterbury Centre.
Dan moved to Australia for his Columban training and says he "had a deeper peace that wasn't there before." In the beginning he found classes difficult enough, compared to his outdoor life working on the land and milking cows, but they had a tractor and an orchard and I joined a local running club".
After ordination in 1986 he was assigned to Pakistan, where he spent many years in the Lahore Diocese before moving south to Hyderabad Diocese in the Sindh. He likes to wear the local loose fitting dress called shalwar kameze with a Sindhi shawl as a protection from the hot sun and dusty desert.
The Columbans have a strong commitment to inter-faith dialogue and this is a key mission for Fr Dan. "Much inter-faith happens at grassroots level in the ordinary everyday happenings such as drinking tea, shopping, public transport, talking about cricket etc. It also takes place in a most profound way in the health clinic in the Badin Church compound. Here the sick and poor come for medical treatment. Many of these are T.B. patients and are Muslim, Hindu and Christian. Doctor Zakir is a Muslim and the other staff are Christian. Schools in Badin parish have Christian, Muslim and Hindu students The teachers are Christian, Hindu and Muslim. During the Holy Month of Ramadan an 'Iftari Party' consisting of prayer and a shared meal is hosted in the parish. "This facilitates Muslim, Christians and Hindus to be good friends" he states.
Columbans also support poor rural workers who work for wealthy landlords in somewhat slave-like working conditions focusing on the human rights of illiterate farm workers.
"It is great to be in a country where the culture and language are so different from my own" says Fr Dan. He loves the hospitality of the people, the experience of the rural villages and singles out the wedding season as a particular delight. Most wedding services he conducts are inculturated, meaning that aspects of the local culture are in the liturgy service.
"Within the Minority Christian community there are initiatives to build up the local church. Empowerment of women is promoted by the parish team, including religious sisters. International Womens' Day is celebrated with great gusto. Local women make beautiful Christmas and Resurrection banners and many of these are sold in New Zealand. The monies raised help with such things as school fees, clothes, Christmas shopping and in the installation of hand water pumps in villages.
Fr Dan has run marathons in under two and a half hours, but his most impressive skill is his energy for Columban Mission in Pakistan over the past three decades. He has truly entered into the life and culture of the country. "The Christian community though small and often marginalized have a great zeal for life with Jesus as their Saviour and friend " says Fr Dan. They identify with the cross because of all the crosses in their lives, but they have a tremendous zest for life".
Columban Fr Daniel O’Connor from New Zealand is the Coordinator of the Pakistan Mission Unit. He has spent nearly three decades in Pakistan.