By Fr. Elbert Balbastro, SSC
Like any other vocation or calling, priestly life is also filled with challenges, difficulties and struggles. Yet, amidst the toils and rough roads on my missionary journey, I always maintain an unwavering optimism. Beyond those humps and bumps of life lies a profound joy that could only be found in serving God. Each encounter of this joy would mean a fulfilling way of life. This joy can radiate a smile on my face, igniting the fuel and inspiration required to minister in the vineyard of the Lord.
After four months of Urdu language refresher course in the mountains, we were tasked to explore and immerse ourselves in the parishes of Badin, Khipro and a part of Karachi area to help us in discerning which parish we want to be assigned to. We were instructed to spend a week in each of these three parishes.
My journey started in Badin parish, and it proved to be a meaningful and joyful encounter. Meeting the people and listening to their stories of hardships and perseverance despite their overwhelming poverty was a moving experience. We visited a Sindhi Beel colony where our Christian brothers and sisters reside, lacking many necessities. They live in the land of the landlords with very poor housing condition. Their house is made of wood straw and mud and all of them are living together in a very narrow space.
Arriving in this seemingly remote house, we checked on the children who are ready for their first communion. After the catechist gave instructions and catechesis to the children, we prayed together and bid our farewell. As we prepared to leave, the woman in the house invited us for dinner. She said that they caught lots of fish from the river and she would like to share it with us.
Hearing her sincere invitation, I felt a pinch in my heart. Despite their simplicity and poverty, and that this could be their only meal for the day especially for her children, yet she willingly offered to share it with us. This was the first instance of joy I encountered in the mission. Encountering these generous and authentic people, who despite having little, wholeheartedly share what they have, revealed the joy of serving God.
The second stop where joy awaited me was in Khipro parish where I served for a year during my FMA (First Mission Assignment). Five years later, upon my return to Pakistan, I decided to re-connect with the people I served during my FMA years. Re-visiting the villages and re-uniting with the people that I knew and worked with brought back lots of happy memories. Yet, what really gave me a deeper sense of joy was seeing their lives improving and empowered.
Khipro parish is composed of the Parkari Kholi tribe, a community considered to be a lower caste in society. To my surprise, I saw significant progress in their lives. Some of my former students at Fr Cyprian High School had become teachers, while others are studying to become nurses, and a few of them entered the seminary. Reflecting on our shared journey in the past and observing how they have improved their lives in the present gives immense joy to my heart.
It is indeed evident that the Holy Spirit is guiding them towards embracing their humanity and preserving their dignity. Though being labeled as lower caste persons, they are asserting their rights for self-improvement, proving themselves as dignified individuals in society.
My last stop was in one of the parishes in Karachi where Dan and I visited a community known as Ghugir Patik. The Christians in this area are composed of the Parkari Kholi tribe from interior Sindh, who migrated to Karachi city for work. They have rented houses in that area, and most of them are employed in factories. Every Saturday, Dan presides a Parkari mass for them.
We gathered in a small house for the Holy mass at around 8 in the evening. Despite the cramped space, heat, and multitude of mosquitos, the room felt warm due to the presence of the people. They were attentive throughout the mass, participating actively. What really impressed me most was the choir who came well-prepared, equipped with a complete set of instruments for singing.
After the mass, I had a chat with one of them. He told me, “Father Ji, did you know that we almost did not have someone to play the Tabla because we didn’t expect to have a mass this Saturday? However, we managed somehow to find someone to play it because we offer all these to Jesus our God.”
I thought, “Wow! What an amazing faith this man has.” It dawned on me that what he said was so powerful because the community poured their heart out, offering their faith and gratitude to God. A smile not only in my face but also in my heart was so evident at that moment.
Reflecting on this incident, I called that faith an “empowered faith” where the deep and profound faith of the people empowers them to find ways in order to reciprocate God’s goodness by offering their praises and talents for the greater glory of God.
Joy! It is a feeling that is difficult to find, feel or experience sometimes. Yet, I firmly believe that joy lies in every struggle, difficulty and challenge. While we may not always be aware of it, I discovered that joy is easily found if only our hearts are open to serving God.
For me, joy comes in different forms and shapes in my every encounter with the people I serve and meet. My experiences across these three parishes reminded me that the Joy of the Gospel can be experienced in journeying with people. I may face many uncertainties and sorrows in the mission, but I know that joy will unfailingly prevail, revealed to me by God. My task is simply to seek joy and actively choose to embody a joyful spirit as missionary priest in my everyday life.
Fr Elbert Balbastro (middle) was ordained a Columban priest on May 21, 2022 at the Immaculate Conception Parish, Oton, Iloilo. During the Columbans’ Luzon area meeting in May 2023, Fr Elbert, upon receiving his assignment, cheerfully exclaimed that he was excited to go back to Pakistan.