Friday, May 28, 2010

Pat McCaffrey, the man with a big heart

Dear friends,

I am still struggling to come to terms with Pat McCaffrey's death. Four days before he died, he rang me to wish me well and to enjoy my vacation. It was the first time we heard each other's voice after nearly two years. And it will be our last.

It was a privilege to have worked with Pat for nearly four years in Fiji. He was also my personal companion for four years. And this made the friendship extra special.

Maybe putting my thoughts and feelings into words will help me in the process of acceptance and grieving. But I also hope that this simple article will pay tribute to the amazing faith, dedication and commitment of Pat. He was a companion of the journey and a friend. And most of all he was simply Pat.

May he rest in peace.

Rowena D. Cuanico


Big heart. These are two words that I feel best describe Fr Pat McCaffrey, the man, his life, faith and vocation. His heart was big, so big that it has a sacred space for everyone. In his heart, everyone mattered.

I first heard the name Pat McCaffrey when we – six Filipino Columban lay missionaries on our first mission assignment in Fiji, were doing our orientation on Columban Mission in Fiji. But it wasn’t until Beth Briones and I arrived at the Holy Family Parish, Labasa a few months later that I started to come to know more about Pat and his work with the people of Labasa.  

Since Beth and I both studied Hindi, we started our ministry in the Hindi-speaking apostolate in the parish. We were based at the Mission Centre in Naleba which serves as the heart of the Hindi-speaking Apostolate. Hearing the name of Pat McCaffrey did not come as a surprise at all. Countless stories about him were being told and retold by the people who came to know him when he was a young priest in the 70s. They would tell us about how Pat would visit them in their homes, ate, laughed and cried with them. He worked with them in the sugarcane plantations. He encouraged them to study, even making it possible for some to train at Corpus Christi Teachers’ College. He was simply one of them.

From these stories Pat became more real for me. He seemed like an idol, a living legend. And as I heard more stories about him, I felt uneasy and afraid. Big shoes to fill, I told myself. But I also felt proud to be part of that long tradition of Columban missionaries who are remembered by the people with great respect and deep sense of gratitude in their hearts.

The moment for me to finally meet the man came in September 2002. It was Pat’s sentimental return to Fiji after 22 years. It was special for us in the parish as he was going to preside over the Eucharistic celebration of the feast of the Triumph of the Cross, the feast of the Naleba Catholic community.

Pat arrived in Labasa two weeks before the celebration. Word slowly spread that the Pat McCaffrey is in town. And it was greeted with joy. For them Pat has come home. For nearly two weeks Pat, Beth and parish leaders visited families in almost all the sectors of the parish. This was very Pat.

Two days before the celebration, Master Patrick Dass, Master Mul Deo and I went to see him at the presbytery to discuss the program. He was still on the road! It was then left to Fr Palenapa Tavo who was then acting parish priest to try to get hold of Pat and explain to him the activities during the feast day.

He came the night of the celebration. The preparations were in full swing. Beth and the rest of the decorations committee were working on the altar and the stage. Some women were making Indian sweets. Others were preparing the food. It was a very festive atmosphere.

The welcome was indescribable. When they saw him, it was like the whole place springing back to life, life in its fullest. There were introductions, hugs, laughter, and tears. It was a welcome fitting for one of their own.

It was ‘full house’ during the celebration. People from different sectors of the parish, from neighbouring villages, and friends came. There was something in him that people were drawn to him. And I soon quickly realized the reason why: he knew each one of them, by name. They are in each other’s hearts.

At the beginning of the Eucharist, when he began to speak and read in Hindi (Devanagri), I was amazed. I could not believe that he was away for nearly 22 years. His Hindi was simply flawless! When he preached, everybody seemed fascinated by his amazing sense of history of the place and of the people. He paid tribute to their strong faith and how their faith has carried them all these years. For me it was a very memorable occasion.

After the celebration we spent nearly two weeks visiting families in the neighbouring villages. We would take parishioners with us so they can visit their own relatives, thus making the visits extra special. We drove for over two hours to visit one Catholic family who lives in a mainly Hindu community. While we were visiting families, we practically tasted all kinds of tea and juice, Indian sweets and curry. Stories were told and told again. It was like learning history from the very people who were part of the story. These were sacred moments.

It was a privilege for me to have come to know Pat. I treasure deeply the time we spent together in Labasa. Our days would begin early and end late. But we found time to share about our vocation, missionary life, his life in Pakistan, my life in Fiji and our families in different parts of the world. But I never realized that his visit was going to be beginning of a shared journey and of a beautiful friendship.

I returned to Fiji in August 2003 for my second term. A few months later, Pat returned to Fiji. I was at the Central House in Suva when he arrived. And I could still vividly remember my words of welcome to Pat, ‘the heavens are rejoicing Pat that you have decided to return to your first love.’ He gave me a big smile and a warm hug. For indeed his return was greeted with joy and hope by the people who knew him.

Very soon we found ourselves working together in the Hindi-speaking Apostolate in the Greater Suva Area covering eight parishes. I was not officially assigned to this ministry. But since we have a Hindi-speaking community at St. Pius X Parish, Raiwaqa where I was assigned, we were part of his coverage area. And as for me, this ministry was beyond what was ‘official’. It was a very personal choice. I was very interested to be involved in the ministry. I simply wanted to share the experiences on mission which the people of Labasa have blessed me with.

Family visitations became the heart of the Hindi-speaking Apostolate. Pat spent hours after hours visiting families in the eight parishes. I joined Pat many times in visiting families. Pat worked tirelessly with the local clergy, parish leaders as well as with leaders of the Hindi-speaking communities in trying to bring people together. The coordinating committee which was formed by leaders from the different parishes worked hard to organize programs, events and celebrations. It was a renewal of many faces.

Pat initiated the revival of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) in eight parishes. With Rosema Dass, we would meet every week at St. Joseph’s Secondary School to go through the sessions ourselves. Then we would conduct the classes for catechumens in our respective parishes. This went on for nearly one year! The commitment and dedication of the RCIA instructors from the different parishes were extraordinary. But Pat’s encouragement and support to all of us also meant a lot.

Pat’s dedication to his ministry and to the people he worked with was unquestionable. Not even sickness would prevent him moving around. I remember when he was down with gout a few days before a big activity in the Hindi-speaking Apostolate. I told Pat that the coordinating committee was on top of the situation. But this did not convince him to take the day off. He was insistent that he has to fulfil his responsibilities. I threatened to strap him to his bed so that he could have the rest he needed. But his responsibilities were all that mattered. He was limping but there he was on the road again! This was also very Pat.
The activities in the Hindi-speaking apostolate were many, varied and were located in different parishes. These required a lot of my time, effort and energy. I was already struggling to have some balance between my commitments. I told Pat one day, ‘thank you for all the excitement that you bring to my life.’ He simply laughed.

But it was not all work with Pat. Ed Quinn, Pat and I would really try go to a restaurant or a movie every week. These weekly outings were always a nice treat for me. When we would go out we had a golden rule – ‘anything Columban is banned in our conversations’. So we would end up talking about politics, sports, families and our former lives!

Pat’s generosity extended ‘beyond borders’. He also gave his reassuring presence to the Filipino community in Fiji, in our joyful and sad moments.

I enjoyed working with Pat, with and despite the excitement that his intense passion for mission brought to my life. But I felt even more privileged to have Pat as my personal companion for four years. My life was enriched by our honest and open sharing. His deep faith and trust in God inspired me. And I really felt that he knew and understood the beatings of my heart so well.

It was in Taiwan on the first day of the LMs’ Renewal Gathering that I learned of Pat’s assignment to Pakistan – from the Superior General himself. I was happy for Pat. But I felt sad. I thought I was going to lose a friend. He was a life support to me. From Taiwan I sent an email to Pat wishing him well on his new assignment and thanking him for his support and encouragement. But I also expressed to him my sadness that I will be losing a friend.

But Pat did not leave me behind in Fiji. It was I who left Pat behind in Fiji. Two months after Pat’s appointment to Pakistan, my appointment as LM Coordinator of the Philippine Region came. Pat was happy for me. But he also knew of my apprehensions in taking up the new assignment. He was very encouraging.

Pat was one of those who saw me off at the airport. He was the last person to give me a big and warm hug. He told me one of his sincerest wishes for me – that after I finish my term in the Philippines, we shall see each other again in Pakistan!

I remember when friends in Fiji learned that Pat will be returning to Pakistan. Most of them could not understand why. In the absence of any credible explanation, I simply told them, ‘he wants to die there.’ I could sense that for Pat his return to Pakistan was a homecoming. Fiji must have been Pat’s first love. But I have the feeling that in his big heart, Pakistan turned out to be his real love.  

1 comment:

Maria said...

Hi Rowena
I am a niece of Fr Pat's. It is so touching to read about your memories of him. He was indeed an incredible man and we are still coming to terms with his passing. It is only since his passing we are realising more each day to understand the huge impact he had on others. Thank-you so much for detailing your experiences - i will let my father, Philip, know.


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