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The Catholic Moment: What keeps me Catholic? Maryknoll Father Bob McCahill

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November 21, 2011

By Michael Daley

With words that may very well be considered heretical for someone who is both Jesuit educated and employed, Maryknoll Father Bob McCahill is someone who keeps me Catholic. 

And, in the end, rather than a “thing,” it’s always a person, a relationship — ultimately in, through and with Jesus the Christ — that keeps me Catholic. 

 

For more than a decade now, I have waited with anticipation for his yearly letter from Bangladesh postmarked Oct. 31. Though only the geographic size of Iowa, this south Asian country is densely populated with close to 150 million citizens. Of those, 89 percent are Muslim and 9 percent are Hindu, while Catholics make up less than 1 percent. Mission territory indeed. 

 

This year the letter has Father McCahill busy laying the foundation for a new house (actually it’s more of a hut); securing treatment for a boy with cerebral palsy; mentoring a seminarian; and trying to make do with the recent disappearance of his bike. There are also telling stories of his ministry of presence. 

 

One relates how a young Muslim responded in disbelief that Father McCahill was keeping the Islamic 30 days fast of Ramadan. Replying to his amazement, Father McCahill said, “Yes, for fasting is a good practice.” 

 

To which the young man offered, “But you are a Christian, so why fast with Muslims?” 

 

Father McCahill replied, “I do it in solidarity with Muslims, especially from sympathy for the hungry. It is something that we can do together to bring us all closer to Allah [God] and to one another.” 

 

It all started in 1975 when, with no job description in existence, Father McCahill and several other Maryknollers sought to immerse themselves in the Muslim community of Bangladesh. To, in their words, “draw water from the same pumps and to bathe in the same ponds as they did; to share everyday laughs and inconveniences with Muslim next-door neighbors.” Father McCahill, or “Bother Bob” as they call him now, has continued doing this for more than 35 years. 

 

From time to time, when he’s been back in the states, Father McCahill has even visited my students and me. His joy of life and lived confidence in the person of Jesus are self-evident. As St. Francis of Assisi once remarked, “Preach the Gospel always, speak if you must.” Father McCahill is a living example of this adage. 

 

His length of stay at any one place in Bangladesh is three years. He has found that period of time is enough for the suspicion with which he is initially met to be transformed into friendship and trust. 

 

Father McCahill’s criteria for choosing a place to establish his missionary roots are threefold: the place has to be poor; the peoples’ contact with foreigners and Christian should be minimal at best; and the people of the village must give him some free land to build a simple dwelling. 

 

Then, armed with only the most basic of necessities and a bike, he goes off in search of those who are poor and in need of medical assistance, and in the process, gives witness to Christ’s love for the abandoned.  

 

Speaking of evangelization, Pope Paul VI once declared that, “The first means of evangelization is an authentically Christian life.” He went on to say that people listen more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, noting that if they do listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses. I couldn’t agree more. 

  

Whether in Bangladesh or Cincinnati, what a blessing it is to be evangelized by Father McCahill. It’s what keeps me Catholic. 

 

Daley is a freelance writer and teacher at St. Xavier High School.

 

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