In the early morning hours with mosquito net draped over him, Maryknoll Father Bob McCahill sits with his legs crossed and quietly celebrates Mass alone in his 8-by-10-foot bamboo home.
The simple service is not what he calls “liturgically pretty” but in the predominantly Muslim country of Bangladesh, where he has lived and served as a missionary priest for 42 years, it’s the best he can do.
It’s part of a lifestyle he never dreamed of having until, at age 19, he was “touched by God” while walking to his off-campus home during his second year of college at Seattle University.
“I was coming off of a retreat, never having ever in my entire life given one second of thought to becoming a priest,” he said. “It was there on the sidewalk that I was touched by God. I had an immediate and immense attraction to God. I just knew at that moment that I should be a priest and a missioner.”
Father McCahill pursued the path to missionary priesthood with the Maryknoll order, which is dedicated to overseas missionary work. He was ordained seven years later and headed off to his first assignment in the Philippines, before transferring to Bangladesh in 1975.
Father McCahill is currently in the United States for about a month. Among his stops while here are his birthplace of Des Moines, Iowa, and Goshen, Indiana, where he spent much of his childhood. Additionally, he wanted to “swing through” Minnesota to visit friends in the archdiocese as well as to stop and visit the people of the St. Cloud Diocese.
“Your diocese is famous for being mission-minded and it is obvious,” he told a group of diocesan staff who gathered June 13 to hear him talk about his life and work in Bangladesh. “Your diocese is a center for missionary encouragement so thank you all very much.”
Bangladesh, a country about the size of Iowa, is home to some 170 million people. With not much more than the clothes on his back and his trusty bicycle, Father McCahill pedals the streets of one of the 64 district towns in Bangladesh looking for people in need of medical care.
Though he never had any interest in studying medicine, he wanted to help those who he believed could benefit from treatment for such things as child malnutrition, malaria and other illnesses.
“I see myself as a trust builder,” he said. “I want to be a channel to help people take advantage of the good things that are available to them.
“There are so many with poor health,” he said. “And I can do something about that. And that makes me happy and it should make them happy.”
But it takes a cycle of three years to earn the trust of the people there, he said. To them, he is very different and not to be trusted. The first year, he said, is always a year of “suspicion.”
“It’s the same wherever I go. The first year is always a year of suspicion. Not only because I am American, a Westerner, but also because I am a Christian,” he said.
The perception of Christians in Bangladesh, according to Father McCahill, is that historically, Christians have tried to convert people of other religions for material gain, and that is not appreciated.
“What I try to do is to just be among them as a trust-building brother. I go to town spending my first year working through their suspicions, inviting the children and their parents to go with me to the hospital and get treatment,” he said.
The first year, they nearly all refuse. But as he continues to show them he truly cares for them and has no motive but to love and serve them, by the second year, the climate begins to change.
One of the ways he builds trust is by bringing with him a photo of his own parents to show the people.
“I take that picture with me when I go to a new place because I want them to understand that I’m not just a foreigner, I’m not just a Christian, I am a human being. I have parents just like they do. It’s something that makes us alike,” he said.
By the third year, he begins to feel affection from the people and they begin to respond to his requests to go to the hospital, which is sometimes many hours away. And just when they really start to love him, it’s time for him to pack his meager belongings and move on to the next district town.
“I hope that when I leave, I leave behind the idea that we are supposed to be helping one another, that we should be serving one another because we are all one family,” he said.
Encounter with others
Father Bill Vos, chair of the board of directors of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners and diocesan director of Catholic Relief Services, introduced Father McCahill at the June 13 luncheon in St. Cloud.
“One of the recurring themes in Pope Francis’ ‘Evangelii Gaudium,’ or ‘Joy of the Gospel,’ and in presentations and writings elsewhere, is encouraging Christians to go out and encounter others, particularly those on the margins. [Father] Bob has been doing this precisely for 42 years.
“In our current situation with issues between two major world religions — Christianity and Islam — he has been able to be a bridge in a context where virtually every person who he has been sharing his life with for the past 42 years would not have had an experience with a Christian. That’s a remarkable thing.”
Kateri Mancini, mission education coordinator for the St. Cloud Mission Office, said that Father McCahill’s message emphasizes important aspects of current missiology: ecumenical and interfaith dialogue.
“They help call us to the universal nature of our faith — that we are called to recognize all as our brothers and sisters, regardless of geography, culture, ideology or any other perceived differences and boundaries,” she said.
“Like all mission activity, sometimes we struggle to live this out on a global scale, and sometimes we struggle to live it out right in our own communities,” she said. “Father McCahill, however, is living out this call beautifully — living side by side with his Muslim neighbors in Bangladesh with no emphasis put on differences, but rather striving for unity and connection as fellow humans, as brothers and sisters.”
How can Catholics apply his trust-building model here in the diocese?
“Just do what Pope Francis is encouraging us to do — reach out, get to know others,” Father McCahill said. “That’s the basic thing. When we get to know each other we get to appreciate and understand where they’re coming from. Just reach out.”