Fr. Giovanni Scalese is a Barnabite priest and the ecclesiastical superior of the Roman Catholic Mission of Afghanistan. He lives in Kabul and recently spoke with Eduardo Andino about the challenges of his Mission.
Whom does the Mission primarily serve? Who are the Catholic expats in the country and why are they in Afghanistan?
The Catholic Mission was established exclusively to serve Catholic foreigners, temporarily residing in Afghanistan. At present, they are, generally speaking, employees of the international organizations, present in the country for political, economic, and humanitarian reasons. The military are usually served by their chaplains (but, nonetheless, the Italian troops in Kabul have asked me to say Mass in Italian for them every week).
What is the state of relations between the Catholic Church and the Afghan government? What about relations between the Mission and the local population?
Simply there are no relations. Even though my presence is accepted (I officially pass for an attaché of the Italian Embassy), there are no diplomatic relations between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Holy See. Unfortunately, even with the local population, at this moment, there are no opportunities of meeting. We are in a country at war: It is not prudent to go out; especially after the last terrorist attacks, we live in a permanent state of siege. My predecessors were able to go downtown; they were known by people, who used to call them mullah. Now all this is no longer possible.
Describe how the life of the Mission changed with the onset of the American military presence after 9/11.
Well, the first change was the establishment of the Mission sui juris. From 1933 to 1994 the Mission was practically a simple parish. Since 2002 it has become a proper jurisdiction, similar to a diocese, covering the whole territory of Afghanistan. In the first years after 2002, unlike the rest of Afghanistan, Kabul was a rather peaceful city; there were many foreign workers (especially Filipinos); it was fairly easy to access the Embassy; so, the chapel used to fill with people. Then, especially since 2014, the situation has progressively been deteriorating: There have been almost daily attacks; security measures are getting tougher and tougher; many foreigners are leaving the country; so, even the attendance to Sunday Mass is diminishing.
What is the work of the local Catholic religious orders? Who are they and where do they come from?
The first religious women—the Little Sisters of Jesus—arrived in Afghanistan in 1955. Until the beginning of the twenty-first century, they were, with the Barnabite chaplain, the only religious presence in the country. They stayed here even during the Taliban period. They worked as nurses in the hospitals, and lived among people, “Afghans among Afghans.” Unfortunately, they left last February. In 2004 an intercongregational community was founded—PBK (“Pro Bambini di Kabul”)—which runs a small school for disabled children. The Sisters, belonging to different Congregations, change periodically. At present, there are a Pakistani (Dominican), an Indian (Guanellian) and a Mozambican (Consolata). In 2005 some Indian Jesuits came with their Jesuit Refugee Service. They are engaged in the field of education. At the beginning, they were four; now, especially after one of them was kidnapped, only two are left. In 2006 the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s sisters) arrived. They have an orphanage for disabled children and help more than 300 poor families. Now we have four sisters (from India, the Philippines, Rwanda and Madagascar). There are also two Lutheran German Brothers, belonging to the Christusträger Bruderschaft, with whom we live in a full communion.
What are the local Afghanis like? What do they talk and think about?
For the above-mentioned reasons, I am not able to meet the local people. Practically the only Afghans I know are my workers. As far as I can tell, the Afghans are proud to be Afghans; they are proud of their history and their heritage, even the pre-Islamic one. They say: We already existed before becoming Muslim. They still follow some pre-Islamic traditions, like Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, banned by the Taliban as a pagan holiday.
What are some aspects of the local culture? Do you speak Pashto or Dari?
Though Muslim, the Afghans are not Arab, but Indo-European. Their culture is midway between Persia and India. Even their languages, although written in Arabic script, are Indo-European (more precisely, Indo-Iranian) languages. I speak neither Dari nor Pashto; I do not need to know these languages, as I cannot deal with local people. Indeed, it is a way to show that any form of proselytism is excluded. For the liturgy we normally use English, the only language known by all members of the international community.
What does a typical day look like for you? What are your duties? What is the most unusual thing you have had to do?
The reason I am here is the pastoral service to the Catholic community in Afghanistan. Considering all the above-mentioned limitations, this service is restricted to the daily celebration of Mass, in the afternoon. On weekdays, usually only the Sisters attend Mass; on Sunday, the whole community (some people satisfy the obligation on Saturday or even on Friday). Since I am the local ordinary (we do not depend on any bishop, but only on the pope), it is up to me to administer all other sacraments; but, in our situation, apart from confessions, there is no opportunity for baptisms, weddings, etc. Since I am here, I have just given one confirmation. Then there is need of attending to the administrative field (certificates; relations with the nunciature, the Holy See, and international charities; accounts; etc.). I do not have collaborators, so I have to provide for all things, even for simple ones, like the preparation of the altar for Mass. I am used to saying: Bishop and sacristan!
The most unusual thing I have had to do? Maybe shoveling the snow in front of the church last winter. It was the first time for me. I was born in Rome, where it hardly ever snows.
How do you spend your free time?
We have to thank God for modern technology. With a computer and the internet I keep myself informed about what is happening in the world, in Italy and particularly in the Church. I keep in touch with my confrères, relatives, and friends. I also look after a blog. But, above all, now I can devote myself to the studies about my religious order—the Barnabites. Since my arrival I have edited the Italian translation of our ancient constitutions; now I am attending to the translation of the Regulae officiorum, that is, the regulations for the different tasks.
Tell me a story about your time in Afghanistan, something that is typical of your life there.
I want to tell you what happened to me last July, at Kabul Airport, when I was coming back from Italy after a brief period of rest. As this year is the centennial of the Fatima apparitions and on October 13 we wanted to consecrate the Mission to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I had bought in Rome a two-foot statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Since it did not get into the suitcases, I packed it properly and put it into my backpack. It was a great honor for me to bear on my shoulders Our Lady from Rome to Afghanistan. No problem at Fiumicino Airport nor in Istanbul for the connection flight. Once arrived in Kabul, after scanning my backpack, the Airport Police asked me to open it. I explained that there was just a statue. My problem was not with showing them the Virgin Mary, but with unpacking the statue and then not being able to pack it again. But they were inflexible: “Open!” I had only the last card to play: “I am a diplomat!” “I am sorry, I did not know. You can go.” It so happened that Our Lady of Fatima entered Afghanistan …
What is the mission of the Mission today? In a context where conversion from Islam is punishable by death, what does the work of a Mission look like?
The main purpose of the Mission is the pastoral assistance to the Catholics present in Afghanistan. More generally, as for any other Christian person or institution, the Mission has to be always ready to satisfy anyone who asks us for a reason for our hope (1 Pt. 3:15). Even though the Mission, as such, cannot evangelize the Afghan society, the members of the Catholic community have to witness, discreetly, their faith. The pastoral service of the Mission helps them in fulfilling their duty.
Eduardo Andino is director of development for the Institute on Religion and Public Life.