Before making my final profession, I made a retreat. During this retreat I had to decide whether to finalize my commitment as a Columban Sister or to take another way of life. St. John’s Gospel was my companion during the retreat and the text John 17:19 – “For their sakes I consecrate myself ” – empowered me to decide which would direct the course of the rest of my life.
To me this simply called me to commitment to the people to whom I was sent. In some way this text opened up a dream, a horizon within me as a Columban Sister which has drawn me forward into places, cultures and peoples that I could never have imagined at the age of 26. This star has been my companion in moments of doubt, in moments of uncertainty and confusion, and at times when the risks seemed a bit too scary. It has led me into medical laboratory work in a clinic, to walking the streets seeking out provision, food and medicine for the homeless, as well as listening to their stories and trying to restore their rightful dignity, self-respect and confidence to start over again. I have had the privilege of learning about the personal lives of so many men and women of different cultures, languages and ages through formation programs as well as programs aimed at combatting gender-based violence.
Pan Pan is one of the many beautiful people I have been privileged to encounter along the way. She is my neighbor in Myanmar where I have lived for 19 years. She suffers from very poor health, has severe pain all over her body and her eyesight is deteriorating with the passing of each day. When she was younger, she educated her children and provided food and shelter for them through her skill as a handweaver. She sat on the floor from morning to evening each day weaving beautiful traditional products like longis (traditional skirts), bags and scarves. Her failing eyesight and arthritis means she no longer has the ‘eye’ and nimble fingers needed for the perfect handcrafting of these beautiful garments. So now she lives with her daughter and her grandchildren who live from hand to mouth eking out enough for survival each day. Walking is difficult for her, and she is very often confined to bed.
Pan Pan is a woman of deep faith and even though physically she is very limited, her spirit is strong and every morning, whether during the downpours of the monsoons, or the very cold January mornings, or the summer heat, she limps her way to early morning Mass. She has deep devotion to Mary our Mother. During the Covid lockdowns or the politically oppressive and dangerous situation at present, when her health permits, she can be seen stealing by at dusk to visit the Marian Grotto, where she prays and pours out her grief and fears to Mary in whom she has placed her complete trust. Her faith and trust in God and Mary has sustained and encouraged her over many decades under a very severe and oppressive regime and is now helping her to be strong in the face of present atrocities.
Grandmother Pan Pan (as she is called), who is nearly 80 years old, and even though she is very ill herself, is a woman for others. Every morning when I meet her at Mass, we always chat, and she shares her worries and discomfort with me. One morning during the pandemic, amid the unrest, anxiety and fears of all that was happening around us, I wasn’t well and didn’t attend morning Mass. Next morning at Mass many people came to me anxious about where I was the previous morning. They were relieved to know that it wasn’t anything more serious than a health issue.
Pan Pan came to me later and said that she hadn’t been well either. She told me that there was a very good medicine in the pharmacy and it would be good for her to get it. Thinking it was for herself, I gave her a small donation and suggested she send somebody to fetch it for her. A few hours later that day, I saw Pan Pan coming towards our house. Because of the political situation and Covid it wasn’t safe for her to leave her home. She looked exhausted and was perspiring as it was the very hot season in Myanmar. She handed me a package and told me she had walked the long way to the pharmacy to get this medicine for me, and she hoped I would be well soon. It was then I realized that the medicine was for me not for her and not only was it very dangerous for her to walk the roads but also because of her slow movement it had taken her a very long time to make the journey. As we chatted, she very spontaneously shared that she was my elder sister and together with all people in our area we were supporting and encouraging one another on our faith journey at this very dangerous time.
Life’s journey has been a blessing for me within a community of both Christians and non-Christians, seeking peace through justice. Belonging to such a community has been a gift and a privilege: I have received so much more than I could ever have given. Over the past couple of months, many people have asked me why I am returning to a situation which is so dangerous at this time? My heart, trust in God and sense of belonging to this community is calling me back to continue, for as long as I can, to walk together with them in this uncertain and risky path of this moment. Our faith journey is one of great hope for a better future.
Columban missionary Sr. Mary Ita O’Brien celebrated her golden jubilee in June 2018. She has spent 19 years in Myanmar where she has been involved in formation. She has also been involved in a women’s center offering counselling and skills such as traditional weaving. She returned to Myanmar in January 2022.