The life of Catholics in Pakistan

Pakistani archbishop speaks of the faith and persecution of his people


“It is a vibrant church,” Archbishop of Lahore, Sebastian Francis Shaw, OFM, who recently made a visit to Denver told the Denver Catholic, describing the Catholic community in Pakistan.

Lahore is the second biggest city in Pakistan, with a population of 11 million. It is also the largest diocese in the country, with 570,000 Catholics. In 2016, the city was the setting for one of the worst Jihadist attacks: a suicide bombing on Easter Sunday at Gulsan Iqab Park, leaving 78 dead and more than 300 injured.

In this country, which has a population of more than 190 million people, 96 percent of the people are Muslim, and less than one percent are Catholic. Catholics usually belong to the lower class, have fewer opportunities to be successful and are targets of persecution and threats.

Denver has a small Pakistani Catholic community, which received Archbishop Shaw with joy. He was able to celebrate a Mass with them in Urdu, the country’s official language, at St. Therese Parish in Aurora May 7, and even prayed a bilingual Rosary with them, accompanied by the Auxiliary Bishop of Denver Jorge Rodriguez.

“There are nearly two million Christians in the whole country,” Archbishop Shaw said. “For many centuries, Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs have lived together.”

Nonetheless, after Sept. 11, 2001, “many difficulties came,” due to the fact that “Pakistani Christians are considered allies of the U.S. government.”


The archbishop highlighted the case of Asia Bibi, the Christian citizen who was sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy in 2009, for drinking out of a Muslim family’s water fountain, and supposedly blaspheming against Mohammed. She was vindicated but had to flee to Canada.

“Asia Bibi is only one of those cases, but there’s many more,” the prelate assured.

Archbishop Shaw talked about the story of Akash Bashir, a 20-year old young man who died in 2015 trying to stop a suicide bombing attack at St. John Parish in the Youhannabad Districts in Lahore.

“The young man took hold of this man and didn’t let go. The attacker pressed the button and [20] people died. He gave his life to prevent the attack and saved many who were in that church, which were around 1,200 or 1,300 people,” he said.

A young Church

What is most characteristic about Pakistani Christians is that “they love one another” and “they pray for their enemies,” something that surprises Pakistanis who practice other religions, according to Archbishop Shaw.

Young people make up 65 percent of the Christian population. There are also many young married couples with four or five children. “It’s always beautiful for the Church to have children,” the prelate said.

The Archdiocese of Lahore has 29 parishes, some of which have missions in more distant regions. There are currently 32 diocesan seminarians and 27 religious communities in the archdiocese. Due to the shortage of priests, there are many lay people who are catechists and are very dedicated to the faith.

Pakistani Catholics are a vibrant minority, and even though they are seen as second-class citizens, they have a strong faith, and many are even willing to give up their life for it. Above all, they are full of love for their neighbors.

“It is our duty to love one another regardless what origin or religion the person is,” Archbishop Shaw said. “If our neighbors are Christians, Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs, it is our duty to love the other person because it is a commandment.”

COMING UP: Machebeuf basketball star traded success playing hoops for a solitary life of prayer

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Shelly Pennefather led the Bishop Machebeuf High School girls’ basketball team to victory in every game she played in. It was not surprising to her friends and classmates that she would go on to play college ball for Villanova and then play professionally in Japan. It was not even surprising that she would have a religious vocation.

What was surprising was the order she chose. In 1991, Shelly Pennefather drove to Alexandria, Va., where she entered the Monastery of the Poor Clares. She would become a cloistered nun, living a radical life that included going barefoot out of penance and poverty and praying all of the hours of the Divine Office, even at 12:30 a.m.

This also meant she would not see her family except for twice a year from behind a transparent screen. She would not hug them until 25 years after her profession.

“I was shocked that she chose a cloistered order,” said Annie Mcbournie, graduate of Machebeuf in 1984 and a friend of Pennefather’s. “I was not at all shocked that she chose a vocation.”

Her story was recently featured on ESPN, who recounted how Pennefather gave up being the highest-paid women’s basketball player in the world in 1991 to live a life in service to the Lord as a Poor Clare.

Pennefather took the name Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. This past June, Sister Rose Marie celebrated her 25th anniversary of her solemn profession: the long-awaited moment to greet her family from outside the screen, not to happen again for another 25 years.

Villanova teammates, friends, Machebeuf classmates, and family were all in attendance. She hugged her 78-year-old mom for what will probably be the last time.

Mcbournie was not able to make it but will visit Sister Rose Marie this fall. Since she’s kept up with her via letters, she is permitted to visit the monastery.

Pennefather attended Bishop Machebeuf High School in Denver from 1980 to 1983 before transferring for her senior year due to her dad’s military job. She left Machebeuf with a 70-0 record.

“Her entire high school career, she never lost a basketball game,” Mcbournie said.

Mcbournie was a cheerleader and friend of Sister Rose Marie in high school, but a deeper friendship began 10 years after graduation. Sister Rose Marie’s brother Dick called Mcbournie before World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 since Mcbournie was still in the area.

Sister Rose Marie had just joined the Poor Clares and Dick and McBournie met up and spoke about the mourning process the family was going through, McBournie said. Dick mentioned to her that they could write Sister Rose Marie as many letters as they wanted, and one day a year, on the Feast of the Epiphany, she could write back.

Shelly Pennefather, pictured here in this photo from the Archdiocese of Denver archives, always exuded a deep spiritual life, her former Bishop Machebeuf classmates said. (Photo by James Baca)

“From that year on, I have been writing her every year,” McBournie said. She gives Sister Rose Marie updates on life, pictures from their high school reunions, and prayer requests.

“I have witnessed her journey through these letters,” McBournie said.

When Sister Rose Marie’s dad passed away shortly after entering, she was not able to leave the monastery to go to the funeral. McBournie saw how difficult these sacrifices were for her, especially in the early years of her vocation. But the letters show Sister Rose Marie’s joy.

“The last 5 to 10 years, I could just see her say, ‘I’m so blessed to be able to do this’,” McBournie said. “She’s so joyful.”

A fellow Machebeuf classmate asked McBournie for Sister Rose Marie’s address in order to have a little fun. He sent her a $20 bill with a note saying he thought she could use a smoke and a bottle of wine.

Sister Rose Marie did not miss a beat and in her yearly letter, she responded, “I bought incense, and I drank from the chalice,” McBournie recounted.

Shelly Pennefather (#15) had a 70-0 record playing basketball for Bishop Machebeuf in the 1980s, and went on to play for Villanova and then professionally in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Villanova Athletics)

But this letter sparked a friendship. This classmate has continued to write letters and even attended the 25-anniversary jubilee.

“Her letters are still hilarious, still very sarcastic,” McBournie said.

She remembers Sister Rose Marie being reserved and quiet in high school, focused more on school and basketball than anything else. Her father was in the military and the family was very disciplined, but they had a good sense of humor and quick wit, McBournie said.
“Her spirituality permeated her existence from the time she was young,” McBournie said.

David Dominguez was a few years ahead of Sister Rose Marie at Machebeuf but remembers her discipline and her talent. He called himself her cheerleader.’

“If it was really tight, we would start yelling, ‘Shelly, Shelly!’” Dominguez said. “It was one of my favorite cheers.”

Dominguez exercised at the Air Force base gym where Sister Rose Marie would train and play basketball with her dad and brother.

“I knew she had incredible skills,” Dominguez said. “It was kind of magical to watch.”

Sister Rose Marie recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of her profession of vows with the Poor Clares. She was able to hug her friends and family for the first time in 25 years. ESPN was there to cover the occasion. (Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Bonacci)

Dominguez also knew she was different.

“She was living for a different purpose than everyone else,” he said.

Sister Rose Marie’s devotion and personality remain the same, though she has traded in her jersey for a habit.
Although Sister Rose Marie can only write one letter a year, and can seldom have visitors, her friendship and influence reach far beyond the monastery walls.

Mcbournie said that their yearly letters have brought them even closer than they were in high school.

“I look forward to her letter every year,” Mcbournie said.