Whatever happened to the priests from Atharogram?
Ordinations from a Catholic stronghold have dried up
Last weekend’s final vow ceremony for eight new Holy Cross brothers at Dhaka’s St. John the Baptist Church was described as ‘a historic moment’ by Holy Cross auxiliary Bishop Lawrence S. Howlader, who presided over it.
It also had an added significance, as it reflects the dramatic change in vocation demographics.
None of the eight new brothers were from the Atharogram region, which is one of the oldest Catholic settlements in the country and was once a vocational stronghold.
The late Theotonius A. Ganguly, the first native Bengali bishop and now a candidate for canonization, was from Atharogram. So were half the nation’s total of 14 bishops, four of whom are still alive.
Two decades ago, the four Atharogram parishes produced more priests for ordination than anywhere else in Bangladesh.
One of those parishes, Hashnabad, is also home to the country’s oldest religious formation house, the Little Flower Minor Seminary, as well as a Holy Cross brother house and the award-winning Bandhura Holy Cross High School which the brothers run.
All in all, it is a hotbed of Catholicism. Or at least, it was.
Now only four out of 92 Holy Cross brothers in Bangladesh are from Atharogram, with only one ordained in the past decade. In the same period, out of 32 diocesan and religious priests ordained in Dhaka archdiocese, only six are from the region.
What has brought about the change? The answer may well be prosperity.
The parishes of Atharogram now find themselves amidst the wealthiest areas in the country, because almost every family has someone working in the US, Europe or the Middle East, sending money home. They have better access to education and social development. This seems to result, inevitably, in a drop in vocations.
Holy Cross Father Anol Costa, secretary of the Bangladesh Conference of Religious, says he is in no doubt that vocations decline in more literate and wealthier areas.
Sister Jyotsna Corraya, a formator from the Congregation of Our Lady of the Mission, says rich people lose the ‘sacrificial mentality.’
“For our congregation, vocation figures remain the same as they were 10 years ago," she says, "but the sources have changed dramatically to relatively poor and tribal areas.”
Fr Milton Rozario, rector at the Little Flower Seminary, says they welcome 40 to 60 new students a year but few of them are local and the dropout rate is high, especially among students from wealthier families.
“For them it is hard to live a life of simplicity, sacrificing the luxury they have back home,” he says.
Br Harold Bijoy Rodrigues, the Holy Cross Brothers’ provincial in Dhaka, says they ordain four new brothers from 30 candidates each year.
“Key to our success is working closely among people, visiting their homes and encouraging young boys to enter religious life,” he says.
Laudable though it is, it is a policy that does not seem to work any more in Atharogram.
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