Catholics light candles at the old cemetery in Diang in Bangladesh's Chittagong Archdiocese, where 600 early Christian martyrs were buried in 1607, as they celebrate 500 years of Christianity in the country on Feb. 7, 2019. (Photo: Piyas Biswas/UCA News)
Episcopal appointments are common for the universal Catholic Church, but they also trigger great interest among Asian churches, whether in the Catholic-majority Philippines or Islam-dominant Bangladesh.
In the next six months, the Bangladesh Church will undergo major changes that are a cause of excitement and hope for many Christians.
The post of archbishop of Chittagong has been vacant since the unexpected death of Holy Cross Archbishop Moses M. Costa on July 13 following his apparent recovery from Covid-19. As per church rules, a new archbishop should be appointed within 90 days.
Bangladesh’s first cardinal, Patrick D’Rozario of Dhaka, is to retire on Oct. 22. Cardinal D’Rozario reached 75, the mandatory retirement age for bishops, in 2018, but Pope Francis extended his stay by two years. By January 2021, Dhaka should have a new archbishop.
The archbishop of Dhaka in the nation’s capital is an automatic choice as president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh (CBCB), the collegial body of bishops who oversee some 400,000 Catholics in eight dioceses. Many people of other faiths view Dhaka’s archbishop as head of the country’s Christians.
New leadership is expected to bring new directions and ideas for Catholics in a country where Christianity has been “salt and light” for ages thanks to their significant contributions in education, healthcare and social development, especially for the poor.
Christians, mainly Catholics, are a tiny minority, accounting for less than half a percent of more than 160 million people. They run about 1,000 primary and high schools, about 20 colleges and one university, as well as 20 hospitals, 70 community clinics, dozens of social and economic organizations and charities. They have been an integral part of the nation for over five centuries since 1518 and their presence have been emboldened by great works by European and American missionaries.
Christians in Bangladesh are a microcosm of societies and states dominated by non-Christian faiths and multiple cultures in Asia. The reality for Bangladeshi Christians more or less resonates all over the continent.
In 2018, the Bangladesh Church set a 10-year Strategic Pastoral Plan, which prioritized family welfare, poverty alleviation, migrants’ welfare and environmental protection. Church leaders need to rethink how well pastoral priorities respond to the needs of the faithful today, and what should be done to help them become true “witnesses of faith.”
Each diocese has its own strategic mission, vision and pastoral plan, but they don’t have an effective mechanism to conduct research, surveys and evaluation to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of church programs and activities.
In 2015, while marking the 25th anniversary of Rajshahi Diocese, a survey highlighted a disparity between Bengali and ethnic Catholics in terms of education, employment, wealth and standard of living. It was a laudable effort and can be replicated in other places too.
Family and marriage
Christian families face increasing threats from anti-family external and internal forces including material and moral poverty, secularistic views and disintegration of joint families, leading to weakening of family bonds and increasing disputes.
With improvements in socioeconomic status, many Christian families have become more focused on careers and wealth and less religious. Recent disputes over land and property have emerged as a serious threat to families. Traditional church mechanisms for the welfare of family life are no longer sufficient, so it is urgent to adopt measures to support beleaguered families.
Interfaith marriage has been a long-standing challenge for the Church. Rising conjugal disputes and separations have added to the woes for Christians, despite the Church having a stringent marriage preparation process, training and post-marriage consultations for couples. The time has come to find the root causes of the problems to address them properly.
Children and youth
The Catholic Church’s apostolate for children and youth also needs renewal.
All parish churches are supposed to have a Holy Childhood Association (HCA), an initiative under the Pontifical Mission Societies, for formation and development of children. While this movement proved to be widely popular and useful, it is not attracting children and their parents at grassroots level as in the past. The Church needs to look at the missing links to change the scenario.
The Church organizes year-long programs for young Catholics for their spiritual and moral formation, but questions remain about how effective these are in responding to modern-era challenges young people face — questions about faith life, struggles in education, unemployment, intellectual poverty, sexuality, digital evolution, and so on.
A youth activist who attended several national youth programs recently noted that they felt more like picnics than pilgrimages of faith. The Church should refocus the youth ministry to reap dividends from the time, energy and resources invested.
There is concern over the religiosity of young Catholics. It is common to see young people flocking to churches on Sundays and religious feasts, but it is unclear whether they are there to pray or to socialize with friends. Catholic boys and adult men often gossip outside while the liturgy is taking place inside the church. We need to address issues that deter young Catholics from active participation in the liturgy.
The Christian Communication Center, the Church’s media apostolate, covers print and audiovisual sections. The 80-year-old Weekly Pratibeshi (Neighbor) is the only national Catholic magazine in print, while Banideepti (Light of the Word) is the multimedia wing that also produces programs for Radio Veritas Asia (RVA), the Catholic radio station of Asian bishops. The Bengali paper has recently established a digital footprint thanks to Covid-19. RVA has also digitized in recent years and become established on the web and Facebook through creative content.
Only two dioceses, Chittagong and Rajshahi, have effective websites, news sections, newsletters and a social media presence. Covid-19 should have been a lesson for all dioceses in using digital tools to spread the Good News.
The bishops’ conference has yet to have a dedicated public relations section and spokesperson to deliver up-to-date information and the Church’s position on social, economic, political and rights issues. The sooner it happens, the better.
Christian social and financial organizations were established with inspiration from foreign and local missionaries. For a long time, church leaders have maintained close connections with those groups.
In recent times, various groups have seen power struggles, infighting, rivalry, character assassination and court cases, tarnishing the image of Christians and planting deep divisions in the community.
Dialogue and compromise from the Church could have prevented their downfall, but it didn’t happen.
The Bangadesh Church has national and diocesan commissions for Justice and Peace that deal with rights violations including land disputes involving Catholics. The mechanism is often not adequate to solve problems, especially those involving poor and marginalized ethnic Christians.
In most cases, the Church fails to take a strong stance unless church interests such as properties are directly affected. For example, no strong protests were heard when thousands of Santal Christians were evicted in Gaibandha district in 2016, ethnic Christians were evicted from tea estate villages of Moulvibazar district in 2015, and Tripura Christians faced eviction threats in Bandarban district in 2019.
Silence is not always golden and it is important to become a voice for the voiceless. The Church has the power and global connections to stand up for the downtrodden and oppressed.
Empowerment of laypeople and women
Liberal but revolutionary Pope Francis has made great strides in changing the face of the global Church from a Euro-centric and bureaucratic image, and empowerment of laypeople including women has been one of his priorities. How much his message has been learned at local levels is a vital question.
Save for a few exceptions, clergy and religious dominate church affairs at national, diocesan and parish levels. It is not because laypeople are less educated, or have less theological or apostolic training, but largely due to clericalism, which Pope Francis denounced as “cancer.” There is also an unfounded fear among clergy and religious that more empowerment of laypeople may lead to less control and even challenge them.
In reality, the Church can only survive and flourish when clergy, religious and laypeople work together.
Pope Francis has regularly idealized the true nature of church leaders who are not “princes” but “shepherds who smell the sheep.” The Vicar of Christ on earth has envisioned the Church’s role as the "protector of the poorest, weakest and vulnerable" and reminded people that "authentic power is service."
In many places such as Bangladesh, the Church badly needs a revolutionary reawakening to remain relevant today.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.