Onarai Tripura treks through the hilly roads and rivers of Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts to meet some 1,000 tribal Catholics and offer spiritual and pastoral care in 15 remote villages. "Sometimes I take vehicles and boats but I mostly walk because it's only way to reach villages. It takes two-days to reach the farthermost one," said Tripura, a catechist. Each village has about 80 Catholics and he tries to meet them all during his monthly visits. He listens to their problems, offers solutions and keeps them in touch with the church. During Lent, he stays with them for a whole day and night, leading prayer services and the Way of the Cross. "Sometimes, people are upset as they can't access priests but we encourage them and help them keep their faith alive," said the catechist with 25 years of experience.
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During Lent's 40 days, Tripura returns home to Antaha Para village near Bandarban district town, for a day and a night, to spend some time with his family. "Catholics living in nearby villages see priests three or four times a year but Catholics in remote areas don't see a priest once in a year. I meet them to offer catechism, spiritual and pastoral care in lieu of them," he says. During Lent and Easter, he helps conduct various paraliturgical services. The three hill districts are the only mountainous regions of Bangladesh and home to some 25 ethnic tribal groups who are largely Buddhist. The picturesque area was the scene of sectarian clashes and two decades of bush-war between tribal militia and government forces ending in 1997. Catholic missionaries reached the hills in 1950s and today there are over 20,000 Catholics in seven parishes in all three districts. The growth of the church in the hills is largely due to catechists like Tripura. There are 28 salaried catechists and 65 teachers who serve as volunteer catechists in the area. Across the country, about 1,000 paid and voluntary catechists offer similar services to Catholics in eight dioceses. A catechist's life of vocation and service is tough economically with hardships for their families. Tripura struggles to run his six-member family on his 5,410 taka (US$68) monthly wage. To support the family, Tripura relies on jhum
(slash and burn agriculture) to run a small plantation. "It is really hard to maintain family on our wages. My children have grown up and I need to support their education. Yet, I am happy and satisfied as a catechist as it gives me the pleasure of serving people," Tripura says. Lalmoni Tripura has worked as catechist in neighboring Rangmati district for nearly 28 years. He takes care of some 1,200 Catholics in 18 villages and, like Onarai, he also has a busy time during Lent. "People are devoted and they eagerly await our visits. During Lent, I fast with them, take part in liturgy, night vigils and Way of Cross. It gives them a spiritual boost ahead of Easter," he says. Despite the difficulties of low pay, Lalmoni says he loves the job. "Through my works, I can spread Jesus' love among people and put them on the right track. In return I get immense respect and love from the people and it gives me unbounded joy and satisfaction," he added. The local church has grown thanks to catechists and they keep the church alive in remote corners," said Holy Cross Father Dominic Sarkar, from the parish of Queen of Fatima Catholic Church in Bandarban, the largest in the hills with over 8,000 Catholics. "Priests cannot make pastoral visits to villagers more than once or twice a year. Catechists keep their faith alive and help the church survive among them," the priest said. Father Sarkar said due to limited resources and funds they could not offer better pay to the catechists. "Catechists deserve much more than they get and what they do for the church is a tremendous service. They are the true missionaries and the church needs more people like them to survive and grow," the priest added.