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Bangladesh's Chittagong Archdiocese gets new archbishop

Catholic stronghold welcomes Bishop Howlader with the hope he can empower the faithful spiritually, pastorally and socially

Bangladesh's Chittagong Archdiocese gets new archbishop

Newly appointed Archbishop Lawrence Subrato Howlader of Chittagong. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

Pope Francis has appointed Holy Cross Bishop Lawrence Subrato Howlader of Barishal as the new metropolitan archbishop of Chittagong Archdiocese in southeastern Bangladesh.

Archbishop-elect Howlader, 56, fills the post left vacant since Holy Cross Archbishop Moses M. Costa died from a stroke following his apparent recovery from Covid-19 on July 13 last year at the age of 70.

Archbishop George Kocherry, apostolic nuncio to Bangladesh, announced the appointment at Our Lady of Holy Rosary Cathedral Church in Chittagong on Feb. 19.

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Archbishop Howlader is the second metropolitan archbishop and sixth bishop of Chittagong, one of the country’s oldest Catholic strongholds.

He was the auxiliary bishop of Chittagong from 2009 to 2015. He became the first bishop of Barishal Diocese when it was erected on Dec. 29, 2015, by dividing Chittagong Diocese.

Born on Sept. 11, 1965, in Nobogram of Barishal district, Archbishop Howlader entered Holy Cross Congregation, the largest religious order in Bangladesh, in 1987. He pronounced his first and final vows with the Holy Cross in 1988 and 1993 respectively.

He was ordained a priest on Dec. 31, 1994. He served in two Holy Cross-run parishes and St. Paul’s Minor Seminary in Mymensingh Diocese from 1996 to 2000.

From 2000 to 2004, Father Howlader studied at the Gregorian University in Rome and obtained a licentiate in depth psychology, spirituality and counseling.

He was the novice master of Holy Cross Novitiate in Barishal from 2004 to 2009.

Pope Benedict XVI appointed Father Howlader as the first auxiliary bishop of Chittagong on May 7, 2009.

The archbishop-elect has been serving as chairman of the Youth Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh (CBCB). Last year he was appointed treasurer of the CBCB.

In Barishal Diocese, he has been credited with prioritizing pastoral care and social services, interreligious and ecumenical dialogue, and infrastructure development.

He also made efforts to revitalize religious and lay groups that offer a range of services including education, health and socioeconomic development for people.

Cheers and high expectations

Many Catholics took to social media to convey their best wishes to Archbishop Howlader.

Catholics in Chittagong expressed joy and shared their expectations of the new prelate.

“Archbishop Howlader is a relatively young prelate, and he will be able to serve us better. I hope he will be able to empower the faithful spiritually, pastorally and socially, especially those living in remote, hilly areas who face difficulties to access to basic facilities like education, health and employment,” Francis Tripura, 49, secretary of the Pastoral Service Team in Bandarban hill district, told UCA News.

Local Catholics also need support for developing cooperatives, alternative employment to agriculture and assistance to overcome land disputes and pressure from people of other faiths, he added.

Martha D’Silva, 50, a Catholic mother of three daughters from the Jamal Khan area of Chittagong, said she knows Archbishop Howlader as a “good, pastoral-minded prelate.”

She said poor and poorly educated Christians in Chittagong like her family need support from the Church. Her husband has been sick for more than a year, and the family runs mostly on support from two married daughters.

“I thank God that my husband has a house to live in. There are even poorer people than us in Chittagong. I expect the Church under the new archbishop will reach out and help them,” D’Silva told UCA News.

Stanley Gomes, 53, a Catholic and private jobholder, welcomed the new prelate and expects him to serve people by overcoming social and pastoral challenges. 

“Chittagong is a melting pot of people from diverse social status and ethnic backgrounds. Often the poor and destitute are overlooked and discriminated. They require more attention to attain education and empowerment properly to ensure equality and fairness. There also divisions within the community, so he will need to promote unity among them,” Gomes told UCA News.  

“The new archbishop will need to continue the long-held tradition of interfaith harmony in Chittagong. He will also have to overcome financial constraints and lack of resources of the local Church.”

A cradle of Christianity

Chittagong, Bangladesh’s largest port city and an economic hub, played a significant role in the growth of Christianity in the country.

In 1517, Portuguese Christian traders landed at Chittagong port of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) when it was part of India. The second contingent that arrived in 1518 decided to settle down in Chittagong and nearby Diang, marking the advent of first Christian settlements in the country. From 1518 to 1597, Chittagong was part of Goa Diocese of India.

In 1598, Portuguese Jesuit priest Father Francesco Fernandez was the first Catholic missionary to set foot in Chittagong. Two Jesuit priests — Father Melchior de Fonseca and Father Andre Boves — and two Dominican priests followed his footsteps in 1599, and a band of Augustinian priests turned up in the 1600s, when the first two churches were set up in Diang and Chittagong.

The new Church faced a massive crisis and persecution amid a tug-of-war for supremacy between the Mughal Empire and Kingdom of Arakan (now Rakhine of Myanmar).

Hundreds of Christians were massacred and newly built churches were destroyed by the invading Arakan army between 1600 and 1625. Arakanese soldiers detained Father Fernandez for his support of Portuguese Christian families. They assaulted, blinded and incarcerated the priest, who died in captivity on Nov. 14, 1602, becoming the first martyr of Bengal.

In 1845, Chittagong became the seat of first East Bengal Vicariate and the territory was entrusted to Dhaka Diocese in 1886. Chittagong Diocese was created in 1927 and covered territories of India and Myanmar. It was elevated to an archdiocese on Feb. 2, 2017.

Chittagong Archdiocese has about 30,000 Catholics in 11 parishes and four mission centers. Most Catholics are ethnic indigenous people from the Chittagong Hill Tracts area.

In Muslim-majority Bangladesh with a population of more than 160 million, Christians comprise less than half percent or an estimated 600,000. About 400,000 Catholics are in two archdioceses and six dioceses.

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