A devotee kisses the statue of St. Anthony of Padua at the popular Catholic shrine in Panjora village on Feb. 7, 2020. (Photo: Piyas Biswas)
Uncertainty has gripped Bangladesh’s most popular Catholic pilgrimage as church leaders hesitate to hold the annual feast of St. Anthony of Padua amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
The St. Anthony of Padua shrine in Panjora village of Gazipur district in the Archdiocese of Dhaka holds the pilgrimage in the first week of February each year, attracting up to 50,000 people in the largest annual Christian gathering in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
The feast of the miraculous Portuguese saint falls on June 13 but in Panjora it is celebrated during February’s favorable weather to encourage pilgrims.
However, the fate of this year’s pilgrimage still hangs in the balance, while rumors have spread the feast will be suspended altogether.
On Jan. 3, church officials including Archbishop Bejoy N. D’Cruze and auxiliary Bishop Shorot Francis Gomes of Dhaka held a meeting with parish priest Father Joyanto S. Gomes of St. Nicholas of Tolentino Church of Nagari that covers the shrine.
The officials have agreed to “observe the Covid-19 situation” until Jan. 13 before making a final decision.
“Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we are sure that this year the St. Anthony pilgrimage will not be held on the first Friday of February like previous years. This is what we have decided,” Archbishop D’Cruze told UCA News.
Depending on the extent of the pandemic in the coming days, the pilgrimage might be held after Easter Sunday with a limited number of participants from various dioceses, the prelate said.
If held, the pilgrimage might be telecast live to allow people who won’t be able to join to participate online, he said.
“On January 12-13, we will hold a meeting of priests where we will discuss this issue and maybe we can come to a decision. All these are possibilities and they would be confirmed by that time,” Archbishop D’Cruze added.
St. Anthony of Padua is fabled as a miraculous saint in Bangladesh and every year thousands of pilgrims flock to the shrine during the annual feast.
Sumon Gomes, 39, a Catholic in capital Dhaka, has been joining the pilgrimage for years. This year he planned to attend with his wife and seven-month-old son to thank the saint for special blessings.
“We married five years ago and we prayed to the saint for a child. Our first baby was born in June last year. We believe St. Anthony has blessed us with the child, so we wanted to thank him. Now it is uncertain whether the pilgrimage will be held this year or not,” Gomes told UCA News.
“The decision needs to be taken as soon as possible. If Covid-19 is a big problem, we will settle for online devotion.”
In Muslim-majority Bangladesh with a population of more than 160 million, Christians account for less than half a percent of the population. Yet St. Anthony of Padua has been overwhelmingly popular among Christians as well as Muslims and Hindus.
The exact year is unknown but church historians believe devotion to St. Anthony has been going on for centuries.
A popular legend tells us that a small statue of St. Anthony appeared and reappeared several times in the place where the shrine is now located, and people started going there to pray.
It is believed Dom Antonio, an 18th century Bengali Catholic preacher, also helped popularize the shrine.
Dom Antonio was a son of a Hindu king kidnapped by pirates and sold to a Portuguese Catholic missionary who converted him. Antonio learned catechism, language skills, music and dance and became a prolific preacher. He is credited with converting thousands of lower-class Hindus in the Bhawal area of Dhaka, a Catholic stronghold that covers the shrine.