Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, former archbishop of Dhaka (second from right), and Vatican ambassador Archbishop George Kocherry (second from left) pose with Bangladeshi Catholics who were conferred the prestigious Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifice award. (Photo supplied)
Thomas Rozario is a well-known figure at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Dhaka’s Golla district.
Rozario, 69, a Catholic father of two daughters, has been a member of the Union Council, a local government body, for 38 years and now holds the post of panel chairman. His support base is distributed equally among Christians, Muslims and Hindus.
Besides, he has been the vice-chairman of the parish council for three decades and led the local Christian cooperative for nine years. He has been involved with various social, cultural and rights organizations for decades.
A trained paramedic and pharmacy owner in his village, Rozario has been involved in social welfare activities from a young age, starting from 1971’s War of Independence.
“I was 20 then and didn’t take part actively on the front, but I supplied arms and food to freedom fighters, sheltered minority Hindu refugees and protected their properties from looting,” Rozario told UCA News.
He never sought any recognition for his wartime services and in the aftermath.
“Whatever I have done in my life is an expression of my Christian faith. I am a proud, practicing Christian and I believe my faith and association with the Church helped me to do good things in life,” he added.
For his lifelong services, Rozario has been awarded the Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifice (For Church and Pope, also known as the Cross of Honor), a papal honor given to Catholic clergy, religious and laypeople for services to the Church and society.
He was among four Bangladeshi Catholics, including educationists Jyoti Fulgence Gomes and Michael Botlero and Sister Mary Lilian from Associates of Mary Queen of Apostles (SMRA) congregation, who received the top award this year. All of them belong to Dhaka Archdiocese.
“This award is a recognition for my lifelong services to everyone in society,” Rozario added.
On Sept. 18, the awardees were conferred the honor by Archbishop George Kocherry, Vatican ambassador to Bangladesh, and Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, retired archbishop of Dhaka.
Cardinal D’Rozario noted that the award recognizes “outstanding contributions of the recipients to the Church and society.”
Jyoti F. Gomes, secretary of the Bangladesh Catholic Education Board (BCEB), said that during his long stint in the education sector he has never thought of getting an award for his services.
“I have been a teacher at Church-run Notre Dame College and then for 25 years I have been in the education program of Caritas Bangladesh. Then I was selected as the first lay secretary of the BCEB. I thank God I have been offered opportunities to serve the education sector at various levels,” Gomes, 67, told UCA News.
Various people have been working tirelessly at different levels of society and the Church and such recognition will be a boost for many to come forward, added Gomes, a father of three.
“Personally, I feel honored to receive the award and I think it will inspire many people to engage in services for the Church and society more in the coming days,” he added.
Michael Botlero, 76, is a retired government official who has been involved with the Church’s education ministry since 1978. He is superintendent of Catholic education institutes in Dhaka Archdiocese and he deals with various issues and crises facing the Church's education apostolate.
From setting up new institutes to elevating schools to college status, he has made significant contributions for a nominal stipend from the Church for years.
Botlero, a father of two, had an accident two months ago and fractured a leg. He is still under treatment. One of his sons received the Cross of Honor on his behalf.
A nun’s lifelong services for poor women
Since 1968, Sister Mary Lilian, now 91, has led as the director of Jagoroni (Awakening), a handicraft showroom, sales and training center in the capital for poor rural women.
Under her leadership for over five decades, more than 10,000 women have transformed their lives and gained socioeconomic empowerment through alternative employment.
These products are sold and delivered to buyers in foreign and local markets with the support of CORR — The Jute Works, a trust of Catholic charity Caritas Bangladesh.
The center makes a profit from sales, which are distributed among the women in the network after putting aside some amount for maintenance costs.
"It is a lifeline for downtrodden women, enabling their capacity to have enough money to eat, educate children and have a dignified life," Sister Lilian told UCA News in an interview last year.
Recognition for participatory Church
Altogether two foreigners and eight Bangladeshi Catholics have been awarded the Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifice over the years.
In 1978, two Holy Cross missionary priests, Father Benjamin Labbe and Father Richard William Timm, were honored for their outstanding social development services through Caritas Bangladesh in war-torn Bangladesh.
In 2016, Dr. Benedict Alo D’Rozario, former executive director of Caritas Bangladesh and current president of Caritas Asia, became the first Bangladeshi lay person to receive the award.
“An award from the pope for local Catholics indicates the Church here is active, responsive and participatory. It is significant because the Bangladesh Church is on the periphery, and the Church's contributions and involvement in national life are comparatively higher. It is recognition and encouragement for our faith and actions which connect us strongly with the global Church,” D’Rozario told UCA News.
The Church has more scope to work even more for needy and marginalized people, such as for poor people in border areas, indigenous groups, farming communities and migrants, which would brighten up the face of the Church significantly, he added.
Christians, the majority of them Catholics, make up less than half percent of Muslim-majority Bangladesh’s population of more than 160 million. Christians are highly regarded for contributions in education, healthcare and social development services, especially for poor and marginalized communities.
Theophil Nokrek, secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Laity Commission, also noted that during Pope Francis’ tenure local churches are being honored for their small but vital contributions.
“Recognizing local Catholics is another example of Pope Francis’ equal love and priority for all churches, no matter large or small. There are people who work selflessly and such an honor is a huge boost for them and many others,” he told UCA News.