The statue of Mary, Queen of Fatima at St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Sherpur district of Bangladesh. This popular Catholic shrine will hold a severely scaled-down annual pilgrimage on Oct. 30 due to Covid-19. (Photo: Eltush Nokrek)
Church officials in Bangladesh have scaled down a well-known annual Marian pilgrimage due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but some fear thousands may defy the limits placed on the number of participants.
Both the length of the pilgrimage and number of attendees at Mary, Queen of Fatima Shrine at St. Leo’s Church in Baromari, in north-eastern Sherpur district, have been slashed over health fears, the officials said.
The pilgrimage this year will last only six hours on Oct. 30 and just 500 participants will be permitted as per state-mandated health guidelines.
The shrine in the Garo Hills, near the Indian border, is covered by Mymensingh Diocese that has over 81,000 mostly ethnic indigenous Catholics. It is about 200 kilometers northeast of the capital Dhaka.
It is one of the three most popular Catholic shrines in Bangladesh. The other two are the St. Anthony of Padua shrine in Nagari, Gazipur district, and Our Lady of Lourdes in Diang, Chittagong district.
The Baromari pilgrimage usually lasts two-days and attracts some 20,000 people from across the country who come for the candle-lit rosary prayers, reflections, adoration of the Holy Eucharist, Way of the Cross at 14 hill slope stations, and a special feast day Mass.
Many Muslims and Hindus also come to offer manots (gifts for fulfilling a wish) such as healing sicknesses or getting a child.
Father Monindro Michael Chiran, 63, parish priest and head of the pilgrimage committee, told UCA News that they asked authorities to allow 600 participants, but only 500 were approved. These participants will include priests, religious, members of parish councils, and 12 people from each parish of the local diocese, the priest said.
“People are a bit upset. But, they have accepted it as they are aware of the global pandemic and the risks,” said Father Chiran, an ethnic Garo Catholic.
The health sub-committee has been instructed to provide enough hand sanitizers, soap, and water for hygiene and ensure the wearing of masks, while physical distancing is also mandatory, Father Chiran said.
Luis Nengminja, 46, a local Garo Catholic and community leader, said people were more frustrated about the shortened pilgrimage than Chiran let on.
“Every year, from the start of October, the area comes alive with festivities. Nothing will happen this year,” Nengminja, a father of five and vice-chairman of the parish council, told UCA News.
“People are upset about it. Many have taken it badly even though they are aware of Covid-19. It is because people are religiously-minded and don’t take restrictions on their faith life easily,” he noted.
Despite government restrictions, thousands may still come to the shrine on Oct. 30, he said.
“We have heard people in various parishes are preparing to come. We are afraid that 5,000 to 6,000 people might come and try to attend the pilgrimage. If people arrive at the shrine, we will request that police allow as many as possible to attend,” he added.
The Mary, Queen of Fatima shrine was inaugurated in 1997 in response to Pope John Paul II’s call for “pilgrimages of faith” leading up to the anniversary of Jesus Christ’s birth in 2000.
It started arranging pilgrimages the following year. The shrine gained popularity thanks to people claiming miracles attributed to Mother Mary taking place there, including the healing of the sick.