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Remembering a shepherd who smelled the sheep

Archbishop Moses Costa was a gift for the Church in Bangladesh who will continue to inspire and encourage Catholics

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Remembering a shepherd who smelled the sheep

Holy Cross Archbishop Moses Montu Costa (1950-2020). (Photo courtesy of Chittagong Archdiocese)

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About three weeks after Holy Cross Archbishop Moses Montu Costa’s sudden and shocking demise, Bangladeshi Catholics at home and abroad continue to remember him online and offline every day by posting his photos, prayers for eternal rest and sharing memories.

After apparently recovering from Covid-19, he died from a brain hemorrhage caused by multiples strokes on July 13 at the age of 70.

Head of Chittagong Archdiocese, the cradle of Catholicism in Bangladesh, from 2011 until his death, Archbishop Costa earlier served as the bishop of predominantly indigenous Dinajpur Diocese from 1996 to 2011.

As secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh (CBCB) for more than a decade, he also served as chairman of the episcopal commissions for liturgy and prayer, youth, seminary and healthcare.

The prelate was a strong candidate for the post of archbishop of Dhaka in the nation’s capital to succeed Archbishop Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, who is set to retire in October.

His death is indeed an irreparable loss, not only for Chittagong but also for the whole Bangladesh Church.     

It is common for minority Christians in South Asian countries to revere their bishops and archbishops as demigods.

Archbishop Costa won the hearts of many thanks to his extraordinary life and work in the services of the people of God for about four decades (including 24 years as a bishop) in various roles — a pastor in parishes, a director of future priests and teaching psychology and pastoral theology in the major seminary, and then as the head of Dinajpur and Chittagong dioceses.

He was able to overcome his human follies with great love for people as a model of a good pastor and church leader, very much in line with Pope Francis’ version of “a shepherd who smells the sheep.”    

A friend of youth

For about nine years, Archbishop Costa was chairman of the episcopal commission for youth, and he was hailed as a youthful bishop readily available to offer dynamic formation and support to young Catholics. His enthusiasm for youth ministry was perhaps a result of his sportsmanship and youth activism during his student life.

During church youth programs, he emphasized that Catholic youth formation was not only for morality classes but also to help youngsters learn how they can “take up pilgrimage and grow up with Jesus Christ.”

On and off the programs, he allowed young people to forge relationships with him and encouraged them to become “salt and light” wherever they were. He developed a dedicated and energetic group of youth activists who still contribute to the Church in various ways.

Empowerment of the local Church

In Dinajpur and Chittagong, Archbishop Costa not only constructed new churches, schools and other institutes but also made systematic reorganization. He sought ways for the Church to become self-reliant by using land and property already in place. He promoted education, social awareness and leadership among local people. “We can get donations to run services, but we should try to stand on our own feet so that we can survive when donations stop,” he noted.

A prayerful man, he prioritized spiritual formation and catechism for clergy, religious and laity for constant rejuvenation by setting up and popularizing pastoral and meditation centers and pilgrimage sites.

He inspired young people to enter religious formation life so that they could become priests and religious. “Even if they fail, at least they can become assets for the Church and the community,” he said.

In Chittagong, he set up a seminary in the hilly region where indigenous Catholics are in the majority. He had found that ethnic candidates were leaving religious formation as they felt uncomfortable with Bengali people. “If we can nurture them where they were born instead of uprooting and planting them in another place, we can expect better fruits,” he said.

His played an instrumental role in structural development and the creation of Barishal Diocese from parts of Chittagong in 2015. His efforts led to the elevation of Chittagong to an archdiocese in 2017.

He was an advocate for decentralization both in the state and the Church for sustainable development.

Archbishop Costa had many friends in the Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities. (Photo courtesy of Chittagong Archdiocese)

Missionary zeal

Archbishop Costa had an unflinching love and respect for foreign and local missionaries as well as the early martyrs of the Church. He himself tried to become a missionary pastor in Dinajpur and Chittagong. He made frequent pastoral visits to Catholics in faraway places — forests, hills and border zones — by vehicles, boats and even on foot. He inspired and challenged clergy, religious and laity to become local missionaries.

On the eve of 500 years of Catholicism in Chittagong in 2018, he set up a monument to pay tribute to early missionaries and martyrs. He also regained an old Christian cemetery in Diang where hundreds of early Christians were buried after a massacre by Arakanese military in the 17th century.

Harmonious and reconciliatory

Archbishop Costa was respectful to dissent and other faiths. He made good friends in the Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist communities. Upon his death, a Muslim cleric lamented: “I have lost a good friend.”

To tackle a shortage of priests in Chittagong, he imported priests from other dioceses and invited religious orders to serve the territory. He also offered counseling, correction and shelter to some fallen priests.

As he undertook development work for church properties in Chittagong, he faced resistance from a group of Catholics, largely because of the reckless and overriding actions of some clergy. It triggered an unprecedented campaign of malice against the bishop in the media, social media and courts. He was saddened and issued statements of apology. He took initiatives to reconcile with those opposing him. News of his death even saddened those who once loathed him.

A voice for the oppressed

A softly spoken but courageous and straightforward man, Archbishop Costa raised his voice and took concrete action to support poor, marginalized and oppressed communities.

In Dinajpur, poor and backward indigenous Catholics often faced social, economic and political discrimination and abuse. He extended hands to protect their human and land rights. He organized rallies and lobbied local politicians and officials to regain properties of the Church and Catholics from politically and financially influential land grabbers, sometimes at risk to his life.

He was upset about the unrest and lack of democracy on the Chittagong Hill Tracts, the mountainous, heavily militarized ethnic area still restive despite the 1997 Peace Accord between the government and ethnic insurgents.

He deplored sectarian violence between ethnic people and Muslims, infighting and killing of ethnic political activists and human rights violations. “How can there be peace if there is no democracy?” he once asked, urging effective implementation of the peace accord to end violence.

Archbishop Costa strongly condemned the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and expressed solidarity with refugees by visiting their camps in Cox’s Bazar several times. He was one of the planners of Pope Francis’ meeting with Rohingya during his 2017 Bangladesh trip. “Rohingya don’t deserve this life of plight; they must be repatriated with dignity,” he said.

Archbishop Costa was a gift for the Church in Bangladesh. His illustrious life and works embodied a Christ-like, saintly model of a good shepherd that will continue to inspire and encourage generations.

Rock Ronald Rozario is the bureau chief for UCA News in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

Struggles of Bangladesh's indigenous Catholics

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