Bishop Sebastian Tudu of Dinajpur hands over bicycles to 45 catechists on March 6. (Photo supplied)
Shilpi Das’ life has been divided into two segments for more than 10 years now.
The 33-year-old Catholic mother of two from a village under Queen of Fatima Church in Bangladesh's Thakurgaon district looks after her family with her husband. She is also a catechist who travels to remote villages near the Indian border.
Dinajpur Diocese has about 100 full-time and volunteer catechists. Shilpi became one of them against the will of her farmer husband. She gets only travel costs as an honorary monthly payment for a host of services she renders as a volunteer catechist.
She visits rural Catholics and listens to their problems, offers solutions and keeps them in touch with the church as they can meet priests and nuns only two or three times a year. She offers them catechism and spiritual and pastoral care in the absence of clergy and religious.
She also conducts prayers on Sundays and family prayers in homes. She performs funeral rites for the dead in the absence of a priest. She also takes catechism classes for all people, from children to the elderly.
“I have been working as a catechist since 2010. At first my husband was unhappy with this work but now he has accepted it. I quickly finish all my family work and travel to villages to work as a catechist,” Shilpi, a Bengali Catholic, told UCA News.
Her family is poor as her husband is the sole breadwinner, yet she decided to dedicate her time and energy in the service of Christ.
“I looked at priests and nuns who left their families and worldly happiness, and I told myself that if I cannot do something like them, my life is in vain. I have listened to the calling of my heart and I have found joy and peace on the way,” Shilpi said.
She has never faced any difficulties from other religious communities in mostly non-Christian areas. In fact, she often gets help from them.
“Our work is physically and mentally challenging but I have faced no problems from people of other communities. Sometimes people from other communities come to me to listen to my prayers and Bible readings. They tell me to let them know if anyone says anything to me,” she said.
Shilpi was extremely happy when she was among 45 catechists who recently received bicycles from Dinajpur Diocese as a Lenten gift. Life has become easier for her since receiving the bicycle.
The Church has grown with catechists and they are pioneers in Dinajpur Diocese, said Father Anthony Sen, a parish priest in Thakurgaon
“They go to people before the priests; they prepare the way. They prepare people with religious education. We go after them, teach them something and give them sacraments with their help. Basically, they work hard to prepare Christians for the sacraments,” Father Sen told UCA News.
About 1,500 catechists operate in two archdioceses and six dioceses in Bangladesh that have about 400,000 Catholics.
Bishop Sebastian Tudu hands a bicycle to Shilpi Das. (Photo supplied)
Accepting God's invitation
Purna Chandra Tripura, 48, a full-time catechist for Chittagong Archdiocese in the southeast, covers one of the most remote areas of the country.
The ethnic Tripura serves some 800 Catholics in 18 villages covered by Queen of Fatima Church in Bandarban district of the hilly, forested Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region.
Purna, a father of one, usually spends 15 days a month in the villages. During the Lent and Advent seasons, he stays with Catholic villagers for 25 days to offer them spiritual and pastoral care.
His journeys to remote villages can take up to three days as he travels through rugged terrain on foot and by vehicles and boats.
He faces challenges to run his three-member family with a monthly wage of only 4,800 taka (US$56.50). He relies on a small jhum (slash and burn agriculture) plantation on the hill slopes to bring him some income.
“Despite the difficulties, I am still happy to serve people,” Purna told UCA News.
He has overcome tragedies in life as three children — two sons and a daughter — died from illness at a very young age.
“I think this catechist's work is God's invitation. There is physical pain or difficulty in running a family but there is peace in the soul. This is how I can serve people. When I reach a village after walking all day and I see smiles on people's faces, I can hear the word of God — that is my joy,” Purna added.
On the hills, ethnic catechists are vital for the Church as they can communicate with communities in their own languages, said Father Leonard Rebeiro, coordinator of Chittagong Archdiocesan Family Life Commission.
“Since we are an indigenous area, we need indigenous catechists to offer catechism and religious formation because language is a big issue for us and they can fill the gap,” Father Rebeiro told UCA News.
Chittagong Archdiocese has about 32,000 Catholics in 11 parishes but only about 30 priests.
“We still have areas where it is difficult to find a priest once a year but we have a target to have a priest in every village at least once a year,” Father Rebeiro said.
“The contribution of the catechists to the Church is much greater. They work where Catholics are deprived of priests. They are our strength and dedicated soul. We give some money to them but it is very little compared to what they deserve.
“Catechists are playing a leading role in the Church and the need for catechists will last forever.”
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