First Bangladeshi Cardinal

Patrick D’Rozario, Archbishop of Dhaka, has become the first Bangladeshi cardinal in the history of the Church; our friars interviewed him in Padua just before he received the red hat in Rome
February 10 2017 | by

THE WORLD was shocked when on July1, 2016 five gunmen belonging to Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh, an Islamist terror group, burst into Holey Artisan Bakery, an upmarket café in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and began to massacre the predominantly foreign clientele. Customers dived for cover, some hiding under tables, as the gunmen fired indiscriminately with the purpose of killing as many people as possible. Some victims lay horribly wounded, screaming for help in pools of their own blood, only to be hacked to death by their assailants. “I could never have imagined such cruelty,” one eyewitness told the BBC.

At the end of a siege 24 innocent people were dead. They included two police officers, two members of the staff and 20 hostages (18 foreigners and 2 locals). In the following weeks more than 20 terrorists were killed by police and some 150 suspects were arrested. The incident was the worst terrorist attack in Bangladesh’s history.


Gentleness & Humility


Four months after this atrocity – the bloodiest terror attack in the short history of the South Asian nation – the Archbishop of Dhaka was celebrating Mass in Tejgaon parish when he received the news that Pope Francis had named him among 17 new cardinals, leaving him “utterly speechless,” but with tears of joy welling up in his eyes, according to Asianews, the Vatican-based news agency.

In contrast to the terrorist butchers whose actions have stained the reputation of Bangladesh, Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, aged 73, is a man of great gentleness and humility. Those who know him speak of a man of compassion, an inspiring preacher and teacher who has a tremendous love for the poor. In Bengali, the main language of Bangladesh, he is described affectionately as a ‘Mattir Manush’ – a man of clay – a phrase applied to the common or ordinary people of his country. He is one of them.

Speaking to the Messenger of Saint Anthony during his visit to the Basilica just two days before he received his red hat from Pope Francis in Rome on 19 November 2016, the Cardinal was keen to emphasize that the terrorists of Bangladesh represented no-one but themselves. The July 1 attacks were “painful” to the ordinary citizens of his Bangladesh, he said, “because we felt that this is not our culture.”

“It has been condemned outright by everyone,” said Cardinal D’Rozario. “According to our Bengali culture, the conflicts between the religions is not something local. It is something imported. It is foreign to our culture”.


Spiritual communion


Indeed, revulsion over the attacks led initially to a spell of national soul-searching in which the people of Bangladesh reflected on the “role of religion in society.” Then, Muslim imams spoke out publicly against religious violence before religious representatives, encouraged by the Government, began to meet in sessions of inter-faith dialogue, creating “new awareness” of each other’s identities.

According to Cardinal D’Rozario, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, such meetings are already bearing positive fruit. “Now we go as a group all over the country to preach the spirituality of religion, not just the orthodoxy of it, that religion should bring us to a spiritual communion, so success is there,” the Cardinal said.


Resilient people


It would be conceivable to imagine that such progress in inter-religious dialogue might have been at the forefront of the mind of the Holy Father when he elevated the Archbishop of Dhaka to the College of Cardinals. But according to the Cardinal himself, the Pope’s objectives were undoubtedly more expansive.

“I was shocked when I was appointed,” he said. “I did not know why because nothing was indicated beforehand, but after two days I came to know a little bit through the media and also a journalist (friend) who reflected on this. Then I gathered the reasons why. The first reason is simple love of God and love of the Holy Father for Bangladesh, and it is also a sign of love for the little flock – there are only about half a million Christians in Bangladesh.

“I thought this appointment has been a recognition of the poor, the poor Church, the Church of the poor. But the Church of the poor is always evangelical  – Bangladeshi poor people living with the evangelical Gospel, with happiness, although they don’t have many things; they live in communion with people of different religions. They have the power of resilience to start all over again after natural calamities. Also, Bangladesh is a country which has recently become a role model of development in the world. So all of this the Holy Father wants to signify.

“Secondly, the Holy Father goes to the periphery of the world in order to universalize the Church, and therefore he has opted for the poor and those living far away so that he can bring the richness of cultural diversity, religious harmony, development work, charitable initiatives, vibrancy of faith, commitment of faith and witness to the faith in a milieu where many belong to other religions. All this has significance.

“This appointment, has not only brought joy the small Catholic community in Bangladesh, it has also brought joy to people of other religions, to government officials and to the heads of the country, it does not matter to which denomination they belong.”


Salt of the earth


Both the surprise and the joy of Cardinal D’Rozario are totally understandable. Bangladesh was formed in 1971 following a war of independence with Pakistan that claimed more than 300,000 lives, so it is a very young nation.

Catholics represent less than half of one percent in a population of 156 million people, 89 percent of whom are Muslim and 10 percent are Hindus, so it is a small Church and one which in other circumstances might not be considered as hugely significant.

To Cardinal D’Rozario, however, the situation of the Bangladeshi Church is, in fact, a source of strength, and he senses that Pope Francis feels the same way. “I would say that the Church will always be small – a little flock, a minority,” he explains.

“When it becomes the majority we lose the Gospel values. They (the Christians) will always be the salt of the earth. In a plate of rice we don’t need a plate of salt to make the rice tasty, but just a few grains, and that has been the Church in Bangladesh.”


Papal visit


Cardinal D’Rozario, Archbishop of Dhaka, is the first Bangladeshi cardinal in the history of his country and of the Catholic Church, and he also has the honor of becoming the first ever Bengali-speaking cardinal.

All of these novelties are likely to excite interest in the Catholic faith in South Asia, a region which has proved to be a productive vineyard in recent years. His appointment also helps to prepare the ground for a papal visit to Bangladesh (probably at the end of this year) which will give Pope Francis the opportunity to emphasis a number of the key themes of his pontificate.

For instance, Bangladesh, a country highly vulnerable to climate change, and repeatedly ravaged by floods across its broad river delta, will provide the Pontiff with an ideal platform to further advance the arguments he made for the care of creation in Laudato si’, the papal encyclical of 2015.

“His visit will bring hope for the (countries affected by) climate change,” said the Cardinal. “Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. The Pope has already spoken about climate change and the environment in Laudato si’, which we have studied together in inter-religious groups,” he continued. “I think he will also speak, in unison with the efforts of Bangladesh, for the whole world, and highlight all the efforts that Bangladesh is doing to tackle climate change.”

The Pope’s visit, he adds, will also bring “the confirmation of the faith of the Bangladeshi Church in order that it can witness to the Gospel in the midst of all difficulties and calamities – whether man-made calamities or natural calamities. The Pope will also be speaking on behalf of, and for the benefit of, the working class, like garment factory workers, which he said a few years ago were living in conditions of modern slavery, and this was widely appreciated by news media in Bangladesh.”


Inter-religious dialogue


The papal visit to this Muslim country is likely to further the cause of inter-religious dialogue, not only within Bangladesh, but across the world after years of wars and religiously-motivated violence.

“Inter-religious dialogue will be increased,” predicts Cardinal D’Rozario. “The Holy Father is well respected by the people of all religions. They will see a religious leader speak to them, to share with them. Secondly, the visit will be an affirmation and a confirmation of the good things that the people of Bangladesh are doing.

Cardinal D’Rozario believes that Bangladesh is one of the best examples of inter-religious harmony in the world, although he acknowledges the social challenges – and even the dangers to their own life and safety – facing any Muslim seeking to become a Christian. One of the biggest obstacles to the growth of the Church, the Cardinal says, is therefore “not having full freedom to preach the Word of God, to preach Christ.”

“This is also to be seen from a cultural point of view,” he explains. “We have religion and religious leaders who would like to be tolerant to everyone, but those seeking to become Christians are sometimes ostracized. These people fear social exclusion; they fear losing their connection to their families and social circles.

“Conversion, however, is a gift from God. It is not a human effort. We have had this continuously throughout human history. Conversion takes place among the indigenous people of Bangladesh, and the numbers are increasing, but very slowly because Christians are also migrating to other countries where the prospects for their future are better.”


St. Anthony’s visit


Pope Francis will have accomplished a terrific feat if, through his visit to Bangladesh, he is able to improve conditions for Christian, even locally, to the extent that they are tolerated and welcomed without any fear or suspicion by their Muslim neighbors.

Bangladeshi Christians are also looking forward with enthusiasm to this year’s visit of the Holy Relics of St Anthony of Padua, which will take place from the 1st to the 8th of this month of February, after which they will proceed to India. In particular, the Relics will stop from the 2nd  to the 4th at the Shrine of St. Anthony at Panjora which is recognized to be the National Shrine of the Paduan saint in Bangladesh.

Devotion to St. Anthony is already strong in Bangladesh, Cardinal D’Rozario notes, and religious observance can only be improved by the arrival of the relics.

The Cardinals added, “Bangladesh has inherited a great devotion to St Anthony which has come through the Portuguese in the 16th century, so among Christians of all traditions they have a great devotion and respect for St. Anthony, and not only because they receive great benefits from God through him. Their love for St. Anthony is therefore pure.

“Conversions and miracles are both works of God in a human context. I think that God is at work also by the fact that the Holy Father is coming. People will find the Saint closer to them with the symbolic presence of his relics, and this will inspire their faith even more. This is why we are trying to take the Relics to as many places as possible in those eight days.”


A bright light


In common with millions of people around the world, terrorism has darkened the lives of the people of Bangladesh. Thanks to an inspired appointment by Pope Francis, there is now a chance that a simple ‘man of clay’ will soon be shining a bright and enduring light for all the people of his land to see.

Updated on February 10 2017