In an exclusive interview with the Register in the Vatican the night before the Nov. 19 consistory that created 17 new cardinals, the archbishop of Dhaka shared this insight, as he discussed why Pope Francis is interested in visiting Bangladesh’s small Catholic community, estimated to be a mere 350,000 souls in a majority-Muslim nation of some 153 million people.
In the interview, the new cardinal speaks on his nomination, the Pope’s upcoming visit to his nation and whether he thinks a door has been opened to have an Asian pope.
Cardinal D’Rozario also speaks on the interreligious dialogue occurring in his nation, particularly with Islam, the state of religious liberty for Catholics and whether fundamentalism is of great concern.
What was your reaction to this nomination?
First reaction: I was dumbfounded. I felt like St. Paul on the way from Damascus, falling down from the horseback, blind for three days. I had no clue at all. It came all of a sudden. I was saying Mass at 4pm. Some people tried to call me, but because I was celebrating Mass, obviously wouldn’t be picking up my phone. So after that, from the mouth of one girl, an 11-year-old [came the news]. She said, “Congratulations.” I thought she didn’t know English [and that] she was wishing to say “Happy feast day,” the feast of the holy Rosary [because his name is D’Rozario]. Then she said: “You don’t know?” “What?” “That you’ve been named cardinal.” Then, within a few minutes, many came — so that was my first shock.
Also, I thought of Mary and how she received news, and how she could be a model for this, despite having human emotion, saying: “Amen. … Let your word be done to me.”
What is the importance to you, personally, of being chosen cardinal?
Personally, I had difficulty seeing the importance, in a sense. It was not a personal achievement. [That] I had to reconcile, but when I saw it was a special love for the Holy Father for the nation of Bangladesh, and the small community of some 350,000 Catholics and maybe some half a million Catholics, then I thought, “It has a meaning for all of Bangladesh.”
What was the reaction in your nation about your nomination, including from outside the Church?
It’s a big honor for the nation. For anyone, to get this call from the Pope has been, for them, big news, especially for a small Church in a small country. All the ministers, prime ministers and vice ministers learned and were very pleased and are waiting for me to come back and have a reception.
So with this appointment, the Muslims, Hindus and Christians were rejoicing, and they want the Holy Father to come. They were rejoicing about the news that he would come.
Turning to the Catholics of Bangladesh, who are they? Could you share something about them and their history?
Their history goes back 500 years to the colonization by Portugal. In 1598, the first priest came with the Portuguese. The Catholic Church grew greatly, due to colonization and missionaries from Portugal, France and Italy, including the Jesuits. Some Christians have very long traditions, while others are more recent.
About 60% of the Catholics are tribals, and the tribals, or indigenous, are one of the most minority communities in Bangladesh, ethnically speaking.
Are there certain social activities in which the Church in Bangladesh engages? Does it do charitable works?
Catholic charities have been known to the whole country. After 1970, when big tidal waves took place, about 3 million people died. At that time, there was no warning, you know. … And after the independence in 1971, Caritas started doing this work and really helped. So Caritas was spread everywhere in the nation.
So charitable works, welfare works and development is where the Church is known. In education, and social and economic development, we see the Church’s contributions.
For example, the whole credit union, cooperative movement started with the missionaries, and it has spread everywhere. The biggest Christian contribution to the whole nation is the cooperative credit union. … The Christian community, including the contributions of the missionaries, offers the experience of mercy and development in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is a majority Muslim country. Given this reality, what is the state of religious liberty for Catholics? What is their daily reality, in trying to live and practice their faith?
The country of Bangladesh is a secular country. A secular country does not mean no religion, but, rather, that everyone has his own religion, freedom to practice. Once in a while, there are some pockets that are fanatic, or some militant and fundamental groups, who wish to destroy the minority religious groups and homes; and, recently, the last one, where they tried to kill some religious leaders. But that is foreign to us; it’s not local. But there is a reaction among the Muslim community: This is not what Islam is.
Recently, I had been with the home minister; religious leaders were called to set a policy and motivate the people religiously, in order to not kill in the name of religion — so Christians, Muslims and Hindus, they were not doing it. But they called us to be able to teach, the greater population, the greater society, the Muslim people.
In the incident on the 1st of July, 38 people are killed. Terrible, and added to that, another incident took place in a Muslim prayer meeting. Three of them were killed. Now, this, too, was very negative, but afterwards what came was a real awareness and government actions in order to not only confirm, but promote this secularism.
Can you imagine? After all this, one day after, the prime minister says, in every mosque in Bangladesh, the same homily needs to be preached. … So all these things came in the aftermath of those two incidents. Nothing like this had ever been suggested like this before.
So Catholics can, more or less, practice their faith freely?
They can practice their faith, but this is also true that some sections of the people are becoming fundamentalists. The freedom of conversion from the greater community is less. If anybody tries to do so, they’ll be ostracized. If there was more religious freedom, there would be Christians, because there would be more conversions. But little is beautiful.
Given these incidents, would you say religious extremism — fundamentalism — is a risk, something to be concerned about?
Oh, yes. The simple thing is this: There’s a trend. In Bangladesh, we have a mystical Islam, which is very open with other religions, which is more popular. Then there is a trend to be Shiite Islam, to be more orthodox, following the prescriptions coming from outside, going beyond the law coming from Muhammad. So there’s this trend, but the intelligentsia of the country, especially the present party, does not endorse that. They speak against it. They collected 120,000 signatures condemning killing in the name of religion. So this is positive, but there still exists these pockets of violence and torture.
Is it possible to have authentic, effective dialogue with Islam when the mentalities are so diverse?
I see this larger Islamic community taking an initiative for having dialogue, and not only religious dialogue, but also the state. As I said, our minister called me four times in the last six months, calling together our religious leaders. So this is the good news, and we are happy. But, of course, in one day, we will not achieve everything.
What strikes you the most about Pope Francis? And what about for your people: What do they think or know about him, be it your Catholics or the people of Bangladesh in general?
I was at a university, and the president of a religious gathering said: “Oh, Pope Francis: I hear he is very radical. He is very liberal. [laughing]… He is talking about things which we like to hear from him.” And then I said to him: “Well, what he is saying is not new. He is just saying what Jesus has told.”
With Pope Francis’ choices of new cardinals, we see Asia increasingly having greater weight. And we know that Pope Francis himself is the first pope from the Americas. Do you think the door has been opened to have a pope from Asia?
Being a Jesuit, he has that process of discernment. He looks at the situation and then asks the question: “What does God want?” Then he says it and does it. So he was making the discernment [about the new red hats], you know: “What should be the image of the Church?” Appointing a cardinal from Bangladesh is going beyond the center. As I said, it’s not simply a cerebral thing; it’s his inner discernment — what Jesus is telling him to do.
I was surprised to discover that, after Europe, in terms of the number of cardinals, Asia and Oceania is the second-largest group, with 18. Asia has about two-thirds of the world’s population and is also the future of the Church. So his discernment is saying: “Go. Go there.” And, therefore, the image of the Church will be changed, transformed.
Regarding the planning of Pope Francis’ visit to Bangladesh, how is it going? Are there already items on the itinerary? Why do you believe he is coming?
Well, he just spontaneously announced, while you [journalists] were asking questions: “What are your plans? He spontaneously, said: “Going to India and Bangladesh.” I don’t think his offices knew that [smiling, laughing].
So we have heard that and are very pleased. In the month of May, I had given him a letter with six reasons why “Holy Father, you should come to Bangladesh.” So he was invited in the name of the conference, and, also, Cardinal [Fernando] Filoni [prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples] went to Bangladesh last year, in September. But when he [the Pope] is going to come — what months — nothing official has come yet. Since Bangladesh is so small, it likely will be with a visit to another country; in this case, India.
Are there ideas about where or with whom he would meet?
We hope that he stays at least one night and two days, and that would sort of satisfy the people, but it all depends on the itinerary he has. The last time, now Pope St. John Paul II came for about 24 hours; so if he could have a little extended time, that would be great.
We foresee that he will be meeting poor people, people of other religions, [and celebrate] a big Mass for the nation’s Catholics; and also that he meets bishops, priests and religious and, of course, president, prime minister, etc.
If you don’t mind, could you share with us some of the reasons why the Pope should visit?
Yes. First of all, Bangladesh has something to give, and he should witness that: interreligious dialogue. One, people are happy. Evangelical values, the Gospel values, are lived by the poor. He should see that. And then he spoke already about climate change in Laudato Si. Bangladesh is the most vulnerable country, from climate change. We have reprinted his encyclical, along with people of other religions, but Bangladesh has taken steps, for quite a few years. … The poor farmers and villagers: They are wise, intelligent people. Wisdom of the poor is what is necessary in this technological, industrial society. So the prime minister has already taken steps and has been already declared “the champion of the earth.” He would appreciate the wisdom and the intelligence of the poor and how a poor nation can serve developed society. He also would be interested in our initiatives to combat climate change, and he already has given attention, in his denouncing of modern slavery. His visit as a spiritual leader not only would be accepted, but bring much joy. The Holy Father’s visit not only would be beneficial for Bangladesh, but for the whole world.
Register correspondent Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.