Bangladesh’s first cardinal has gotten an “enthusiastic” reception as he tours North America.

Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, the archbishop of Dhaka, visited the United States from July 20 – Aug. 7, when he went to Canada. On Aug 21, he will return to Bangladesh.

“There was a lot of enthusiasm among various sections of the Bengali immigrants and migrants who came to give their due respect to their leader, their shepherd of souls,” said Father Francis Sunil Rosario, the parochial vicar of Blessed Virgin Mary, Help of Christians Church in Woodside, New York.

Rosario is originally from the Archdiocese of Calcutta, in the Indian state of West Bengal.

“It was an experience to have a cardinal from Bangladesh in our midst,” said Maria Fernandez, a parishioner of St. Bartholomew Church.

Fernandez, who was born in India, told Crux D’Rozario easily connected with the faithful from various backgrounds during his trip to New York

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“He is certainly a man of God who brought God’s grace among all people of the parish through his humility and simplicity of life,” she said.

A people divided, but reunited in America

When India was partitioned in 1947, the Bengal province was divided into the mostly-Hindu Indian state of West Bengal and the mostly-Muslim Pakistan province of East Bengal. East Bengal – by then called East Pakistan – gained independence in 1971, changing its name to Bangladesh.

There are only approximately 375,000 Catholics in Bangladesh, or 0.3 percent of the population. By contrast, over 86 percent of Bangladeshis are Muslim, while another 12 percent are Hindu.

Bangladeshis and Indian Bengalis share a common language and culture, and D’Rozario was greeted by both immigrant communities in the United States.

“I have been travelling to 6 States in America, meeting our people,” the cardinal told Crux.

“While I celebrate Mass in English in the parishes, on special occasions Mass is celebrated in Bengali. It is very heartening to witness the faith of our people and see the positive and significant contribution they are making to the Church in the United States,” D’Rozario said.

“Bengalis are practicing Catholics who go regularly to Mass, even besides Sunday Mass. They are actively involved in the Sodality and other associations in their parishes. The Bengali women take care of the sick and dying. In many places where churches are seeing empty pews, our Bangladesh migrant Christians are vitalising the faith of the parish,” the cardinal continued.

“The Cardinal visited all without any apprehension or bias. He was open to all those who came to him and blessed them with God’s blessings. He was close to the people,” said Dr. Thomas Roy, a dentist living in Astoria, New York.

A scattered flock ‘without a shepherd’

New York is home to North America’s largest Bangladeshi community, numbering over 35,000, most of them Muslim.

“God has brought them [Bengali Catholics] here with a certain purpose, and they are trying their best to keep their faith, to practice their faith, and the family values linked with their parents and religion – and I see that,” D’Rozario said.

“They’re coming here as kind of a missionary because Bangladesh has religious values. In the midst of secularization, they can be a witness, and they are,” the cardinal continued.

Rosario, the New York-based priest from Calcutta, said the Bengali Catholics are “scattered all over and not so visible.”

The priest first came to New York to do research on the migrant Catholic Bengali community, before settling permanently in the Diocese of Brooklyn.

“I feel the Bengali apostolate needs to be organized,” Rosario told Crux.

“This migrant community are mainly settled in various pockets of Queens within the diocese of Brooklyn. The majority of them are from Bangladesh and a few families from India,” the priest said.

“They are like ‘sheep without a shepherd.’ Although they attend mass in various parishes, some registered and others not, there is a lack of their visibility in these parishes,” he continued.

A growing presense in the Washington area

Another large Bengali community is in the Washington metropolitan area, with about 1,500 Bengali Catholics in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

“The Bangladeshi Catholic community is actively participating in parish activities: Equally joining Mass, prayer, leading choir, organizing feasts, organizing Bangla Masses and also leading parish councils with other ethnic groups,” said Bipul Alite Gonsalves, a parishioner at Saint Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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Gonsalves said D’Rozario’s visit to the area “inspired us and strengthen our spirituality.”

“He always focused that family is the core of Church. He shared his apostolic message and vision for the mission of the world Church. He shared about the Bangladeshi and Asian Church situation and challenges. He also shared his concerned about the Rohingya crisis and refugee issue,” he told Crux.

Hundreds of thousands of the Muslim Rohingya population have been driven out of Myanmar into Bangladesh over the past 18 months.

Gonsalves said D’Rozario had several meetings with local social organizations and leaders while he was in the D.C. area but added he “also visited families and sick people.”

“He motivated me on how I can be a missionary to build a better society,” he said.

This is not the first visit D’Rozario has made to the United States to visit the Bengali community – in fact, Gonsalves credits his 2010 pastoral visit with helping unite the scattered Bengali Catholics in the D.C. area – but it is his first pastoral visit since being named the first Bengali cardinal by Pope Francis in 2016.

Gonsalves said he “felt joy, blessed and valued” when D’Rozario got his red hat, saying it made Bengali Catholics know “that we are connected with the global Church as one body of Christ.”

“It is very important that his cardinalship is encouraging us to grow, and also gives great honor and pride for the local Church and would strengthen and energize the small Church in Bangladesh. This honor gave us transformative approach and new paradigm shift to be united and connected with universal Church,” he said.

In New York, Roy said, “He is the pride of the Bengali community for being elevated as a cardinal. Great honor and grace is bestowed on our Bengali Catholic community throughout the world.”

Additional reporting by Christopher White in New York.