MUMBAI, India – Presumably, most people know that Catholicism is a universal faith, one which aspires to transcend divisions of class, geography, ethnicity, and so on. Presumably, too, most people understand that aspiration is sometimes honored more in the breach than the observance.
You can find examples of that truth almost anywhere, but the Bengal region in Asia, which is politically split between Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, is a classic case in point.
In India, Bengalis occasionally feel oppressed and mistreated, underrepresented relative to other ethnic and language groups in the country’s leadership. There are also spats between India and Bangladesh over issues such as undocumented immigration, which some time ago led India to fence the border.
Some Bengali activists, meanwhile, dream of putting the entire territory back together again – a sort of “greater Bengal” agenda.
The Church isn’t immune to those pressures, which means that when Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario of Dhaka in Bangladesh came calling recently on the very first Catholic church in West Bengal, some may have feared the visit could turn into a political rally.
That’s because to the outside, the 73-year-old D’Rozario is known as the first-ever Catholic cardinal from predominantly Muslim Bangladesh. To Bengalis, however, he’s the first-ever cardinal from the Bengali-speaking community on either side of the divide, so his late December visit to the Church of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary at Bandel in West Bengal naturally generated ferment.
D’Rozario, however, insisted he doesn’t want to be a symbol for ethnic pride.
“While many are speaking about the significance of my pilgrimage as that of the first Bengali cardinal, I emphasized that this was a pilgrimage of Communion,” he told Crux. “I wanted it to be a sign of unity, of culture, tradition, and faith.
“This pilgrimage of Communion is both a sign of responsibility for the country and community, and a sign of Communion with the universal Church and of being in communion with the Holy Father Pope Francis,” he said.
“I wish all people on both sides of Bengal, people of all ethnic and religious groups, the blessings and guidance of the Blessed Mother,” he told the people after Mass.
The capital of West Bengal is Kolkata, the city formerly known as Calcutta, and therefore the legacy of Mother Teresa is keenly important. On Dec. 28, D’Rozario said Mass along with Archbishop Thomas D’Souza of Calcutta for Missionaries of Charity sisters and volunteers at Mother Teresa’s tomb.
“I personally knew Saint Mother Teresa, and met her several occasions both, here in Kolkata as well as in Bangladesh,” he told Crux.
Noting that Dec. 28 was the Church’s feast of the Holy Innocents, D’Rozario said it was fitting he said the Mass on that day.
“The feast of the Holy innocents is very significant because today, in this prevailing culture of death, Mother Teresa countered with with the culture of life,” he said.
“She was an ardent advocate of the protection and rights of the unborn. She countered attacks on life throughout her career, and this continues through the Missionaries of Charity,” he said.
“Jesus was the source of Mother Teresa’s love for the born and unborn, and love for the human person. Jesus who came born as a baby, born in a stable and wrapped in swaddling clothes. This love for the dignity of the human person and the defense of human life…was the calling of Jesus for Mother Teresa,” D’Rozario said.
Father T.L. Francis, pastor of the church in West Bengal visited by D’Rozario, said he found the cardinal “a warm and down to earth pastor.”
“The visit of the cardinal is an honor and recognition given to the Bengali community that has a long history of over 400 years,” Francis said.
D’Rozario’s trip came as part of a family gathering planned more than a year ago, bringing together about 40 members of his sprawling set of relations – two brothers and two sisters, scores of nieces and nephews, almost 190 people in total.