ROME – When Pope Francis creates his third crop of new cardinals on Saturday, for most people the key number will be seventeen, since that’s the total count of new Princes of the Church who will emerge from the consistory ceremony.
For Patrick D’Rozario of Dhaka, Bangladesh, however, the number likely to weigh on his mind the most is instead sixteen – as in “7/16,” referring to the date in July of the worst terrorist attack in his country’s history, a siege in an affluent neighborhood of Dhaka that left 29 people dead and instilled fear that the religious extremism troubling the rest of the region had finally arrived in Bangladesh.
Ironically, D’Rozario had issued an impassioned pastoral letter appealing for peace just a couple of weeks before the attack came, making him feel at the time that his efforts had perhaps been wasted or futile.
D’Rozario told Crux on Wednesday that what was so shocking about the 7/16 attack, which unfolded at an upscale bakery, wasn’t simply the death toll or the brutality involved, but that it left many Bangladeshis worried about the soul of their nation.
“Bangladesh wasn’t born as a religious state,” he said. “When we separated from Pakistan, the new state was explicitly secular and democratic, and tolerance has always been a core value, part of our cultural identity.”
As that legacy faces strains, D’Rozario said, the net effect of the country getting its first-ever Catholic cardinal is to raise the profile of the push for peace.
“I’ve always been treated with great respect, and both government ministers and other religious leaders are my friends,” he said. “But for sure, now they’ll listen to me more, they’ll take my contributions more seriously.”
Now 73, D’Rozario is a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the same order that runs the University of Notre Dame in the United States. He took over in Dhaka, the national capital, in 2011.
With a population of 170 million, Bangladesh is the world’s eighth-largest nation, and it’s about 88 percent Muslim and 11 percent Hindu, with small populations of Buddhists and Christians as well.
Traditionally, that diversity has been a source of deep national pride – presidents in Bangladesh, for instance, customarily throw state receptions for the major festivals of each of the four faiths, and consult all religious leaders, not just Islamic clerics, on matters of public policy is the norm.
“For us, secularism never meant ignoring religion,” D’Rozario said. “It’s freedom for, not freedom from, religion.”
When independence from Pakistan became official in 1972, Bangladesh was the first officially secular state in south Asia. Its constitution bans religious-based politics and declares equal recognition for all four of the country’s major faiths.
With no small trace of pride, D’Rozario cites a line from French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, who once referred to Bangladesh as “the best example of interreligious dialogue in the world” – not so much formal theological exchanges, but the daily “dialogue of life.”
Over the course of his lifetime, D’Rozario said, he’s seen that spirit of dialogue become steadily stronger.
“There was a time when only a few of us would take the initiative to have dialogue with the greater Muslim community, and we were hesitant about how they’d react,” he said. “Recently what I’ve found is that the greater Muslim community is taking the initiative, and not only that, the government has been taking the initiative.”
In recent months, he said, the country’s home minister has reached out to leaders of the four major religious communities to try to understand the roots of religious violence.
“That’s something foreign to us, to our culture,” he said. “We have always been proud of our heritage of harmony among the people.”
It’s that legacy, he said, that is today at risk, and he sees becoming a cardinal as the pope’s way of handing him a megaphone to defend it.
“By now I must have given interviews to 20 TV channels” about becoming a cardinal, he said. “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, everybody in the country is excited about it.”
Ironically, he said, many of his Muslim and Hindu interviewers seem better-briefed on the details of becoming a cardinal, such as the precise vestments he’s now entitled to wear or the mechanics of electing a pope, then he yet is.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve learned a lot from them!” he said.
D’Rozario also said that virtually all the other religious leaders in the country have reached out to him, not just to express congratulations but also a desire to deepen their efforts to preserve the country’s culture of diversity and dialogue.
“This is a real gift for the country of Bangladesh,” he said, insisting he means by that “the entire country,” not just the tiny Christian minority.
“It’s a recognition of the good things we have,” he said.
That’s where D’Rozario is today in thinking about becoming a cardinal, but he admits it wasn’t his first reaction when the news broke on Oct. 9.
“For days, I watched the people rejoice, but I couldn’t rejoice with them,” he said – in part because he felt unworthy, in part because he was reeling from the way he knew this would upend his life, and in part simply out of shock.
Then, he said, he got the formal letter from Pope Francis confirming the appointment, which included a paragraph advising the new cardinals to accept the enthusiasm their people were certain to show with gratitude, because it reflects “the gaze of the Lord” upon them.
“Then I felt a little satisfaction,” he said, accepting that the real honor wasn’t for him.
“It’s nothing but an option for the poor, and option for the little ones and those who are unknown,” he said. “This is for them.”