FATHER GENERAL VISITS BANGLADESH
On the Feast of the Visitation, I was “blessed and sent” by the community of the General House for my fraternal visit to the Oblates of the Delegation of Bangladesh from June 1 - 9. The Delegation began in 1973 and presently has thirty-eight Oblates working in four dioceses. I met and spoke with each Oblate presently in the country and visited most of the missions and the two houses of formation. I participated in liturgies, meetings and meals with Oblates, co-workers, Sisters, lay people, priests, Brothers and bishops. I was happy that Fr. Rohan SILVA, Provincial of Colombo Province, joined me for several days.
The Church in Bangladesh is a very close and strong community of faith. Many of the religious men and women, diocesan priests, laity and bishops know one another and work together. I found a good spirit of collaboration and friendship among them. Wherever I went, these friends in ministry expressed their appreciation and admiration for the Oblates of Mary Immaculate as real missionaries.
My very first impression is that our brother Oblates in Bangladesh are very close to the poor. Our missionary outreach takes into account important dimensions of the life of the poor: sacraments, catechesis, prayer, health, education, culture, housing and land, etc. We collaborate with several congregations of religious women in our missions and the concern for education and health is always a central part of our ministry. While interreligious dialogue in a formal way is a challenge yet to be achieved because of suspicions and fears about our motivation, life itself happens interreligiously all the time where we are a small minority and yet serve everyone without distinction.
Several Oblates are directors of schools and others are involved in teaching. Together with religious women and lay people, education is making a significant impact on the lives of the poor who formerly had only a weak education or no opportunity at all to study. In one school I had the privilege of invoking a holiday for the children because of the visit of Father General. Even though the OMI Headmaster announced this good news in Bengali, I knew what he said immediately as 500 children began jumping up and down, clapping hands and shouting with delight!
In one of the missions which began about four years ago, there was at first much suspicion, reluctance and hostility to our arrival and the establishment of a mission. The opinion was that the Oblates were coming just to convert others. Now, after four years, the local people have an excellent school, a health clinic under construction and other forms of assistance no matter what religion they profess. In fact, the people say the mission is doing more for them than the local civil and religious authorities. The Oblates have created a rapport and frequently meet with the people, most of whom are of another faith tradition, to tell them what is happening in the mission and to ask them about their needs. Trust and openness have greatly replaced fear and suspicion.
The capital city, Dhaka, suffered severe flooding in May and our scholastics’ residence too was under a foot of water. The nearby Oblate church remained dry and safe and the Oblates opened it to the people of the neighborhood. Families were happy that everyone could find refuge there, a dry place to live and sleep, until the water subsided from their homes. They found in the Oblates, who made no distinction about anyone’s religion, a warm welcome. They were surprised that all were welcome into a church when their own places of worship do not allow this.
Tribal peoples, generally found living in remote and hilly areas, are often victims of the expansion of society encroaching on their land. The taking of their land by others signifies the death of their way of life and their livelihood. For many years Oblates of Mary Immaculate in our various pastoral centers are joining the tribal peoples in their struggle to defend the right to their land and their way of life. Lay leaders and Oblates have experienced threats and have been in danger because of their commitment to the tribal people.
Each day the Oblates live the reality of societal/religious tensions and wonder if the future will bring greater control and persecution. There are daily challenges to pastoral ministry and ordinary life such as the distances, roads, vehicles, electrical outages, climate, etc. The question of financially sustaining the mission and the missionaries is always a concern. Yet, there they are, in the midst of the poor, living a simple life and sharing many of the same privations. The spirit of the Oblates is one of dedication and joy even in the midst of uncertainty and challenges.
We are blessed to have vocations and presently there are four scholastics in the country; five making their novitiate in Sri Lanka; thirty-five young men finishing different levels of high school and college in the Juniorate with about 23 more soon to enter. When I met the retired archbishop of Dhaka, he told me that in the early 1970’s he had written to many religious congregations asking for missionaries. We were the only congregation who responded and soon nine Oblates were sent. His gratitude to the Oblates continues and he acknowledged our significant contribution to the Church.
I am very grateful to Father Dilip SARKAR, Superior, and all the Oblates of the Delegation, for making my visit such a good one.
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