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NAOGAON, Bangladesh (ChurchMilitant.com) - Catechists are being called "heroes" of the Catholic Church in Bangladesh.
Every year in the Muslim-majority South Asian country, more than 1,000 Mohammedans and other non-Christians receive Christ as their Savior — and lay missionary catechists play a distinct and vital role in the conversion process, helping multitudes find their way into the Barque of Peter by teaching the truths of the Faith to adults and children who want to receive Jesus Christ as their Lord.
However, in addition to engaging in preaching and mystagogy, catechists help nuns and priests conduct Mass and public prayer in Bangladesh's remote villages. They face many challenges: meager salaries, lack of transportation and the looming threat of violence and reprisal from radical Muslims. Nevertheless, catechists know they can win the hearts of many people by preaching, and this gives them the courage to power through their sundry tribulations.
Father Fabian Mardi, a parish priest of Sacred Heart of Jesus, situated in Naogaon of Rajshahi diocese of Northern Bangladesh, told Church Militant catechists play an instrumental role in swelling the ranks of new believers — a role that cannot be adequately fulfilled by clergy alone.
"Our diocese has 35 catechists who teach and preach, traveling village to village, like Jesus Christ. They teach catechesis in their tribal language," Fr. Mardi informed.
Father Mardi, who is a Santal tribal member and a facilitator of catechists in his diocese, noted that, while priests do indeed teach new followers due to the shortage of vocations, they don't have the time to evangelize the entirety of a region that is spiritually emaciated and starved for the gospel. So lay missionary catechists have their moment: They step in and supplement the work of priests, investing much time so as to gain the privilege of forming new believers.
"Before any priests or nuns reach any village, catechists reach the village first as pioneers. They prepare them to receive baptism," noted Mardi. He explained that it's too often only on the heels of the catechists that priests and nuns are able to visit the locale, ministering to them with additional instruction and, ultimately, the sacraments.
Father Mardi rhapsodized about catechists, gushing that "as catechists, they don't do the job, but they serve, as it is their vocation in life. They are the real heroes of the Catholic Church in Bangladesh. I appreciate them."
Some catechists shared with Church Militant their method for winning the hearts of non-Christians.
Ramassor Toppo, 49, a catechist from Bhutahara Quasi Parish of Rajshahi, preached the Good News for 23 years. For the first 12 years, he traveled by bicycle to villages to preach. He has since upgraded equipment, and now engages in his itinerant vocation by way of motorcycle.
Describing his method of evangelization, Toppo explained, "We don't tell about Christianity first. We make them aware of social issues like early marriage, drug addiction. We encounter many problems like lack of education, sick people, and advocate to them to solve their problems."
"People see our positive action and trust us. We help get low-cost treatment in government and Church-run hospitals and dispensaries. We send needy children to church-run boarding houses, and this is how they connect with the Church," he continued.
Catechists are continually on the move to preach in non-Christian communities. Toppo, himself a father of two daughters, explained that his parish has 75 villages. Last year, in the zone for which he is responsible, 250 adult baptisms took place, a product of tireless effort. "Every year, over 1,000 non-Christians receive baptism," he beamed.
Maloti Hembrom, a fellow catechist from Toppo's parish, confided that she loves her ministry. The 42-year-old catechist said, "Being a female catechist, I can easily mix with women of the community. I teach catechesis to adults and children who want to receive Jesus Christ as their Lord."
Hembrom and Toppo informed Church Militant that, out of a mere handful of catechumen villages, hundreds of people would receive Jesus Christ in baptism in the future. "We never tell people to receive baptism — but they ask. Later, we bring the priest to baptize them."
Non-Christians receive Christianity because they see the honest life of Christians and because they see the fruitfulness of their prayers before God.
The catechists took time to explain to Church Militant the unique challenges of their ministry.
"Nowadays, people are busy with their daily work. They don't want to allocate time for us," said Toppo. But, Toppo explained, this does not phase them: "After their work time, we meet them and preach." He recalled, "I used to get enough time to speak with people 10 years back, but now, farmers grow crops the entire year, so they don't have time."
He also stated, "Sometimes, radicals threaten us for being Christian missionaries. But our constitution allows us to practice and preach religion."
Hembrom described how she has to visit remote villages by walking or by taking local transportation. And, on top of issues getting to and fro, her remuneration is scant. She receives BDT 4000 (equal to $50) each month, which is insufficient. Defiant, she stated, "I love and enjoy the life of a catechist; therefore, I continue this work."
Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country with 166 million people. Among them, 9% of people are Hindus, and the remaining 1% are Christian and Buddhist. Foreign and local missionaries preach in remote areas. And too frequently, radical Muslims attack missionaries.
In the Muslim-supermajority country, persecution of Christians is a fact of life. For instance, in 1998, a missionary school was attacked and vandalized by Muslim radicals in the old town of Dhaka, as a power play to grab land owned by the Church. In 2001, Islamist extremists killed 10 people and wounded more than 50 with a powerful bomb that sent shockwaves through the Baniarchor parish of Goplaganj.
In 2015, Islamic State members shot Italian PIME missionary Fr. Piero Parolari in Dinajpur. He ultimately regained his health. In 2018, Sr. Madeline, a nun from the Missionaries of Charity congregation, was stabbed while she was returning from the bank in Moulvibazar.
Pope Francis has formalized the ministry of catechist, stressing it as a secular vocation of the laity.
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