Background of Pope Francis’ visit to Bangladesh

Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, csc:

His Holiness Pope Francis will come to Bangladesh on 30 November 2017 afternoon and he will return on 2 December. We envision his visit as a celebration together with the people of Bangladesh the “Harmony and Peace” with all his feelings, thoughts, reflections and messages. The question may be asked: Why is he coming to Bangladesh? What is the background of his visit? I want to answer these questions though briefly.

To begin with, it is to be noted that he is the third Pope visiting Bangladesh. About thirty one year ago, on 19th November, 1986, His Holiness Pope John Paul II officially visited Bangladesh. His two gestures are still fresh in our memory: one, as soon as the Holy Father had descended from the aircraft, he prostrated himself to kiss the land of Bangladesh. Second, the first words His Holiness uttered were, “I have come as a pilgrim to the soul of the people of Bangladesh”. The sign still vivid in our eyes, words still resound in our ears. The Church has declared Pope John Paul II a “Saint” in the meantime. How blessed is the land of Sonar Bangla which carries the footprints of a holy person along with holy persons of other religions in the history of Bengal!

The first Pope landed in our soil was Pope Paul VI. His trip was not official, just a stop-over at the Dhaka airport for an hour or so. The motives were: to extend his condolence to those who died in the tidal surge and cyclone which took place on 14th November, 1970; to express his sympathy to the victims, and to extend some charitable aids to the Government and the Christian community.

The Vatican always sides with justice and peace and not with violence and war. During the liberation movement in 1971, the Holy Office in Vatican had sent an envoy to assess the situation. Immediately after the Independence of Bangladesh, two delegates came to recognize Bangladesh as an independent nation and on 3February 1973 full diplomatic relationship between Bangladesh and Vatican was established which continues without disruption even today.

The relationship between Vatican and Bangladesh is unique. It is been built on human and spiritual values. In this relationship the values that receive importance are: love for humanity, human life, human rights; compassion for the poor, concern for children and women, promotion of education, health care, works of mercy, integrated human development, care of creation and environment, cultural and inter-religious relations, harmony and dialogue, justice and peace, and religious and spiritual values. With the visit of Pope Francis, there will be joyful celebrations of the excellent relationships that already exists between the two nations, and on the other hand, there will be dialogue on challenges to those values that are mentioned above.

From the time of Independence, the three Popes mentioned above, continuously expressed their love for the people of Bangladesh. The Popes stood by the side of the people, either directly or through the local Church in Bangladesh, when they were challenged in the path of life either by natural disasters or by other difficult situations.
The first initial talk of a possible visit of His Holiness Pope Francis took place on September 12, 2015, when His Eminence Cardinal Fernando Filoni, visited Bangladesh and met the Honourable Prime Minister, Her Excellency Sheikh Hasina. During that courtesy visit Honourable Prime Minister extended her invitation to the Holy Father through His Eminence Cardinal Filoni. Later during the first part of 2016, Holy Father Pope Francis was officially invited by the Honourable Prime Minister and by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Bangladesh. After a lot of preparation the visit was announced officially on 28th August, 2017 mentioning that Pope Francis will make his Apostolic Visit to Bangladesh from November 30 to December 2 and which will be preceded by his journey to Myanmar from 27 to 30 November 2017.

After consultation with the authorities concerned, the twofold aspects of his visit became clear: a state visit because he is the Head of the State of Vatican and a pastoral visit since he is the Supreme Pastor of the Catholic Church and its Spiritual Head.

The apostolic journey will be seen in the perspective of a general theme chosen for the occasion: “Harmony and Peace”. The people of Bangladesh as well as the local Church consider this Papal Visit as:

(a) A Pilgrimage of the Holy Father Pope Francis to the soul of the people of Bangladesh. With his coming as a Spiritual Leader, our traditional and cultural religiosity and our religious harmony shall find expressions. People will experience peace when they come in touch with an ambassador of peace. Then, it is hoped, they will turn to the Giver of Peace and Merciful Lord in prayer.

(b) A Celebration of Richness of the Poor: Among so many great nations, the Holy Father has chosen to come to Bangladesh. This is very much in keeping with his wanting to “look at reality from the periphery”. He wants to see and experience the richness in poverty, the depth in the relentless struggle for life. He wants to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary. He wants to assure us that the poor are precious though many do not consider it so. The Holy Father wants to celebrate our richness of the poor people. It is firmly hoped that the presence of such a great soul in our midst will enrich our lives; his words and his message will be an inspiration for us to proceed along the path that the Merciful God has shown us.

There are beautiful and good things in the life of the people of Bangladesh. I can list a few of them here: (1) there are religious and spiritual values which are universal. (2) People have unique cultural identity and tradition. (3) There is great inter-religious respect and harmony. (4) Although we are the most vulnerable because of the climate changes, we are aware of our responsibility to protect our environment. We have great love for nature which is beautiful. We are committed to love and take care of our “common home” – this part of planet earth. We are creative and adaptive in the face all kinds of natural calamities such as floods, landslides, cyclones. We have physical, mental and spiritual strength to face these stark realities. (5) Ordinary farmers, men and women workers and migrant workers are our great resources. (6) We are also generous and open hearted to those who are refugees and floating people caused by natural or man-made calamities. (7) We have many achievements as a nation and Bangladesh is recognized as a “role model for development” in the world.

Pope Francis will be very happy to see the above development. He will highlight our physical, mental, religious and spiritual treasure, our cultural and religious values, and our achievements in development; he will also present our needs to the whole world. Looking at our harmony, the Pope will call for peace in the world and will make appeal for integral human development. He will also draw attention to the “modern slavery” that are inherent in the society. He will inspire the youth to dream new dreams. He will encourage us to face the challenges to humanity, morality and spirituality and preach the message of harmony and peace. The Holy Father will appeal to the conscience the people of the world from the perspective of our country. This is the backdrop of our expectations.

(c) An option for the “Church of the Poor and Church for the Poor”: The Holy Father will express his love and care for Church which is poor but called to serve the poor. Holy Father’s love, touch, words, examples, prayer and worship united with him will confirm the faith of the Christians. His visit will encourage the minority Christian community, the “little flock”. It will provide direction and inspiration to live, serve and witness to the Gospel as “salt” and “lamp” for the nation as our Lord Jesus wished.

The programs and events of Pope Francis’ visit will help to achieve the aim, objectives and expectations. The motto “Harmony and Peace” will find its expression in the programs designed: reception and farewell, respect to the National Monument and to the Father of the Nation, visit to the President and meeting with his invited guests, private meeting with the Prime Minister, open air Eucharistic Celebration and Priestly Ordination with participation of Christians from all over Bangladesh, meeting with the local bishops, meeting and sharing with Priests and seminarians, Religious, encounter with the poorest of the poor, inter-religious and ecumenical gathering with speeches and prayers, cultural programs, festive gathering with youth, etc.

In conclusion we can say, that the historical, experience-based and reflective expectations mentioned above, shall provide the background for the visit of Pope Francis. His visit will bring inspiration and love for “harmony and peace”. It will create an example that will have far reaching effects. We pray to the Almighty and Merciful God for safe and successful visit of His Holiness to Bangladesh and we wish that his visit would bear abundant fruits in the years to come.