Here's a lovely true story for an Ash Wednesday and one related to my recent posts on the global growth of Catholics. But this story brings all those statistics alive.
"This month marks a huge anniversary in the life of the Garo people of India and Bangladesh. 100 years ago, this month, 5 Garo elders "traveled to Dhaka to ask Holy Cross Bishop Francis Frederick Linneborn to evangelize their people."
The bishop sent two Holy Cross priests and one brother the following year to Thaushalpara village near Ranikhong to prepare a base for evangelization in the region. In 1911, Father Francis A. Gomes, who was the first Bishop of Mymensingh, became its resident pastor, building the first church out of bamboo and bushes.
By 1913 the number of Garo Catholics rose to 400.
Last week, about 15,000 Christians, including those from other faiths, attended the celebrations at the “Mother Church” for all parishes in Mymensingh diocese. Also present were apostolic nuncio to Bangladesh Archbishop Joseph Marino and 14 bishops (including three from India), 55 priests and about 100 nuns. Today, the diocese has 80,000 mostly tribal Garo Catholics.
Holy Cross Bishop Ponen Paul Kubi of Mymensingh described the “Garo forefathers” as the “Magi of the Bible”.
“Like the gentile wise men they embraced suffering to get the light of a true religion through an unknown and impassable road. Today we bear witness that their toil has not gone in vain but has bore fruit” he said.
I love these stories. The earliest Catholic community in Korea was founded by lay man who had encountered the faith and been baptized in China. When after baptizing several thousand people, these new Korean Catholics realized that an ordained priest was necessary, they made the long trip to China to ask for one. The Catholic community in Korea survived for 50 years before they received their first resident priest.
By the way, the Catholic Church in Korea has grown 70% in the past 10 years and enjoys the 4th largest number of saints in the whole Church. Pretty good for a community founded by (gasp!) lay converts.
Closer to home: In 1831, some Rocky Mountain Indians, influenced by Iroquois descendants of converts of one hundred and fifty years before, had made a trip to St. Louis begging for a "black-robe". Four Indian delegations in succession were dispatched from the Rocky Mountains to St. Louis to beg for "black-robes" and the last one, in 1839, composed of some Iroquois who dwelt among the Flatheads and Nez Percês, was successful.
Iroquois laity had passed on the faith, without a priest, for 150 years and made 4 four thousand mile round trips journeys over a period of 8 years, to obtain a priest.
How different would our conversations be, how much closer to the truth of the matter, how much more joy we would bring to the heart of Christ - if every time we met or heard of a spiritual seeker or convert, we thought:
MAGI! Wise men and women coming from a far country, searching for God.
It doesn't matter where you start or how far you have to travel. You have to be a determined seeker after wisdom and must be willing to embrace suffering for the sake of truth to search out and find the faith via an unknown - and to you - a seemingly impassable road. Magi indeed.
If you have a free six minutes today, watch and listen to this simply gorgeous Byzantine Hymn of the Nativity - in Arabic. The Magi are everywhere!This Lent, you and I can be Magi too!
I love this atypical footnote to the story of the Garo of India:
"Niren Chisim, head of Birishiri Garo Baptist Convention told UCA News that Australian Baptist missioners started evangelizing among Garo tribals 20 years before the Catholics “but Garo people are mostly Catholic”. He added, “I think it was possible because Catholic evangelization was more organized and systemic than that ours.”
Evangelization really isn't a Protestant word. Really. And where Catholics know it, even Baptists take note.