The 59-year-old Father Gomez, a diabetic man, walks with the slightest hint of a limp. He sports a youthful smile and childish laughter. When a group of young girls dart in with an old man, the Father quips about seeing one of them after a long time, which prompts the girls to burst into laughter.
The old man, smiling with squinted eyes and wobbly feet, comes up and asks if the prayers have ended, gesturing to the old church. He leaves with an "I do not know" response, as happily as he came up with the question.
Dhaka's Tejgaon Holy Rosary Church, in preparation for today, has been expecting more people to attend this year's Christmas services. It is especially because the Covid-19 fear has become significantly diluted, according to the Father.
"There is more energy and joy in the air this Christmas season," the Father added. Colourful lanterns hang at the entrance of one of the oldest churches in Dhaka, "we have not done this before," he further added.
"We brought back something for you Father," one of the girls said as she handed a cloth bag with stationery in it to Father Gomez. As they flocked away, the laughter went with them.
"You saw the old man?" Father Gomez asked, "he used to be the chief Father of this church when I worked here as an assistant Father."
Thirty years in service of God
Subrato Gomez became the Father of the Roman Catholic church in 1990. And his first appointment was to work as an assistant in Dhaka's Tejgaon Holy Rosary Church. He also worked in Kakrail Church (Archbishop House) and a church in Nawabganj.
"We consider the Kakrail church as the 'head office' but as a church, this is the oldest," said Father Gomez, who has spent 20 years working in the clerical or administrative units of churches.
"I also worked as a personal secretary to Bangladesh's cardinal," said Father Gomez. But he wished to work within the church and over course of his time in those roles, he let the church authority know.
"But I never imagined being appointed as the chief Father of the largest church in the country," added Father Gomez.
Father Gomez has been appointed to this church for about three years now. And, he has three assistants working with him.
"Well one of the assistants left early this month for another appointment," said Father Gomez. When necessary, the church invites others to come in and stay to help out.
Father Gomez has also worked as a full-time teacher in one of Dhaka's seminaries for 12 years. Seminaries are divided into three levels, high school, college and final level. "I still teach the final level, but now it is just for two days in a week," said Father Gomez.
The church does not make it any difficult for those who want to leave during those levels of seminary education. "It is not possible for everyone. A life of abstinence is a difficult one," he explained.
It is only when one becomes a Father that the church tries to discourage and advise the men of faith from leaving the church. "I cannot say there have not been any such cases, but they are small in number."
"The work of a teacher or that of a secretary is not the same as this," he said. "It lacks the 'community' aspect."
The community's centre is Tejgaon's Holy Rosary Church, which has orphanages and schools close by, "and the community grew out from this point on," said Father Gomez. The group of girls who darted in earlier were from an orphanage.
"I love speaking with the people, I always come out after Sunday services or large church gatherings to speak with people, and we do not talk about 'business,' but just about how they are doing."
The main driving factors in this Father's life are his strong inclination and interest in "management of the church and worship, and my dedication to the faith and Christianity," he explained.
Built in 1677, the chapel which still stands on the Tejgaon's Holy Rosary Church premises is considered as one of the oldest institutions of the Christain faith in the country.
The main structure has been conserved over the centuries, but renovations have been made.
"It is used for special prayers [rituals of worship] now or to host funerals, on the rare occasions there is also a wedding being held in the church," said Father Subrata Gomez. Pointing to the larger structure at his back, he added "this is where weddings are held."
The church generally holds around 100 weddings in a year. However, due to the pandemic, the number was reduced. "We held 78 this year," said Father Gomez, "and 12 Covid-19 funerals."
There were more than 20 last year.
The newer church, which can host up to 1,800 people inside, was built in 1993. "However, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, we seat 1,300 people so that it does not get congested," said Father Gomez.
On 23 December, the graveyard at the front was being groomed, and a few men were putting up decorations around the church ahead of Christmas.
Father Gomez was busy, darting from one corner to the other in between his routine prayers. The church's usual 3:30 pm office hours were closed on that Thursday on account of preparation.
"You know it is an interesting thing, we attend to 'marriage problems' the most, while we do not get married ourselves," said Father Gomez.
The church's office hours start from 8:30 am till lunch break. And then resumes from 3:30 pm till 8:30 pm, except for the weekends and Christmas.
People come in with all sorts of problems or paperwork to consult with the Father and his assistants - it ranges from marriage problems, family matters, registration for weddings, baptising children, inheritance issues, etc.
"They think I will have all the answers," said Father Gomez, "but I try my best. And they listen to me, well…," a chuckle escaped, "most listen." It is also that the Father is unbiased and impartial, "that is why people tend to pay heed to what I say, I have no agenda you see," he added.
Christianity in Bangladesh and pandemic
The day starts around 5 am in the morning and ends around 8 pm - consisting of personal prayers, companion prayers, mass/sermons (depending on the day), office hours, teaching at a seminary in Banani twice a week and one hour of exercise. "I walk every day," said Father Gomez.
Recently Father Gomez has been having sleep troubles. "I have been told by others of my limp, but really, I don't feel any pain," he said, "although the muscle cramps in my leg have been keeping me up on some nights."
On days when Father Gomez feels stressed or too tired, he finds comfort in his siblings' houses. "Children of my nieces and nephews," he said, "what joy! They call me 'Father Dadu,' they climb atop of me, and they don't care much about my role in the church; all my troubles fall off my muscles in their company.
When the pandemic first hit, the church worked extra to help families heal and cope with the trauma. "We are spiritual healers, you see," said Father Gomez, "not medical healers."
The church also gets called to make family visits and patient visits. And the chief Father is the most revered individual of the church.
"We encourage Covid-19 vaccination," said Father Gomez, "but at first I hesitated too. So when I was asked if I have been vaccinated, I said, I am planning for it," added Father Gomez.
"But when Sheikh Rehana got vaccinated [24 February 2021], I went for my first dose the very next day," said Father Gomez in another chuckle.
When asked about what kind of changes he had seen in his service and work over the last 31 years, Father Gomez was quick to say, "When I came here first in 1990, certainly there were not this many Christians. And this upsurge is due to the rural-urban migration in the last 15 years."
Many migrate to the city for education and work, "And you will see many Christians leave to celebrate Christmas with their families in village towns. They will return in early January," informed Father Gomez.
But overall, the number of Christians has not increased at all. "You see we have a low birth rate in the community," he explained, "usually you would see nuclear families and a lesser number of children in educated households. I think that is the reason."
The Christian community tends to have a higher literacy rate, according to Father Gomez.
He also said he does not personally like one-child families because he suspects the use of artificial birth controls, which goes against Christian values.
While speaking, Father Gomez also attended to some men who came from the Detective Branch to assure that they are on standby 24 hours for any support or assistance.
The church is preparing to host around 2,000 people this Christmas.
The communion bread is exclusively for Christians. So while non-Christians are welcome to attend Christmas services, "I can catch non-Christians who come up for the communion bread," said Father Gomez, "There are telling signs in one's behaviour that I can detect because of my experience."
At the very end, Father Gomez quipped in a chuckle, "Did I say anything controversial?"
"No Father, you have not," he was told.
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