His diocese covers an area of 6,000 Km2 and includes the districts of Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar. Out of a total population of 10 million, some 145,000 are Catholics, mostly from Adivasi (indigenous) groups, whose existence is closely tied to some 200 tea plantations spread across the area.
Located between Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan, and close to China, the diocese of Jalpaiguri “is a special place with a ‘strategic’ position’,” Mgr Tirkey said.
The “30-year Communist administration has in a certain sense maintained a certain degree of religious freedom in the state,” the bishop noted.
“In order to maintain the secular nature of the state, the Communist-Marxist Party did not allow any religious fundamentalism to spread. This has led to cordial relations between Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists. There is no religious discrimination. People do not lead separate lies; many in fact take part in shared social programmes or in activities offered by parish churches.
“So many people take part in Christmas and Easter celebration, including from other religions, that we do not have enough space to welcome everyone,” the bishop said.
In West Bengal, the only episodes of violence and terrorism that have occurred are associated with Maoist-Naxalite groups.
Since 2006, when he started his term, the prelate has tried to change things. “The previous bishop,” Mgr James Anthony Toppo, “did a good job but was not very much appreciated. When I was appointed bishop of Jalpaiguri, people had great hopes for me. I have tried to reach people in the farthest corners [of the diocese] to celebrate Mass with them and provide them with pastoral care. No other bishop had ever done that before.”
The prelate said that he still faces many challenges ahead. The most important one is to “reawaken” the priests and nuns of his diocese.
“Many just run their schools and hospitals or just offer liturgical services. Instead, the Church should play an active role in people’s lives; it should reach out to them wherever they live and try to understand what their real needs are.”
For Mgr Tirkey, one of the most important goals is to get economic help “to improve the educational system and provide a higher level of education for our kids.”
In the diocese, there are few Church-run private schools. Many facilities are vernacular schools that do not go beyond an elementary education.
Ultimately, for the bishop, “Education is the main apostolate. If a person is educated, he or she can go anywhere.” (GM)