University of Notre Dame's First Canonized Alumnus Might Be Neither Irish Nor a Midwesterner

University of Notre Dame fans might have expected the university’s first canonized alumnus to be an Irish Catholic, or perhaps a hard-working Midwesterner. That may well turn out to be the case. Ven. Patrick Peyton (class of 1937) was born in County Mayo while Servant of God Vincent J. McCauley (class of 1930) was an Iowa boy. But the University’s third alumnus with an open cause for canonization does not fit in the boxes that Rudy and Knute Rockne, All American might have drawn in the minds of Irish fans. Rather, he was a product of the Holy Cross missions in Bangladesh, a clever young man who grew up to be the first native Bengali bishop, leading his people while his country was fighting for their independence as a nation. And unlike the stereotypical Notre Dame alumnus, he had no interest in accomplishments or accolades or even the good opinion of others; indeed, he had no ambition except sainthood.

Servant of God Theotonius Amal Ganguly (1920-1977) was a meek and gentle man of whom his circumstances demanded strong and vocal leadership, thrust as he was into a position of authority at an extraordinarily tumultuous time. The first Bengali Christian to earn a doctorate (writing on the possibility of a Christian yoga), Ganguly later became the first Bengali bishop, the first Bengali archbishop, and the first Bengali to have a cause for canonization opened—and all because he said yes to God’s will in each moment, with neither lofty aspirations nor weary refusals.

Theotonius was born to a Catholic family in the Bengal Presidency of British India (modern Bangladesh), his father a cook who spent much of his time earning money 200 miles away in Calcutta and sending it home. As a child, Theotonius played Mass with his friends, using leaves for hosts. Educated by the Holy Cross Brothers, he was a talented student as well as an award-winning singer and actor. But though he was talented, his teachers were more impressed by his gentle demeanor, which they regularly encouraged his classmates to imitate. When he entered minor seminary at age 17, he learned to play the organ, making him the only Bengali organ player in the area. On breaks, he would return home and teach hymns to children in his hometown.

Theotonius was ordained a diocesan priest at 26 and returned to the minor seminary he had attended to teach theology and Latin for a year. But the newly-installed bishop of Dhaka was a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross and he sent Fr. Theotonius to the University of Notre Dame for a master’s in philosophy, which he earned in 1949. Two years later, Fr. Theotonius became the first Christian from Bangladesh to earn a doctorate. His dissertation analyzed Samkhya-yoga, both critiquing the dualism embraced by the Hindu school of thought and allowing for the possibility of a Christian yoga that aids in asceticism and prepares the soul for contemplation by aiding in recollection. Above all, his work was characterized by a respect for the great Hindu thinkers, honoring what Fr. Theotonius believed to be an authentic spiritual experience.

Interestingly, Fr. Theotonius seems to have been incurious about yoga as a purely physical endeavor practiced by Christians. Decades before the exercise craze of yoga in the West, this was not even a question for the young priest. Instead, he considered that the physical discipline of yoga might transfer to the Christian tradition specifically as an aid to prayer, though the understanding of the body that formed a foundation for Samkhya-Yoga would be untenable for a Christian. He rooted his theory of a possible Christian yoga not in the idea that the exercises can be divorced from any spiritual meaning (as most Christian practitioners of yoga today would say) but in the suggestion that a Christian yoga might serve a similar purpose to Hindu yoga by disposing the mind to contemplation. In his dissertation, he concluded:

By means of the natural sense-and-mental control a man can certainly develop better habits of natural contemplation and thus dispose his soul for the reception of the infused contemplation. Method in ascetical and mystical life has never been condemned or even despised by the Church . . . What I am advocating is a prudent and discrete adaptation of the Yoga techniques of physico-mental control, and not the destruction of the body and the sense.

Like ancient missionaries who embraced certain aspects of a culture or faith and baptized them, Fr. Theotonius felt that he could honor the goodness of this approach to prayer and redirect it to Christ.

When Fr. Theotonius was first introduced to Holy Cross Brothers as a child, the Congregation of the Holy Cross had been working in Bengal for nearly a hundred years. In fact, it is to the missions of Bengal that the Congregation owes its continued existence. In the nineteenth century, Bl. Basil Moreau was attempting to secure papal approval for his young congregation; the pope told him that his priests were needed in Bengal. Approval was granted only because of Moreau’s willingness to supply this need of the Church. But Bengal had a reputation as a graveyard of the missions and Holy Cross superiors worried that Bengali men who entered the Congregation would be compelled to leave Bengal if the Congregation’s mission failed. More concerned with building up the native Church than with building up their own community, the Holy Cross Fathers determined that they would encourage any potential vocations to discern the diocesan clergy rather than becoming Holy Cross priests. As a result, the Congregation had allowed only two native vocations in the 98 years that they had been in Bengal—until Fr. Theotonius.

While at Notre Dame, Fr. Theotonius discerned a vocation to the Congregation of the Holy Cross. He was allowed to enter the order (opening the door to the many Bengali CSC vocations that followed) and made his novitiate in Minnesota before professing vows in 1952. Now a Holy Cross priest, he returned to Dhaka (by then a city in East Pakistan after the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan). There, he was appointed logic teacher at the newly-formed Notre Dame College, a Holy Cross institution.

Fr. Theotonius continued his work at the college for eight years, with the exception of eight months when he was unable to work while recovering from a badly-broken femur incurred when he fell into a ten-foot ditch. Though he was unable even to attend Mass for nearly six months, Fr. Theotonius kept his spirits up. He was as shy and quiet as he had been as a child, but he had a mischievous streak. A friend had brought him a rubber snake, and Fr. Theotonius used to terrorize his nurses and visitors, wiggling the snake under the sheets and laughing uproariously when they pulled back the sheets and shrieked in horror at the snake in his bed.

After his recovery, Fr. Theotonius progressed through the ranks of the college’s administration until he was made its principal (the first Bengali to hold that position). He served as acting principal and was promoted to principal only a few months before he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Dhaka in 1960. This made him (at 40) the first Bengali bishop in history. He was installed to great rejoicing on the part of his Catholic countrymen who were delighted to see a native son given such an honor, and at so tender an age. Indeed, Bishop Ganguly looked so young that when he met with Pope St. John XXIII before being consecrated bishop, the famously jocular pope asked, “How old are you? Are you only eighteen?” The baby-faced bishop expressed particular gratitude to the Holy Cross Brothers for their instruction when he was a child and to the Holy Cross Fathers for his university education as well as their support in his ministry. His archbishop, meanwhile, lauded his “zeal and quiet piety.”

But while Bishop Ganguly was willing to serve however the Lord directed, the quiet young academic accepted his episcopacy as a cross, not a trophy. He had no desire for power, writing to a C.S.C. brother, “The sword of Damocles has landed with full force! I hope that the miter serves to dull the blow.” Still, he never complained of what had been asked of him. He knew himself to be inadequate to the position but he trusted in the God who had called him to supply all that was wanting.

As auxiliary bishop of the large and recently-established archdiocese of Dhaka, Bishop Ganguly was kept busy. He traveled throughout the archdiocese and even had his first assignment as pastor of a parish. He served as treasurer of the archdiocese and worked to promote dialogue between opposing factions in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Bishop Ganguly's tenure as auxiliary bishop was marked by severe tensions. The fighting between Muslims and Hindus displaced many, particularly large Hindu groups as well as the Catholic minority. When the American archbishop of Dhaka spoke out about the persecution and displacement of tribal Catholics, it earned him the enmity of the Pakistani government; this tension led to his resignation in 1967, leaving Bishop Ganguly to become the first Bengali archbishop. The new archbishop did not shy away from calling his people to holiness. At a reception celebrating his installation, he said,

May God bless our country, our leaders, and our people. With them, we shall seek without rest to bring God’s blessings to the poor and the hungry and the sick and the needy. May the love of God not be a cloak that hides our laziness or indifference; may the love of neighbor not be an excuse for rashness and impatience. Rather, may love of God and of neighbor be the inspiration that urges us on to greater efforts in the service first of God and then of our fellow men.

As auxiliary bishop, Ganguly had attended all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council. After the Council, he worked with other bishops in East Pakistan to implement it, particularly through an attempt at authentic inculturation in the liturgy. They organized music courses that emphasize Hindustani classical music in order to encourage the composition of Bengali hymns. They translated liturgical texts into Bangla. And perhaps most significantly in the life of the Church in East Pakistan, their young bishop encouraged laypeople to be leaders in their Church, particularly by serving through new lay apostolates.

This was especially important in a country whose Church was developing from the missionary Church it had been for four centuries into an indigenous Church. The very small percentage of Bengali people who were Catholic had long been seen as foreign in some capacity; with their new Bengali archbishop and the work of their newly-empowered laity, the face of the Bengali Church was beginning to change. But in this time of transition, there was a great deal of tension as well.

Archbishop Ganguly was not a forceful man by nature; indeed, his friends and colleagues described him as simple, shy, gentle, and sensitive. He dreaded the need to make decisions that would anger people on both ends of the spectrum, but when he worked instead to help people compromise, he was accused of cowardice. The ire of his people weighed heavily on the good archbishop, who wrote to his superior general, “Mentally, I have been quite disturbed in recent months by the conduct of some of the men here. At times I even had the silly and cowardly thought of asking the authorities to transfer me to a place where I might be able to serve God in peace.” And on top of all the work that needed to be done (most notably the translation of the Mass into Bengali), Archbishop Ganguly was also responsible for 111 elementary schools, ten high schools, two colleges, an orphanage, and a technical school, as well as fifteen medical institutions serving thousands of people. With all the decisions that had to be made in his archdiocese, the archbishop’s gentleness was lamented by many; it was only after his death that most recognized his gentleness to be his greatest gift, the attribute that made him most like Christ.

Archbishop Ganguly had more than enough work to keep him occupied. And then tragedy struck in the form of the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the country now known as Bangladesh: a typhoon (and ensuing tidal surge) that killed some 500,000 people and displaced many thousands more. In one upazila (county) of 167,000 people, nearly 45% of the population was killed. The government was slow to provide aid, a failure that would soon lead to the Bangladesh Liberation War and the new state of Bangladesh. The Church, meanwhile, formed relief parties and procured supplies for the suffering masses. Pope St. Paul VI even made a brief visit to Dhaka to show his support for the people and to offer $200,000 in aid for the relief efforts.

In the wake of this tragedy, the citizens of East Pakistan became increasingly enraged at the injustices wrought by the West Pakistani government. Uprising became civil war and Archbishop Ganguly felt he could not remain neutral in the face of the human rights abuses perpetrated by the West Pakistani occupying force. He ordered all Catholic institutions to welcome Hindu refugees and internally displaced persons, not taking advantage of their distress by baptizing them (though they were willing to receive the Sacrament in order to save their lives from the Islamic force that threatened them) but protecting them and loving them in such a way that (he hoped) they might truly come to know Jesus. The archbishop also worked to pass money from Bengalis in West Pakistan to their impoverished relatives in East Pakistan. Despite the danger, he traveled from village to village to encourage his people, a third of whom had been displaced. He spoke words of honor and comfort to them and courageously called the work of freedom fighters “the most effective and glorious path to liberate our occupied country.”

As the end of the war drew near, Archbishop Ganguly’s name was added to a death list of Bengali intellectuals, all targets whose assassinations might leave the fledgling country without adequate leadership. A Catholic Pakistani officer could not bear to see the archbishop killed and got word to Archbishop Ganguly about the threat, but the archbishop replied, “If I abandon my home, what will happen with my people?” Mercifully, the nine-month-long war ended just a few days later, before an assassination attempt was made.

Though Bangladesh was now independent of Pakistan, diplomatic recognition was necessary to stabilize the political situation. Archbishop Ganguly wrote to Rome asking for recognition and for funds to support the war-torn nation as it began to rebuild; both were granted by Pope St. Paul VI. Archbishop Ganguly also headed up the recovery effort as chairman of the Christian Organization for Relief and Rehabilitation, providing aid as ten million refugees returned from India and began to rebuild their lives. Not content to beg money from other countries, Archbishop Ganguly even donated his pectoral cross and bishop's ring to be sold to feed the poor. He was later honored by the first prime minister of Bangladesh with a gold chain, a symbol of gratitude for the archbishop’s ceaseless work for his people.

The Church in Bangladesh had to be rebuilt as well. First and foremost, the twenty-one Bengali seminarians who had been studying in Pakistan and were now considered prisoners of war had to have their freedom negotiated. As this was being done, a new seminary had to be built and the churches that had been destroyed in the war rebuilt. And all the time, his pastor’s heart was filled with anxiety for his starving people. In what he referred to as “critical days of stress and want,” Archbishop Ganguly wrote, “Over and above all of our other problems and projects, we are duty bound to contend with the daily stream of those who, due to the present state of the economy . . . do not have enough, nay, who do not even have one full meal a day.”

All this began to wear on the archbishop, leaving him constantly fatigued. Concerned, the superior general of the Congregation of the Holy Cross reached out to Archbishop Ganguly in 1972, inviting him to Rome for a period of rest to recover from the physically and emotionally trying time through which he had led his people. Unsurprisingly, Archbishop Ganguly refused. “I feel that it would be a rather uncommon measure,” he wrote, “not available to the generality of our people. If God should want me to continue to spend myself for his people, I am ready, be it even in the sickbed.”

It would not, of course, have been selfish for Archbishop Ganguly to take this time of self-care. Some might even argue that it was reckless of him not to, spending his life so cheaply without concern for what losing him might do to his people. But the archbishop was acting from a place of deep prayer. He felt called to stay, to serve, to pour himself out. He understood also that his life had value whether or not he was at work; indeed, even his illness and exhaustion might serve his people if offered to the Lord. With this in mind, the world’s first Bengali bishop stayed with his people, leading them in their struggle and pain.

Archbishop Ganguly was not so focused on organizations and systems as to ignore the individual. Indeed, it was well known that any letter he received, he would answer, making time for even the most rejected of his people. Nor was he so consumed by service as to have little time for prayer; daily he celebrated Mass and prioritized mental prayer, though the many needs of his people could easily have made an activist of this contemplative. Instead, he gave to his country and his people from the overflow of what the Lord gave him in prayer.

This child of a manual laborer lived humbly, both in his demeanor and in his possessions. He drove a beat-up car that embarrassed many who felt it unbefitting a bishop. He was gentle and kind. “He was a man of pure character,” said Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario, a former archbishop of Dhaka who was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Ganguly. “Inside he had love, forgiveness, tolerance and sacrifice. He was kind and led a simple life. Nobody ever saw him angry. He never hurt anyone. As a servant leader, he accepted all kinds of hostile situations.”

Father Arnold Fell, C.S.C., Director of Holy Cross Missions, concurred, describing Archbishop Ganguly as one with “rare humility and gentleness, with an unfailing cheerfulness that was a clear sign of deep faith.” Indeed, so gentle and wise and generous was the archbishop that Fr. Fell said, “Recite the beatitudes and you have a character profile of Theotonius Ganguly.”

Archbishop Ganguly was a model of holiness and hard work for the Church. But his friends had not been wrong to be concerned about his health. He died quite suddenly of heart failure at age 57, cutting short the work of a man who was already considered a saint during his lifetime. As soon as the news spread, his people came to honor the man they had loved so much, a thousand arriving in the few hours following the good archbishop’s sudden death. People of every religious tradition attended his funeral, as they do the Mass celebrated each year on the anniversary of his death.

An editorial published in a secular Bengali newspaper at the time of Archbishop Ganguly’s death wrote of his “qualities of humility, sincerity, and generosity.” In a nation where Catholics had long been seen as foreign, Archbishop Ganguly was one of their own, a figure of great kindness and generosity whose life has brought some unity to a people so deeply divided by religious differences. There is little the people of Bangladesh agree on; some say that their universal love for Archbishop Ganguly might itself be a miracle.

It would be easy to list Archbishop Ganguly’s accomplishments and imagine him to be an ambitious man of forceful character whose strength was evident to all. But those who knew him speak rather of a meek man, a good and sincere priest who was deeply-loved and content to live in obscurity. Perhaps that was the very reason that the Spirit chose him to lead: that it might be clear to all who saw him that gentleness, too is a form of strength, and a strength profoundly needed by Church leaders. It is unfortunately rare to find a bishop so humble, so generous, and so rooted in prayer, and all the more striking that he managed to remain so even in the midst of such a tumultuous time, with all the politicking required of a leader. But Archbishop Ganguly’s heart was fixed on Jesus and the things of this world could not sway him.

Father Thomas Zimmerman, C.S.C. was an American priest who arrived in East Pakistan the year after Archbishop Ganguly’s return from the States and served there for the next 40 years. In his eulogy, he said, “He took no delight or pride in the pomp and dignity of his office—his joy was to be accepted simply as a priest among his brother priests.” He spoke also of the archbishop’s great suffering, though Archbishop Ganguly spoke little of the pain that his position gave him. “His lack of ambition, his feeling of unworthiness and inadequacy—these were the real scourges of his years as leader of Christ’s flock. Now they become the crown of his greatness and glory.” Perhaps the most powerful description Fr. Zimmerman used of his archbishop was this: Archbishop Ganguly was “seemingly fragile and delicate and yet so strong in his gentleness.”

Archbishop Ganguly was brilliant and talented, a hero to the people of Bangladesh and a pioneer whose life was a long series of Bengali firsts. But above all, he was a kind and gentle man who had given his heart to Jesus. He was unconcerned with credentials or position; he wanted only to be Christ’s. And in the end, he was. His impressive resumé could not distract him from his identity in Jesus. What better model could today’s students have than a man who was tremendously successful without once focusing on accolades and accomplishments? Through his intercession, may all our bishops be so fixed on Jesus. May the nation of Bangladesh find lasting peace and the Catholics of Bangladesh be strengthened in their faith. And may all Notre Dame students and alumni be content in God’s will, finding their identity not in their talents but in the love of God. Servant of God Theotonius Amal Ganguly, pray for us!

Featured Image: Excerpt from what appears to be a holy card featuring Archbishop Ganguly featured on various sites without attribution, Fair Use.


Meg Hunter-Kilmer

Meg Hunter-Kilmer is a hobo for Christ and a Fellow of the Sullivan Family Saints Initiative in the McGrath Institute for Church Life. She lives out of her car and travels the country speaking to youth and adults, giving retreats, and writing about the saints.

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