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Pope receives the grace of Rohingya shame



The visits of Pope Francis to both Myanmar and Bangladesh underwrite just how much the Catholic Church in many parts of Asia has changed.

Pope Francis with Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid upon his arrival in Dhaka on Nov. 30. (Photo by Joe Torres/ucanews.com)The visits had many of the hallmarks of this Pontificate. But what was plain to the eye is that this was a welcome to the Pope by energetic local churches comfortable in their own skin, and generations from their colonial foundations. The Church here is embodied by such local churches, not as a branch office of a multinational organisation whose headquarters are in Rome.

This is important for the Church in Asia in all its diversity. But the message of this visit also has universal significance for the Church that Francis wishes to shape in the 21st century.

Myanmar has 135 recognised ethnic minorities and the Catholic Church is at its most vital and numerous among some of the tribal minorities away from the Barman majority in the south of the country. But the culture of the country is dominated by Buddhism, and among its advocates are militant religious nationalists.

Representatives of the Catholics among the tribal minorities made their way to Yangon and the oddly surreal capital, Nay Pyi Daw, in their tens of thousands to celebrate the Pope's arrival, some travelling days by foot, bus and car from villages and Internally Displaced Persons' (IDP) camps.

This was a poor church putting in all they had to live on. When asked by a young Jesuit in Myanmar during his meeting with the 50 Jesuits in that country how he felt about all the sacrifices poor people were making to come to see him, Francis returned to the Spiritual Exercises where St Ignatius asks the retreatant to pray 'for the grace of shame'. He said he had received that grace.

And he admitted to receiving that grace again when it came to the Rohingya: he asked their forgiveness not just for not using the word during his time in Myanmar, but on behalf of all who treat them with neglect.


"The Church in Asia, for its survival no less than for the fulfilment of its mission, begins from accepting pluralism as being as familiar as the air it breathes."


He really couldn't use the word Rohingya in Myanmar, and some — especially American — media condemned him for it. Though all his speeches in Myanmar were coded to be read as a defense of the Rohingya, he complied with the request of the local Church to not inflame a local situation that would be made worse for everyone — not least the Catholics left to take a beating from their fellow citizens — if the word was used. Francis not only recognised the need for cultural sensitivity as a visitor to Myanmar. He respected the views of the local Church.

In Bangladesh, the Church of the poor was further displayed. The same sacrifices were made by locals travelling by push bikes, buses and on foot to see Francis.

But what held the trips to the two countries together was not just poverty, and Bangladesh and Myanmar are in the top five poorest countries in Asia. It was also the Pope modelling his distinctive modus operandi — his encounter with diversity.

Catholics in the two countries amount to a million people in places with a combined population of nearly 220 million. Each country has its own dominant religion: Islam (Bangladesh); Buddhism (Myanmar). Both places had small groups of religious fanatics who were hostile to his visit. He accommodated those objections by commenting that all religions — Christianity and Catholicism included — have their fundamentalists.

But his approach to the religious differences in both places was not only a hallmark of the journey. It also models something of universal significance for the Catholic Church. If, in the 21st century, the Church in Asia is generations from its colonial foundations, it is also well aware of its minority status and its need to live well with fellow citizens who are religiously different.

The Church in Asia, for its survival no less than for the fulfilment of its mission, begins from accepting pluralism as being as familiar as the air it breathes. The foundation for living freely in a pluralist world is respectful encounter with those who are different. Francis met as many Muslim and Buddhist groups as he did poor people and Catholics. But what else should we expect of a pope coming to Asia?

Casual observance of the theologically cossetted and claustrophobic arguments coming from a few Cardinals and bishops in Europe and the USA leads the observer to ask what world they're in? The answer: their own! In their own worlds, there is no room for difference and diversity.

As the saying goes: they need to get out more and discover how different life is beyond the aristocratic confines of some disgruntled Catholics in Europe or the ideologically driven Catholic culture wars indulged by some far too frequently published US Catholics.

This trip to Asia — the third by Pope Francis to the continent and with another rumored for next year — was a triumph for a reality of Catholicism lived by the poor faithful happily untroubled by the tedious and unproductive contests that want to show the Catholic Church is on the edge of schism. They have more than enough real world troubles to deal with.



writerMichael Kelly SJ lives in Bangkok where he is CEO of ucanews.com.

Main image: Pope Francis with Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid upon his arrival in Dhaka on Nov. 30. (Photo by Joe Torres/ucanews.com)

Topic tags: Michael Kelly, Pope Francis, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Rohingya



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Existing comments

Well said, Father Michael. Best commentary I've read on Pope Francis' Asian trip. The spirit of his patron Francis of Assisi shines through his every word and in his total demeanour. Praise God for such a Servant of the Poor!

JOSEPH P QUIGLEY | 04 December 2017  

Reduced to tears watching our Pope Francis leading the way to an emerging Christianity.

Patricia Taylor | 04 December 2017  

This article is a gift to our changing church in Australia' Thank you for sharing your living church in such a suffering yet real living Community. The courage of Pope Francis and his openess to the brokeness around him ,gives us Hope, Thank you Fr Kelly.

Patricia Adams RSM | 04 December 2017  

Thank you for this perspective on Francis' visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh. The Pope prefers to see the faces of those on the fringes and respect their lives and safety, rather than appear to be faultless and religiously correct. The gift of shame opens a way for us all into personal and communal integrity.

Alex Nelson | 04 December 2017  

Excellent article Michael - highlighting another lens for viewing the church. Thanks

Libby Rogerson | 04 December 2017  

Thanks Michael for explaining Francis so clearly and with such insight. I have often thought of Ignatius and the 'grace of shame' in the context of the RCIRCSA. The churches of Asia as you describe them truly model a future for church communities in an increasingly secular and diverse Australia.

Denis Quinn | 04 December 2017  

Nice one Michael. Thanks.

Anne Benjamin | 04 December 2017  

Great perspective on the place of true Catholicism in the world, Michael, a place not embellished by the trappings of privilege and power.

john frawley | 04 December 2017  

This is a profoundly significant -- and informed -- piece, as one would expect from a highly intelligent writer who lives in and understands the area which Pope Francis has been visiting. In a sense, we have been seeing religious "multi-culturalism" at work and the data about the small proportion of the populations involve which Catholics represent are very telling and should be at the forefront of the minds of those solipsistic Cardinals and others who seem to place the greatest importance on "being as we've always been", as if -- temporally and geographically -- humanity and its culture have never changed. "The old order changeth yielding place to new and God fulfils himself in many ways," as Tennyson wrote. Death is the only human state without change. A visit to Asia, such as the Pope has just made, is also really important for us in Australian: a European culture which usurped an ancient land and culture and which is undergoing that inevitable change itself. We have a great deal to learn from Francis' tact and humility (no more are these obvious characteristics of the "old" European Australia than of the "old" European Catholic church). Congratulations to "Eureka Street" for publishing Michael Kelly's thinking.

John CARMODY | 04 December 2017  

Fantastic article!

Alison | 04 December 2017  

An urgent need in Australia is a serious study of the place of a church/religious organisation in a pluralist society. John Warhurst and Frank Brennan are together capable of producing such a study to a world standard. Of course then we would need bishops who would heed it. Please, is there not someone out there who would commission such a study?

Sheelah Egan | 04 December 2017  

Thank you Fr Michael for your article. What a gift Pope Francis is to our world, and the Church. Would that Australian Bishops could follow his example of leadership! Peace & All Good, Michael Campbell

Michael Campbell | 04 December 2017  

The Light of Christ is shining at the peripheries and among people spending their precious lives on the margins of Society. Excellent and thought-stimulating article. Thanks, Mike.

Dr. Cajetan Coelho | 04 December 2017  

Thank you for such an informative and insightful article, Michael. May his Christ-like leadership take hold throughout the church.

Elizabeth Murray SGS | 05 December 2017  

Why did the Pope need to ask forgiveness of the Rohingya when he got to Bangladesh? If he avoided naming them in Myanmar because he truly believed doing otherwise would have made matters worse for them, why didn't he just explain that and stand by it? It's not rocket science. This Pope is forever talking out of both sides of his mouth.

HH | 05 December 2017  

I am so disappointed the Pope decided to bow to the Politics and his advisers surrounding his speech and his visit to Myanmar. Would Christ would have taken this advice and would He have used a "coded message" (whatever that means) to deal with an active and current atrocity on a defenseless ethnic minority. Wouldn't Christ have spoken up for and defended the defenseless. Will my Church really walk on by, turn a blind eye to keep the peace. Is this who we should be? The article is full and thorough, however I am deeply saddened for the voiceless people, and the unrepresented victims of rape, murder, oppression, starvation and genocide. I'm sure there are many complexities surrounding the events in Myanmar, and my comments do seem at odds with others, however I do need to comment.

David | 05 December 2017  

I have to agree with David's real concern for the marginalised and voiceless victims in this complex situation. Respecting the views of the local Church is great, but where is Rome's responsibility to the baptised? This was a timely feelgood article before the hopeful and joyous feast of Christmas for those in the comfortable West to read. But now we are back in Ordinary Time, perhaps a reflection on the on understanding of child sexual abuse in Burma (and throughout SE Asia - noting the Jesuit diaspora) could be written. They culturally view children as possessions, not as individuals who have inalienable human rights - and baptismal rights! The local Church is not immune to this culture. In combination with the reality of child sexual abuse within our Church worldwide, to stay silent and 'respectful' is unacceptable. Poor children live with and among priests in Burma, sexual abuse occurs, no-one says anything - as long as they continue to celebrate the eucharist and proclaim the gospel all is good. Jesus! There is something seriously wrong with this picture. As local vocations to the priesthood dwindle, the Australian Church is looking to import these young men who accept these criminal standards.

Damien | 07 January 2018