Diplomacy and Prophecy: Pope Francis in Myanmar and Bangladesh

Antonio Spadaro, SJ

 Antonio Spadaro, SJ / Church Life / Published Date:10 January 2018/Last Updated Date:22 February 2021

Following his trips to Korea (2014) and to Sri Lanka and the Philippines (2015), Pope Francis continued his itinerary to Asia with a visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017. The flight carrying the pontiff left Fiumicino airport in Rome on November 26 at 10:10 p.m. and landed in Yangon, Myanmar, at 1:20 p.m. local time the next day.

Evangelical prophecy and diplomacy: perhaps these are the best words to summarize the significance of the apostolic journey to Myanmar and Bangladesh in the heart of the Asian continent. Our journal has previously described the situation that the pope would encounter on landing at the crossroads of India, China and Southeast Asia.[1] There are many ways of reading this journey, and here we seek to outline the main ones.

The Church as a field hospital

La Civilta Cattolica

There is a geopolitical dimension to the journeys Francis has made into the heart of Asia. Let us consider, for example, the New Silk Road[2] and the Indian nationalist tensions that are features of the area.[3] These mix with the religious question in a place where Buddhism and Islam meet and clash. Francis went from majority Buddhist Myanmar (88 percent of the population) to predominantly Muslim Bangladesh (90 percent). And we know that the heart of Asia is a land of Christian martyrs. Political dialogue and interreligious dialogue are forms of the culture of encounter that Francis has always preached. His political vision is the fruit of the questions he puts to himself as pope, as he said on the in-flight press conference. The Gospel is for the world and must be as leaven. In the eyes of Francis, in those countries where there are majorities of other religions, small Christian communities have the value of being a seed for the future with the distinctly prophetic mission of building bridges and ties wherever social relations are frayed or even torn apart. He does not seek to apply a superficial patch but to weave the material together.

This apostolic journey appeared problematic, arduous and risky as it headed to a frontier with its difficulties and conflicts. This is seen especially with the tragic situation of the Rohingya, an Islamic ethnic group that is one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, according to reports from the United Nations.

On his previous journeys the pope had clearly expressed his wish that the Church be a field hospital,[4] and this 21st journey confirmed that vision. Indeed, he explicitly said so to the bishops of Myanmar, interrupting the reading of his prepared talk. And he also underlined the need for a prophetic vision to confirm in faith the small Catholic flock that knows how to work for the good of the world together with other men and women and with other religions.

“Field hospital” is not just a metaphor. Often the Church takes on the very form of a hospital to carry out its witness: in Myanmar there are 87 Catholic health centers, including six hospitals; and in Bangladesh there are 98 centers, including 10 hospitals. And it was no accident that led Francis to visit the house in Dhaka where Mother Theresa slept when she was in Bangladesh: the saint of Calcutta made no distinctions in terms of creed or race.

Shortly before the pope left, unexpected news arrived that an agreement had been made to allow the Muslim refugees in Bangladesh to partially return home to Myanmar: a clear political sign. The trouble had been a restrictive law of 1982 on citizenship in Myanmar that did not recognize the Rohingya minority as being from Myanmar.

Around China, world power

Another important element of this journey is the fact that the pope explicitly recalled the new role China wants to have – and already has – on the international scene. Francis himself summarized one aspect during his Rome-bound press conference with these exact words: “Beijing has great influence in the region, as is natural: I do not know how many kilometers of border they share with Myanmar: also there were Chinese who came to the Masses … I think that these countries that surround China, and Laos, Cambodia, need good relations, they are near. And I find this wise, politically constructive, if you can go forward. But it is true that China today is a world power: If we see it from this side, it can change the panorama.”

That the apostolic journey was in some way tied to China is not only due to Myanmar sharing 2,200 kilometers of its border with that great country. As the pope noted, there was a group of Chinese Catholics with the flag of the People’s Republic waiting for him at the Yangon Cathedral after the meeting with bishops. And more: On November 27, the Global Times – a tabloid produced by the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily – published a photograph in its online diplomacy section with Francis embracing a girl dressed in traditional clothing under the title “Warm Hug.”[5] And the same newspaper, on November 29, dedicated for the first time an article to a papal journey – with a large photo – giving an evaluation of what Francis had said and done in Myanmar. The title of the printed edition was “Respect each ethnic group: Pope.”[6] And November 25, before Francis made his journey, an article entirely dedicated to Jesuits who have left an indelible mark on China had appeared in China Daily, the most widely read Beijing-based daily paper in English. The title of the article was “Men on a Mission.”[7]

Two further facts: State Counsellor and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, flew to Beijing after receiving Francis. And during the in-flight press conference the pope himself mentioned contacts with Beijing to study the relations between China and the Holy See.

Nor did Francis hide his desire to travel to China one day: “I would like to, it’s no secret. The talks with China are at a high cultural level.” But he added: “Then there is the political dialogue, especially for the Chinese Church, with its history of the patriotic Church and the clandestine Church, that must be taken step by step, delicately as is being done. Slowly.” And he concluded: “But the doors to the heart are open. And I think it will do good to all, a journey to China. I would like to go…”

Diplomacy as an integral part of prophecy

Francis used an interesting expression when speaking of China: see things from an angle that can change the perception of the panorama. And he spoke of international relations that are “politically constructive.” We should not miss the significance of these words for they are the key to Bergoglio’s diplomacy of mercy. In his actions and in his words the pope is constructive. He does not do things out of media pressure or to be seen in a favorable light: he does what he has to do to build bridges and keep the doors of dialogue open. His is a realism that aims to weave relations.

The pope himself explained it very well during his press conference, summarizing simply and clearly how he communicates: “For me, the important thing is that the message gets across, and so I seek to say things step by step and listen to the answers until the message gets through. Here’s an everyday example: a young boy or girl going through adolescence can say what they think, slamming the door in someone’s face, and the message does not get through. It’s closed. But I want the message to get through.”

We saw what this means in the case of the Rohingya. Before the journey we saw some strong media pressure on the pope. It was as if the moral credibility of the pontificate would stand or fall on whether or not he used the word “Rohingya.” It is a word that is considered unpronounceable in Myanmar due to its political connotations. Many thought the pope had no way out: pronounce the word “Rohingya” and be the champion of a persecuted ethnic group, irritating the government and compromising the dialogue; or avoid pronouncing it, avoid conflict but lose moral credibility. Some commentators even wrote that the pope would be well advised not to make the journey. But Francis flew into this conflict-ridden heart of Asia precisely because this was a difficult journey, as he explained to the Jesuits in Myanmar, adding that we must “be at the crossroads of history.”[8]

In Myanmar he wanted to “keep in mind the building of the country,” as he said on his return. This is why he spoke of the Rohingya – a lot! – in such a way as to be heard but without accentuating the tensions, provoking polarizations or entrenchment of positions that would only have worsened their situation.

And then he met them in Bangladesh, face to face: 16 people. He listened to them and he asked them to pray. There he spoke the name of their ethnic group. In this way he wisely combined diplomacy and prophecy. And he put the tragedy of a population that has been persecuted under the spotlight of the world’s media for several days, forcing the press to speak about it, even if only to judge his behavior.

But there were also some who expressed perplexity at his support for the Rohingya, for there are some Islamic-inspired terrorist groups among them trying to capitalize on the situation. The military authorities of Myanmar leverage these ideas. The pope replied to these objections during his press conference on the flight, noting that fundamentalists are present in all ethnic and religious groups, and precisely for this reason he chose to speak with them: they are victims both of oppression and of a fundamentalist drift that is actually one of its consequences.

So Francis followed his own path with discretion; he was neither timid nor concerned with the opposing polemics and pressures.

Let us follow now the stages and events of this journey, which was one of the most demanding of all his journeys.

The dream of a reconciled Myanmar between politics and religions

The journey to Myanmar took place just a few months after full diplomatic relations with the Holy See were established at the beginning of May. And it was the first visit of a pontiff to this country. In 2014 the small, lively Catholic community in the nation had celebrated the beatification of two martyrs: an Italian missionary and an indigenous catechist.

Great festive crowds now lined the streets of the city from the airport to the archbishop’s residence to welcome the pope, a sign of the 16 dioceses of the country with their 900 priests, 2,400 sisters and an army of catechists doing extraordinary work among the most remote communities.

The city of Yangon with its population of 6 million sits under the golden dome of the sacred pagoda Schwedagon Paya, the holiest in Myanmar. Built 2,500 years ago, it conserves the relics of the Buddha. The papal entourage made a private visit there in the afternoon. Under the pagoda the city breathes the great contrasts among beautiful parks, new futuristic skyscrapers and congested streets overrun with Chinese-style rickshaws crammed between crumbling, almost slum-like housing.

The first days of the journey had a light program allowing the basis of the visit to be established and its fundamental themes to develop. On the afternoon of November 27, the pope agreed to receive in the archbishop’s house the highest military authority, General Min Aung Hlaing. They spoke about the situation of the country during this moment of transition.

The pope is perfectly aware that a politics of national reconciliation has to involve the governing military authorities and so accepts – whenever he is asked – to meet with all the parties involved. The government has introduced gradual reforms since 2010, freed opposition prisoners and called free elections. But the process is still underway. Here is the pope’s comment on that encounter: “By speaking you lose nothing, you always win.” And he clarified, “I did not negotiate the truth, I can assure you. But I spoke in such a way to ensure he understood that a road, as it was in the bad times, reconstructed today, cannot be used. It was a good meeting, civil; and there again, the message got across.” The meeting responds to the logic of Bergoglio: accept it, if it is requested by someone involved in a conflict, and consider “dialogue as more important than suspicion.”

At the archbishop’s residence in Yangon on the morning of November 28, the pope met with 17 Myanmar religious leaders: Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Christians (Anglican and Catholic). The key word was harmony. At a time when “we see a world tending toward uniformity, making everything the same,” we can learn instead from our differences. And it is thanks to this sense of brotherhood, the pope concluded, that the country can be built.

The two meetings were not officially planned in the calendar of appointments for each day but they made the religious and political significance of the journey clear and were united in the dream of reconciliation in the country. And this dream was pursued in the official and direct encounter with the authorities that Francis held November 28 in the country’s capital, Nay Pyi Taw. It is a city that spreads across vast spaces with ministries, government offices, commercial centers and hotels. The roads have up to 20 lanes and stretch as far as the eye can see. The pope met privately with President Htin Kyaw, and then with the Counsellor of State and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi

The pontiff then went to the International Convention Centre where his talk was preceded by that of Aung San Suu Kyi. To understand this Burmese leader we need to remember that the military has maintained its control of the vital ganglia of power. This is an incomplete democracy and “the Lady” – as she is called in Myanmar – is forced to walk a narrow path, where even a small mistake could cause all to be lost, sending her life’s work for freedom and democracy up in smoke. The pope knew this very well.

In her speech, the Lady cited the Gospel Beatitudes, setting them out as “a program and a challenge for political and religious leaders, the heads of international institutions and business and media executives.” And she added: “It is a challenge to build up society, communities and businesses by acting as peacemakers. It is to show mercy by refusing to discard people, harm the environment or seek to win at any cost.”

These words did not seem to be merely ceremonial, for Aung San Suu Kyi clearly affirmed that “the road of peace is not always smooth, but it is the only way that will lead our people to their dream of a just and prosperous land that will be their refuge, their pride, their joy.” She did not fail to mention the difficult situation in the state of Rakhine – where the Rohingya are found – and its “long-standing issues, social, economic and political, that have eroded trust and understanding, harmony and cooperation among different communities.”

Pope Francis in his talk wanted to “embrace the entire population of Myanmar and to offer a word of encouragement to all those who are working to build a just, reconciled and inclusive social order.” His talk sought to encourage the healing of open wounds. The Church is on the side of all those who collaborate in the difficult process of building peace and national reconciliation that “can only advance through a commitment to justice and respect for human rights.”

The pope repeated the themes of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference in 2016, named after that of February 12, 1947, which brought about the birth of the modern state, uniting different ethnic groups of the country: the Bamar, who are the majority component, and the minorities Chin, Kachin and Shan. And speaking of the future he said: “The future of Myanmar must be peace, a peace based on respect for the dignity and rights of each member of society, respect for each ethnic group and its identity, respect for the rule of law, and respect for a democratic order that enables each individual and every group – none excluded – to offer its legitimate contribution to the common good.”

Religions have a specific place and privileged role in this work of reconstruction and reconciliation: “Religious differences need not be a source of division and distrust, but rather a force for unity, forgiveness, tolerance and wise nation-building. Religions can play a significant role in repairing the emotional, spiritual and psychological wounds of those who have suffered in the years of conflict. Drawing on deeply-held values, they can help to uproot the causes of conflict, build bridges of dialogue, seek justice and be a prophetic voice for all who suffer.”

The final appeal was to the young people: Francis looked to them to consolidate democracy and promote the growth of unity and peace at all levels of society.

At about 6:30 p.m. the pope with this entourage and journalists began their return to Yangon.

Three words for Myanmar: healing, harmony, prophecy

There were three central moments to the day of November 29: in the morning the celebration of Mass with some 150,000 people present, most of whom had arrived the evening before, some coming on foot from a long distance; the meeting with the Supreme Sangha Council of Buddhist monks; and the meeting with the 22 bishops of Myanmar. At the end of the day Francis met in the archbishop’s residence with a group of Jesuits who are working in the country.

Healing. When he embraced the Catholic community the pope repeated one of the more frequent themes of the journey: the healing of wounds from violence, both visible and invisible. And he added: “We think that healing can come from anger and revenge. Yet the way of revenge is not the way of Jesus.” The Church in Myanmar “is already doing much to bring the healing balm of God’s mercy to others, especially those most in need.” This is the road to follow: to help “great numbers of men, women and children, regardless of religion or ethnic background.” And at Mass, during the prayers of the faithful, there were prayers for peace and for an end to conflicts in the states of Kachin, Shan and Rakhine, which is the wretched setting where the Rohingya population is living its tragedy.

Harmony. The encounter with the monks took place in a climate that seemed formal at the beginning and a little rigid, but they soon relaxed and ended up with warm and smiling handshakes between the pope and chairman of the Sangha Council, the venerable Dr. Bhaddanta Kumarabhivamsa. The pontiff removed his shoes and entered with his black socks into the Kaba Aye Center, one of the most important places in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. It is one of the most frequently visited temples, under the Pagoda for World Peace that rises 36 meters above with its splendid dome of overlaid golden leaves. In front of the members of the papal delegation there were elderly monks, also without footwear, with shallow faces and long orange and garnet red vestments.

We know that the ethnic tensions in Myanmar have religious overtones, but the encounter pointed in different directions. The chairman of the Sangha deplored the “terrorism and extremism carried out in the name of religion” and wished for “reciprocal understanding, respect and trust.” The pontiff for his part repeated the word “healing” as a practical path. And he paired it with another important word from his vocabulary, a word much loved in Asia: “Harmony.” Clearly this does not indicate a simple tranquility but is a call to justice, guaranteed for all. Peace, for the pope, is always the fruit of justice, and harmony is a condition for its development. And in order to say this the pope cited texts from the Buddha and from St. Francis of Assisi.

Prophecy. He also repeated to the bishops the word “healing,” articulating it with the words “accompaniment” and “prophecy.” In developing his theme, Francis once again painted the Church as a field hospital, which is the defining ecclesiological image of his pontificate. Starting with the consideration that the country is trying to overcome profoundly rooted divisions and construct national unity, the pope wanted the preaching of the Gospel not to be just a “source of consolation and strength, but also a summons to foster unity, charity and healing in the life of this nation.” And the reference to the Rohingya was clear when he spoke of the displaced persons.

It is important to note that for Francis ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and also work in civil society are forms of this necessary healing. Dialogue means weaving relations, and therefore also reconciliation and – as is typical for a pastor – accompaniment. Only relationships allow fractures to be healed.

For the Church, the spirit of prophecy is to announce the Gospel in ways so as “to play a constructive part in the life of society.” Francis is always careful not to create a flock that is separated and self-referential. Prophecy in the Church is for the world and must be put into place “through its works of education and charity, its defense of human rights, its support for democratic principles.” Also by ensuring your voices are “heard on issues of national interest, particularly by insisting on respect for the dignity and rights of all, especially the poorest and the most vulnerable.” Evangelical prophecy becomes social prophecy too.

“A word of hope for the Church, your country, the world”

Before leaving Myanmar Francis celebrated Mass for young people in the cathedral. It was full of young men and women from across the country wearing their colorful traditional clothing. It was a feast, an embrace of unity, made more visible by the prayers of the faithful in different languages: Tamil, Kachin, Kayan, Chin, Karen and Chinese. As he had said to the authorities, the pope is convinced that the youth are a resource for the future of the country. He asked them to be courageous, generous, to have no fear of creating a ruckus, of asking questions that make people think, of shouting with their lives.

And Francis expressed a desire that seems to summarize the general task of the Church in the country: “I want people to know that you, the young men and women of Myanmar, are not afraid to believe in the good news of God’s mercy, because it has a name and a face: Jesus Christ. As messengers of this good news, you are ready to bring a word of hope to the Church, to your own country and to the wider world. You are ready to bring good news for your suffering brothers and sisters who need your prayers and your solidarity, but also your enthusiasm for human rights, for justice and for the growth of that love and peace that Jesus brings.”

At around 1 p.m., after official greetings, the pope left the country and headed for Bangladesh.

Bangladesh: civil society, religions and Church

On November 30 at around 3 p.m., the pope landed at the airport in Dhaka, a city that had welcomed the apostolic journeys of Paul VI (1970) and John Paul II (1986). It is a chaotic and densely populated city in a country of increasing development, but tiring and unequal. A quarter of the population of Bangladesh lives under the poverty line and there is a high level of food insecurity in an area often brought to its knees by cyclones and flooding. The capital is growing wildly, with large slums, pollution and traffic congestion.

We describe briefly the stages of this journey of Francis into East Bengal. After the official greetings, the pope traveled 23 kilometers across the city to reach the National Martyrs’ Memorial in Savar that symbolizes the value and sacrifice of those who gave their lives for the country in the 1971 war of independence. Through this lengthy drive, Francis saw how the city is growing and also its precarious development.

After laying a floral wreath and signing the Book of Honor, the pope planted a tree in the Garden of Peace. Then another long road (35.4 kilometers) to the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum, which is the museum at the former home of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first president of Bangladesh who is considered the “Father of the Nation.” After a private meeting, speeches were given by President Abdul Hamid and Pope Francis during an encounter with the authorities, the diplomatic corps and civil society.

In the afternoon of the following day, the pontiff met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in a room on the first floor of the apostolic nunciature. The visit then unfolded in three moments that allowed him to meet the small but lively Church, religious leaders and young people.

On December 1, at Suhrawardy Udyan Park, Francis celebrated a Mass during which he ordained 16 priests. He was filled with joy at this moment of hope for a growing Church that is still a small seed. Following a visit to the cathedral, he met the 10 bishops of Bangladesh.

The archbishop’s residence also hosted an interreligious and ecumenical meeting for peace with five representatives of the country’s religious communities (Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic) and of civil society. The concluding ecumenical prayer was led by the Anglican bishop.

During the final day of his stay in Bangladesh, Francis visited the Mother Teresa House where the saint chose to stay when in the city. He met children, the sick and elderly who are looked after by the structures of the Congregation. Then he went to Holy Rosary Church where he met priests, religious, seminarians and men and women novices.

The final stage of the journey was the meeting with young people at Notre Dame College in Dhaka. The pope blessed the foundation stone of the new building of Notre Dame University Bangladesh and also a commemorative plaque.

Creating ties: harmony, compassion, attentiveness, openness

What were the messages of these meetings in Bangladesh? The pope reminded civil society of the lesson of the “Father of the Nation”: “For only through sincere dialogue and respect for legitimate diversity can a people reconcile divisions, overcome unilateral perspectives and recognize the validity of differing viewpoints. Because true dialogue looks to the future, it builds unity in the service of the common good and is concerned with the needs of all citizens, especially the poor, the underprivileged and those who have no voice.” The reference to the refugees from the state of Rakhine was explicit.

To the bishops the pope recalled his experience of Aparecida that “launched the continental mission in South America,” and “convinced me of the fruitfulness of such plans that engage the entire people of God in an ongoing process of discernment and action.” In this way that experience can be considered paradigmatic: it is as though the pope were to propose it to all of Asia for the organic growth of a Church of great hope. Francis insisted at length on the ministry of the bishop as a ministry of presence and communion. The pastors are called to create ties, build bridges and promote dialogue. In a society that risks fractures along ethnic and religious lines, the Church must work for harmony.

In his talk to priests and religious, harmony took on the form of the compassion of Christ and the attentiveness of Mary. In his words to the young people it took on the form of hope that helps face the future with courage and helps “promote a climate of harmony where your hand reaches out to others.”

There were two priorities illustrated to the bishops: the refugee crisis and the violence dressed up as religion. The pontiff notably mentioned his talk to the participants at the International Peace Conference at al-Azhar University in Cairo: “We need to help future generations by accompanying them on the path to maturity where they will respond to the incendiary logic of evil with the patient quest for the good.”

The pope returned to this theme, speaking to the religious leaders and using three images to describe the openness of heart that is necessary for a society of harmony and peace: the door, the stairs and the pathway.

The meeting with the Rohingya

At the end of the interreligious and ecumenical meeting, 16 ethnic Rohingya stepped onto the stage: 12 men, two women and two girls. Francis greeted and listened to them one by one in a way that showed his emotions and his discomfort. He did not allow the meeting to become rigid or lack a sincere exchange of words. He asked them to have one of them pray, thereby engaging the other interreligious leaders present in the prayer. During his meeting with the Jesuits he gave voice to his deepest feelings about that meeting, affirming that he felt in himself the shame of an unresponsive world.[9]

Francis pronounced some spontaneous words to the Rohingya, asking forgiveness for the world’s indifference. And he recalled that a religious tradition says that God at the beginning took a piece of salt and threw it in the water, which was the soul of all people. “These brothers and sisters,” he concluded, “carry within them the salt of God.” And bowing his head, as before the cross of Christ, he concluded: “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”

What moves the pope to action is neither sociology nor politics but the recognition of the image of God in a brother or sister, with whom we can only have encounter, listening and above all prayer.

The airplane with the pope, his entourage and journalists on board left Dhaka at around 5 p.m. In 2015 Francis had created the first cardinal originating from Myanmar, Charles Maung Bo, the archbishop of Yangon. On October 9, 2016, he had announced the creation as cardinal of the archbishop of Dhaka, Patrick D’Rozario. In his conversation with the Jesuits in Bangladesh, Francis explained these nominations and in doing so showed the profound motivation that had pushed him to visit these small but lively Churches of Myanmar and Bangladesh: “Naming the cardinals, I tried to look at small Churches, those that grow in the peripheries, at the edges. Not to give consolation to those Churches, but to launch a clear message: the small Churches that grow in the periphery and are without ancient Catholic traditions today must speak to the universal Church, to the whole Church. I clearly feel that they have something to teach us.”[10]



[1] M. Kelly, “Myanmar and Bangladesh: Two nations in the heart of Asia,” in Civ. Catt. English edition, November 2017.

[2] F. de la Iglesia Viguiristi, “The New Silk Road: The global ambitions of the Chinese economy,” in Civ. Catt. English edition, November 2017.

[3] R. Heredia, “The Springtide of Saffron Power: India between Democracy and Nationalism,” in Civ. Catt. English edition, October 2017.

[4] A. Spadaro, “Intervista a Papa Francesco,” in Civ. Catt. 2013 III 449-477, in particular 461.

[5] “Warm hug,” Global Times, November 27, 2017, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1077488.shtml.

[6] “Pope urges respect for rights, justice and ethnic diversity in Myanmar speech,” Global Times, November 28, 2017, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1077697.shtml.

[7] Zhao Xu, “Men on a Mission,” China Daily, November 25, 2017, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/life/2017-11/25/content_34980286.htm

[8] Francis, “At the Crossroads of History: Conversations with the Jesuits in Myanmar and Bangladesh,” in Civ. Catt. English edition, December 2017.

[9] Francis, “At the Crossroads of History,” ibid.

[10] Ibid.