The visit of Pope Francis to both Myanmar and Bangladesh underwrite just how much the Catholic Church in many parts of Asia has changed. The visit 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. Small as they are, the Catholic communities of Myanmar and Bangladesh were on display as just what John Henry Newman saw to be why the church is Catholic: because it is the church in local areas — not as a branch office of a multinational organization 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 just the church Pope Francis wishes to shape in the 21st Century. Myanmar has 135 recognized 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.
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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’ camps. This is 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, Pope 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. He really couldn’t use the word Rohingya in Myanmar and some — especially American — media condemned him for it. But again, 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. Pope Francis not only recognized 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 Pope 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 their 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. Pope 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. Father Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of ucanews.com and based in Thailand. #popeheartofasia #PopeFrancis