At the Crossroads of History: Pope Francis’ Conversations with the Jesuits in Myanmar and Bangladesh

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14 December 2017

From November 26 to December 2, Pope Francis traveled to Myanmar and Bangladesh on his 21st international apostolic journey. On Wednesday, November 29, following his encounter with the bishops of Myanmar, Francis left the small room that had hosted the meeting and found himself before 300 seminarians who were waiting for a photo opportunity. He also greeted a small group of Chinese people proudly waving the flag of the People’s Republic. Their words: “Come to our country soon!

After walking among these joyful gatherings, the pope entered the chapel on the ground floor of the archbishop’s house to meet 31 Jesuits based in the country: 13 were from Myanmar (three priests, five novices and five scholastics); the others were from Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Australia and China. Another 21 Myanmar Jesuits were not present because they are studying in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

Collectively, those present represented all the institutions of the Society of Jesus in the country: educational institutions that are open to all, regardless of ethnic or religious background; a parish in a border diocese serving the Kachin and Shan people; a school in a slum area in Yangon, where Jesuits also help the poor to rebuild their homes and have a small microcredit service; the Jesuit Refugee Service that mostly works with hundreds of thousands of displaced people in the Kachin and Kayah States and on the border with Thailand and China.

Upon entering, Francis was welcomed with applause and then he proceeded to greet everyone individually. As is typical of a chapel, the room was narrow and long, but the atmosphere was that of a spontaneous embrace breaking through the chairs set in rows. The faces of those present made it clear that the pope was in the company of people with many different roots and backgrounds. A Jesuit student placed around his shoulders a shawl typical of the Chin ethnic group.

Francis sat down and said he needed an English translator, promptly presenting Msgr. Mark Miles. Jokingly, the pope added, “He is a good man and will not reveal any of the Jesuit secrets we will talk about here.” And then he spontaneously thanked those present.

What follows is a transcript of the two conversations I attended, the publication of which has been approved by the Holy Father. Accompanying the text are some background notes to contextualize the conversation and a final consideration.

(Antonio Spadaro, SJ)

 

Thank you for coming. I see many young faces, and I’m glad. It’s a good thing, because it’s a promise. Young people have a future if they have roots. If they do not have roots, they will be at the will of the wind. To begin with, I would like to ask a question. Everyone should ask it in their examination of conscience: Where are my roots? Do I have roots? Are my roots tenacious or weak? It is a question that does us good. St. Ignatius began the Spiritual Exercises speaking of a root: “Humans are created to praise.” And he concluded with another root: the root of love. And he proposed a contemplation to grow in love. There is no true love if it does not take root. There it is, that was my initial sermon! But now I would like you to ask a few questions.

 

Thank you, Holy Father, for being with us. We all live in Myanmar and you understand the situation in our country. We share the same spirituality, that of the Spiritual Exercises. Our spirituality contemplates the Incarnation which pushes us forward; it moves us to mission. We are here, and therefore we are on a mission. Contemplating the actual situation in Myanmar, what do you expect from us?

I believe we cannot think of a mission – I say this not only as a Jesuit but as a Christian – without the mystery of the Incarnation. The mystery of the Incarnation illuminates our approach to reality and the world completely, all our closeness to people, to culture. Christian closeness is always incarnated. It is a closeness like that of the Word, who comes to be with us. I remind you of the synkatabasis, the being with … The Jesuit is one who must always get closer, as the Word made flesh came close. To look, to listen without prejudices, but mystically. To look without fear and look mystically: this is fundamental for the way we look at reality.

Inculturation begins with this way of looking. Inculturation is not a fashion, no. It is the very essence of the Word which became flesh, took our culture, our language, our flesh, our life, and died. Inculturation is to take on board the culture of the people I am sent to.

And for this reason the Jesuit prayer – I mean mainly in relation to inculturation – is the prayer of intercession. It is necessary to pray to the Lord precisely for those realities in which I am immersed.

There have been many failures in the Society’s life of prayer. At first some Jesuits gave St. Ignatius a headache because they wanted the Jesuits to remain closed away and to dedicate two or three hours to prayer … And St. Ignatius said: “No, contemplate in action!” And in 1974 it was my turn to experience this. There was – as you know – a movement of the so-called “Discalced Jesuits,” who wanted a rigid, almost cloistered observance of the rules. A contrary reform, against the spirit of St. Ignatius. True prayer and true Jesuit observance do not follow that route. It is not a restorationist observance. Our observance is always to look forward with the inspiration of the past, but always looking forward. The challenges are not behind, they lie ahead.

For this, Blessed Pope Paul VI helped the Society greatly, and on December 3, 1974, he addressed us with a speech that remains entirely relevant. I recommend you read it. He says, for example, a phrase: Wherever, at the crossroads of history, there are Jesuits.[1] Paul VI said it! He did not say, “Be locked up in a convent,” but he tells the Jesuits, “Go to the crossroads!” And to go to the crossroads of history, my dear friends, we must pray! We must be men of prayer alive in the crossroads of history!

 

I would like to reflect for a moment on our people. Some here have walked three days to see you, others have put money aside for six months. I can testify that they were happy to see you. Thank you! My question is this: many in the media have said that your visit to Myanmar is one of your most difficult and is full of challenges. Is it as they suggest?

You said two things. First you talked about the People of God. When I heard that these people had traveled and walked a lot, that they had saved money to come here, I confess that I felt a great sense of shame. The People of God teaches us heroic virtues. And I feel ashamed at being a shepherd of a people who overtake me in their virtue, in their thirst for God, their sense of belonging to the Church, their desire to come to see Peter. I felt it, and I thank God for letting me feel it. And incidentally I tell you that, if there is a grace that the Jesuit must ask for, it is shame, great shame. St. Ignatius tells us to ask for it in the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises before the Crucified Christ. Ask for the grace of shame, for you and for me. It is a grace!

Let me now turn to your second question. This is a very difficult journey, yes. Perhaps it even risked being canceled at some point. So it is a difficult journey. But precisely because it is difficult, I had to make it! In fact, a short time ago we read in the Office of Readings what the prophet Ezekiel says of the pastors who take advantage of their people, who live off their people. They live to suck their milk, they are shepherds who take the milk from the sheep and shear their wool.

Here are two symbols. Food stands for riches, and wool for vanity. A pastor who becomes accustomed to riches and vanity ends up, as Saint Ignatius says, suffering great pride. Hence St. Augustine takes up this theme of the prophet Ezekiel in a famous treatise, De pastoribus, and shows that if the bad shepherd clings to wealth, if he clings to vanity, he ends up becoming full of pride. So, what makes the good shepherd healthy is poverty. St. Ignatius called poverty the mother and the wall of religious life. The People of God are a poor people, a humble people, and a people who thirst for God. We pastors must learn from the people. So, if this journey seemed difficult, I came because we have to be at the crossroads of history.

 

When we heard about your visit, we began to feel and think that we were at the crossroads, as you just said. Your visit for us is a push forward in this sense. The key is, as you often say, to have the smell of the sheep upon us. We come here from different places in Myanmar, where we perceive this smell as priests. Some of us smell the refugees. How can we feel and think with the Church, as St. Ignatius asks us, sensing this smell of the People of God so intensely? How can we feel the presence of the pope?

I recently spoke to the bishops about two smells: the smell of the sheep and the smell of God. We must know the smell of sheep, to acknowledge, understand and accompany, and the sheep must perceive that we exude the smell of God. And this is the testimony. Today, the missionary activity, thanks be to God, is not a matter of proselytism. Pope Benedict XVI made it clear: the Church does not grow by proselytism, but by attraction, by witness. How can you feel the presence of the pope, you who work there? How can refugees feel it? Answering is not easy. I have visited four refugee camps so far. Three huge ones in Lampedusa, Lesbos and Bologna, which is in Northern Italy. There our work is of closeness. Sometimes it is not possible to distinguish well between a place one person expects to leave and a prison under another name. And sometimes the camps are nothing other than concentration camps, prisons.

In Italy, the presence of refugees from Africa is strongly felt, because they are there, so close, and real tragedies happen. A refugee I spoke to told me that it took him three years to get from his house to Lampedusa. And in those three years he was sold five times. On the trafficking of young women, girls who are deceived and sold to traffickers in Rome, an elderly priest once told me with a certain irony, that he was not sure if there were more priests in Rome or young women enslaved in prostitution. And they are girls who have been kidnapped, deceived, carried from one place to another. The diocesan Church of Rome works a lot on this issue. It is a work of liberation.

Then we think about the exploitation of children forced into child labor. We think of children who have forgotten how to play. They have to work. Here is our Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: to see them is to see Christ suffering and crucified. How do I approach all this? Yes, I try to visit, I speak clearly, especially with countries that have closed their borders. Unfortunately, in Europe there are countries that have chosen to close their borders. The most painful thing is that to take such a decision they had to close their hearts. And our missionary work must also reach those hearts that are closed to the reception of others.

I do not know what else to say on this subject, except that it is a serious issue. Tonight we will have dinner. Many of these refugees have a piece of bread for dinner. Maybe we will have a cake. This brings back to me an image of Lesbos. I was there with Patriarch Bartholomew and the Orthodox Archbishop of Athens, Ieronymos. They were all seated in rows, very neat – there were many thousands – and I was walking in front; behind me came Patriarch Bartholomew, and then Archbishop Ieronymos. I was saying goodbye, and at a certain moment I realized that the children were holding my hand but looking back. I asked myself: “What’s up?” I turned around and saw that Patriarch Bartholomew had pockets full of candy and gave it to the children. With one hand they greeted me, with the other they grabbed the candy. I thought maybe it was the only sweet they had eaten for days.

And there is another image from Lesbos that helped me to cry a lot before God: a man of about 30 with three little children told me: “I am a Muslim. My wife was a Christian. We loved each other very much. The terrorists came one day. They saw her cross. They told her to take it off. She said no and they slit her throat before my very eyes. I continue to love my wife and my children.”

These things must be seen and must be told. These things do not come to the living rooms of our big cities. We are obliged to report and make public these human tragedies that some try to silence.

 

Many Jesuits here are involved in formation and as trainers we try to better understand what the Jesuit figure is today. You are a good Jesuit, committed to the mission entrusted to you. What can you tell us about that? What is your advice to young Jesuits in Myanmar to become a good Jesuit?

Don’t teach them to be like me! (And here the pope bursts out laughing.) I will say two things. Among my formators there was an elderly Jesuit who had been at the existential frontiers. He was a great Jesuit scientist, and he once gave me some advice: If you want to persevere in the Society, think clearly and speak obscurely. He was a great scientist, but he was a bad formator. Do you understand? (And here he laughs together with the other Jesuits).

The second thing I want to mention concerns another man and I want to mention him here in Myanmar, because I believe he never imagined that his name would be pronounced here. He is an Argentine Jesuit and his name was Miguel Angel Fiorito. He made a critical edition of the Memoriale by St. Peter Fabre, but he was a philosopher and had written his thesis on St. Thomas and the natural human desire to find God. He was a professor of philosophy, dean of the Faculty, but he loved spirituality. And he taught us students the spirituality of St. Ignatius. It was he who taught us the path of discernment.

You who are a formator, if you meet a Jesuit who is in formation but cannot discern, who has not learned discernment and who shows little intention to learn it, even if he is an excellent young man, tell him to look for another path. The Jesuit must be a master of discernment, for himself and for others. St. Ignatius did not ask us to do two examinations of conscience a day to get rid of lice or fleas. No, he did it because we would like to see what happens in our heart. In my opinion, the vocational criterion for the Society is this: Can the candidate discern? Will he learn to discern? If he knows how to discern, he knows how to recognize what comes from God and what comes from the bad spirit, then this is enough for him to go on. Even if he does not understand much, even if they fail him at the exams … it is OK, as long as he knows spiritual discernment. Think of St. Peter Claver. He knew how to discern and knew that God wanted him to spend his life among the black slaves. Meanwhile some esteemed theologians were discussing whether or not they had a soul.

 

My formation lasted 14 years from novitiate to priestly ordination. Along the way other companions in formation left. We local Jesuit priests are now only three. What are your words of encouragement for those in formation?

One of the things the Lord respects is liberty. Including the liberty to get away from him, the freedom to sin. He is silent and suffers. He doesn’t say anything. This is the extreme. Between that extreme and here, there are many situations that are not a sin, but are historical situations that weaken the person or make it clear that this was not his path … The abandonment of the religious life, the abandonment of a priest, is a mystery. And we must respect him, help him if he asks for help, remain available and pray for him. In fact, the Lord awaits him at the most opportune moment. And we must never despair, because the Lord is good and even sly, if you will pardon the word.

I would like to add something about God’s slyness: I want to tell you about a work of art that strikes me. It is a chapel located in the church of St. Mary Magdalene in Vézelay, in the center of France, where the Way of St. James begins. On one side of the chapel there is Judas hanged, with his tongue out, his eyes open, dead. And next to him the devil is ready to take him away. On the other side of the chapel is the figure of the Good Shepherd, who has grabbed him, put him on his shoulders and taken him away. That 13th century sculptor was an artist, but in his heart he was also a theologian. He was a mystic. And he was brave. He took leave to say something that none of us, no theologian, would dare to say officially: God is smart. God is sly. And he is special. If we look carefully at the Good Shepherd’s lips, we see that he wears a joking smile as if he were saying to the devil: “I fooled you.”

This teaches me a lot. Always to hope … it is the same sentence that the Curé d’Ars told the widow of someone who committed suicide, anguished because her husband had gone to hell: “Madam, between the bridge from which your husband threw himself and the river there is the mercy of God.” Never forget the word mercy.

 

I am a Jesuit in formation as a teacher and I work in a slum. People are very poor, but people there want to help each other. A girl asked me: How can I help those in need if I need help myself? I tried to give her an intellectual answer, but it did not convince me. Then someone advised me to ask the Holy Father the question.

Intellectual answers don’t help. I am not an anti-intellectual, be clear! We need to study a lot, but the intellectual and abstract response in this case does not help. For a mother who has lost her son, for a man who has lost his wife, a child, a sick man … what can words do? Just a look … a smile, shaking hands, arms, touch … and perhaps at that point the Lord will inspire a word in us. But do not give explanations. And the question the girl asked was an existential question: “How can I, who have nothing, help others?” Come closer! And think about how that person can help you. Come closer. Accompany. Stay close. And the Holy Spirit – let us not forget that we have the Spirit inside – will inspire in you what you can do, what you can say. Because to speak is the last thing. First, do. Be silent, accompany, stay close. Proximity, nearness. It is the mystery of the Word made flesh. Nearness. Maybe you can tell the girl: “Be closer!” She needs closeness. And you need closeness too. And let God do the rest.

 

Holy Father, I wonder why you always find time to visit the Jesuits during your travels. And another question: What are the three important things that a Jesuit can do for the people of this country, for the Church in Myanmar?

The reason why I always meet the Jesuits is to not forget that I am a missionary and that I must convert sinners! (The pope thus provoked those present to laugh.) As for the question, I like your use of the word “Church.” Ignatius cared deeply for feeling with the Church, for feeling in the Church. And this also requires discernment. But we must be close to the hierarchy. And if I do not agree with what the bishop says, I must have the parrhesia to go and talk to him with courage and dialogue. And eventually obey. Remember St. Ignatius when Gian Pietro Carafa, Pope Paul IV, was elected. When he was asked what would happen to him if the pope were to dissolve the Society, I believe St. Ignatius replied that with a little prayer he would have fixed everything. And he would have remained in peace. But one cannot think of the Society of Jesus as a parallel Church, or a sub-Church. We all belong to the holy and sinful Church. We belong to the Church in joy and sadness. We have examples of great Jesuits who felt crucified by the Church of their time and kept their mouths shut. Let’s think of Cardinal De Lubac, to name one. And many others I would say: Be men of the Church. When the Society gets into the orbit of self-sufficiency, it stops being the Society of Jesus.

 

A serious problem here is fundamentalism. I come from a region where there are many tensions with Muslims. I wonder how you can take care of people who have this tendency toward fundamentalism. What do you feel about this, visiting our country?

Look, there are fundamentalisms everywhere. And we Catholics have “the honor” of having fundamentalists among the baptized. I think it would be interesting if some of you who are preparing for graduation were to study the roots of fundamentalism. It is an attitude of the soul that stands as a judge of others and of those who share their religion. It is a going to the essential – a claim to be going to the essential – of religion, but to such an extent as to forget what is existential. It forgets the consequences. Fundamentalist attitudes take different forms, but they have the common background of underlining the essential so much that they deny the existential. The fundamentalist denies history, denies the person. And Christian fundamentalism denies the Incarnation.

 

The meeting concluded in a festive atmosphere with the “Salve Regina” and then with personal greetings and photographs.

 

 

On the afternoon of December 1, during his visit to Bangladesh, the pope attended an ecumenical and interreligious meeting for peace together with four religious representatives (a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Catholic) and a representative of civil society. The final prayer was recited by an Anglican bishop. Then a group of Rohingya came up onto the stage. The pope welcomed them, listened to their stories, and asked one of them to pray. At the end he went to the Apostolic Nunciature of Dhaka, where 13 Jesuits who carry out their mission in that country were waiting for him in a room, seated in a circle.

The superior of the Mission expressed the joy of the Jesuits at having the pope there with them: “We are a group of Jesuits working in Bangladesh. Nine of us are from here, three from India and one from Belgium. God has blessed us and we work here in Bangladesh in three dioceses. The Mission has another 14 scholastics, three juniors and three novices. We work in a house for spiritual exercises and in formation, in parish ministries, in the educational apostolate, and in the service of refugees. The first presence of the Jesuits in this land dates back to the end of the 16th century. In 1600 a church was built, but the following year it was destroyed. After various events we have been back in Bangladesh since 1994, when we were invited by the local Church. Today, you give us the privilege of meeting you. We all feel proud to be Jesuits and we ask for your blessing. Today, I had considered giving a speech, but then I thought better of it: better to have an open conversation.” The pope replied to the greeting by saying:

The two dates you mentioned have attracted my attention: 1600 and 1994. So for centuries the Jesuits have lived alternating vicissitudes without a stable presence. And that’s okay: the Jesuits live like that too. Fr. Hugo Rahner said that a Jesuit must be a man who is capable of moving while practicing discernment, both in the field of God and in the field of the devil. Your years have been a little like this: a move without stability and a move forward in the light of discernment.

 

Holy Father, thank you for talking about the Rohingya people. They are our brothers and sisters, and you spoke of them in these terms: as brothers and sisters. Our provincial sent two of us to help them

Jesus Christ today is called Rohingya. You talk about them as brothers and sisters: They are. I think of St. Peter Claver, who is very dear to me. He worked with the slaves of his time … and to think that some theologians of the time – not so many, thank God – discussed if the slaves had a soul or not! His life was a prophecy, and he helped his brothers and sisters who lived in shameful conditions. But this shame today is not over. Today there is much discussion about how to save the banks. The problem is the salvation of the banks. But who saves the dignity of men and women today? Nobody cares about people in ruins any longer. The devil manages to do this in today’s world. If we had a little sense of reality, this should scandalize us. The media scandal today concerns the banks and not the people. In front of all this we must ask for a grace: to cry. The world has lost the gift of tears. St. Ignatius – who had this experience – asked for the gift of tears. St. Peter Fabre did so too. Once we used to ask for the gift of tears during the Mass. The prayer was: “Lord, you made water flow from the rock, make tears flow from my sinful heart.” The impudence of our world is such that the only solution is to pray and ask for the grace of tears. But this evening, in front of those poor people I met, I felt ashamed! I felt ashamed of myself, for the whole world! Sorry, I’m just trying to share my feelings with you … .

 

How can the Society of Jesus respond today to the needs of Bangladesh?

Honestly, I know little of the activities of the Society of Jesus in Bangladesh. But the fact that the provincial charged two Jesuits with the responsibility to work in the refugee camps makes me understand that the Jesuits are moving! And this is precisely our vocation, and it is well said in one word of the “Formula of the Institute of the Society”: discurrir, that is … move forward, move … go around … try the spirits … This is beautiful and it is right for our vocation.

 

We feel blessed that you came to Bangladesh, that is a nation where there is such a small Christian community. And you made the archbishop of our capital a cardinal. Why such attention for us?

I have to say that Bangladesh was a surprise for me too: there’s so much wealth! 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.

 

How do you feel today after celebrating Mass with Catholics? Did you manage to greet children as you usually do?

Yes. I greeted some of them. And tonight I greeted the two Rohingya girls. Children give me tenderness. Tenderness is good in this cruel world: we need it. I want to add something about it: St. Ignatius was mystical. His true figure has been rediscovered recently. We had a rigid image of him. But he was a mother to the sick people! He was capable of a deep tenderness, which he manifested on many occasions. It was Father Arrupe, who as General of the Society, repeated these things to us and showed us Ignatius’ profound soul. He founded the Ignatian Spirituality Center and the Christus magazine to further refine our spirituality. For me, he is a prophetic figure. Your question makes me think of how important it is to have a heart capable of tenderness and compassion for those who are weak or poor or small.

And remember that it was Father Arrupe who founded the Jesuit Refugee Service. In Bangkok, before taking the plane on which he had a stroke, he said: “Pray, pray, pray.” This was the sense of the discourse that he addressed there to the Jesuits who are working with the refugees: not to neglect prayer. This was his swan song. This was precisely his last legacy left to the Society. Do you understand? Sociology is important, yes, but prayer matters more, much more.

 

Our thoughts went immediately to the fact that shortly before, in his meeting with the Rohingya, the pope had concluded not with a sociological discourse but asking one of them to raise a prayer, and to pray together. At this point the pope asked if there were any further questions, but one of them replied: “No. Your presence here among us is more than many answers!” The encounter ended with the blessing of rosaries and some group photos.

In meditating on the words used by the pontiff in these conversations it is always necessary to remember what he himself wrote in the preface to a volume that contains, inter alia, his earlier conversations with Jesuits during his trips: “I must say that I felt these moments as being very free, especially when they happen during my journeys: this is the occasion to make my first thoughts on that trip. I feel at home I speak our family’s language, and I do not fear misunderstandings. So what I say can sometimes be a little risky.” And he added: “Sometimes what I feel I have to say, I say to myself; it is important for me too. In the conversations some important things are born in me, upon which I can then reflect.[2]


[1]1.Pope Paul VI said, “Wherever in the Church, even in the most difficult and extreme fields, at the crossroads of ideologies, in the social trenches, there has been and there is confrontation between the burning exigencies of man and the perennial message of the Gospel, here also there have been, and there are, Jesuits.” (Paul VI, Address to the 32nd General Congregation of the Jesuits, December 3, 1974; ORE, December 12, n. 2, p. 4.).

[2].Pope Francis, Adesso fate le vostre domande. Conversazioni sulla Chiesa e sul mondo di domani, Milan, Rizzoli, 2017, 8.


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