Anybody who knows me, or who has read any of my pieces on the state of the Catholic Church, will know that I am not a big fan of Pope Francis. He seems to me to be a bully who is dragging the Church further and further away from communion with Christ, disregarding tradition as well as respect for his Cardinals. Yet even I am willing to concede that even a broken clock is right twice a day, and that his visit to Myanmar was a great success.
This is not the view taken by many commentators. In fact they were angry that, whilst there, the Holy Father did not once use the term ‘Rohingya’, and indeed seemed to skirt around the issue. Instead of explicitly addressing the persecution of Rohingya Muslims, he called for ‘respect for each ethnic group and its identity’ whilst elsewhere making appeals for forgiveness.
Allow us to examine this from a practical point of view before we examine this from a Christian point of view. The simple fact is that the Pope, wishing to open up dialogue, could not have just landed in Myanmar and began shouting to anybody who would listen that violence against Rohingya Muslims must end. Indeed it should, and must, end but the Pope could not have directly demanded this. Why? Because his visit was one of a spiritual nature, and to politicise this too much could have seen him shut out and sent back home.
It is for this reason that we must turn to the Catholic Christian explanation for the Pope’s words. We begin with Pope John XXIII’s final papal encyclical Pacem in Terris, which went to great pains to examine the issues of universal peace and liberty. Unique because it was the first encyclical addressed to ‘all men of good will’ (instead of just Catholics), Pope John XXIII was himself reacting to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Much like our current Pope, however, instead of simply addressing this political crisis the then Holy Father discussed the issue from a far more spiritual perspective
This encyclical would be particularly relevant to consider with regards to the current conflict because it speaks of the fact that ‘nothing must be allowed to prevent reciprocal relations’ between different ethnic groups whilst acknowledging the ‘right and duty’ for people to carry on their lives with others in society. By ending with Christ’s assertion that ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you’ (John 14:27), there is a highlighting of a common core of unity and peace that cannot be disputed about Catholic teaching.
So what of this issue of forgiveness? The previous Holy Father, Benedict XVI, has said that ‘forgiveness is not a denial of wrong-doing, but a participation in the healing and transforming love of God which reconciles and restores.’ In other words: forgiveness is the acceptance that something was wrong but also the acceptance that spiritual healing can only begin when all parties accept that the pain caused cannot be ignored. The Shack, a fictional book and now film, perfectly discusses themes of forgiveness from a Christian perspective. In this piece, William Paul Young wrote that ‘forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person’s throat.’ By forgiving somebody, we do not make excuses for them as is commonly believed. On the contrary, we hold them to account.
Most people will not understand that, for Catholics, sin can only be forgiven if we make efforts to amend the wrongs in whatever way we can. That’s why somebody cannot go to Confession and simply list what they’ve done wrong: they must be truly sorry, and be prepared to put in work in order to properly express that sorrow. That’s why Fulton Sheen spoke of the forgiveness of God being important but also the proof that we want forgiveness being equally important.
For Pope Francis to invoke imagery of forgiveness whilst on his trip to Myanmar was, for an increasingly secular western world, a shock. He was there, however, not on a diplomatic peace keeping mission but on a visit to provide pastoral support for Myanmar’s Catholic population whilst also spreading the joy of the Gospel to its non-Catholics.
It is in that regard, therefore, that his visit was indeed a success.