When Pope Francis stepped off the papal plane in Burma, he walked into a diplomatic minefield — which is exactly where he belonged.
The quagmire centered on whether he would appease a government and military that is overseeing what the United Nations has called a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing,’ or do the thing that has established him as the most credible world leader today: side with the marginalized. In this instance, they are the Rohingya Muslims who have been subject to mass slaughter, rape and forced migration.
How Francis would be judged on this question centered around whether he would use one word: ‘Rohingya.’
The R-word holds such importance in Burma, also known as Myanmar, because the government does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens. To the military, extremist monks and most of the country, they are Muslim outsiders from neighboring Bangladesh. Usage of the word signals support for an almost universally hated group and invites severe repercussions from the military.
Many questioned the Bishop of Rome’s political calculus in making a trip that appeared to be a no-win scenario. As Rev. Thomas Reese, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, put it, Francis risked “either compromising his moral authority or putting in danger the Christians of that country.”
Now the trip is finished, and Francis is on his way to Bangladesh. While he gave a speech calling for peace among all faiths and respect for all ethnicities, he did not use the R-word.
Nonetheless, Francis’s trip ends in success — though we may not see the fruits until later.
While Burma’s military dictatorship ostensibly ended in 2015, they still control large, influential swaths of the government. And Francis, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, is no stranger to military juntas. He was forced to make difficult decisions every day on how to work under a murderous military regime.
Francis broke with tradition when he had a “courtesy visit” first with military generals instead of the host country’s political leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in a not-so-subtle acknowledgment of the power dynamics in the country’s infant democracy. While the rest of the world may have been surprised in his break in protocol, it was surely the result of Francis’s clear calculation and discernment.
And while all popes have had differing levels of involvement with secular leaders, from Constantine to Charlemagne to Napoleon, Francis is the first Jesuit pope — and that’s essential to understanding his diplomatic strategy.
While St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, left behind a life of military and diplomatic service to follow Christ, the men who would follow in his footsteps have always had the ear of world leaders.
Matteo Ricci, a 16th-century Jesuit evangelist to China, won membership in the emperor’s imperial court when other religious orders were thrown out of the country. The first Catholic chaplain of the U.S. Congress is Rev. Pat Conroy, a Jesuit. Just last week, the man who finally convinced Robert Mugabe to step down as prime minister of Zimbabwe after 37 years was the Rev. Fidelis Mukonori (you guessed it), a Jesuit.
A diplomatic visit with no discernible political victory is exactly where a Jesuit pope belongs.
Accusations that Francis failed to say the word Rohingya because he cared more about his own flock, Myanmar’s 700,000 Catholics, than the Muslim minority group is equal parts disingenuous and absurd.
No world leader has advocated more for the rights of migrants and refugees, regardless of their faith. When he visited a refugee camp in Lesbos, he brought back 12 Muslims from three Syrian families to live under his care at the Vatican. To question his motives is an exercise in virtue signaling and failing to see the fullness of his character.
Additionally, Francis has used ‘Rohingya’ in the past when calling those gathered in St. Peter’s Square “to ask the Lord to save them, and to raise up men and women of goodwill to help them, who shall give them their full rights.”
The truth is that Francis using the word ‘Rohingya’ would have probably made life worse for them and Christians of Myanmar alike, even if it would have stroked the egos of Western human rights watchers from afar.
There’s a quote that gets thrown around a lot in Christianity that is falsely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (whom Pope Francis took his name from): “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” While it’s unlikely that St. Francis ever made such a recommendation in exactly those words, it contains an essential truth of Christianity.
While the West watches from afar and critiques Francis’s lack of certain words, Francis will travel from Myanmar to Bangladesh, where he is scheduled to meet with some of the 300,000 Rohingya refugees living in camps, to hear their stories of suffering and persecution.
And that act of listening will be worth far more than a single word.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece included the wrong century for Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit evangelist to China.