Pope gets laughs in Bangladesh after diplomatic tightrope

Pope Francis urged Bangladeshi priests and nuns to resist the "terrorism of gossip" that can tear religious communities apart, delivering a speech to the country's Catholic leadership on Saturday.

Pontiff mixes advice on how to tend to religious vocations with warnings about gossip in religious life

Pope Francis is greeted as he arrives at the Church of the Holy Rosary complex in Dhaka on Saturday. (Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis urged Bangladeshi priests and nuns to resist the "terrorism of gossip" that can tear religious communities apart, delivering one of his trademark, zinger-filled spontaneous speeches to the country's Catholic leadership on Saturday at the close of an otherwise tense and diplomatically fraught Asian tour.

As he has done in similar encounters, Francis told the priests and nuns gathered in Dhaka's Holy Rosary Church that he was ditching the eight-page speech that he had prepared and would instead speak to them from his heart.

"I don't know if it will be better or worse, but I promise it will be less boring," he quipped.

And then for the next 15 minutes, Francis had the crowd in stitches, mixing paternal advice on how to tend to religious vocations ("with tenderness") with gentle warnings about the havoc that gossip "bombs" can wreak when lobbed in closed religious life.

"How many religious communities have been destroyed because of a spirit of gossip?" said Francis, adding that he was speaking from personal experience. "Please, bite your tongue."

History's first Jesuit pope has frequently lamented the damage gossip can do within the church, where vows of obedience, strict hierarchies and closed communities can breed jealousies and resentment.

Pope Francis meets with sick people and staff members of the Mother Teresa House clinic in Dhaka's Tejgaon neighbourhood on Saturday. (Andrew Medichini/AFP/Getty Images)

It's a message Francis has brought to ordinary parishes riven by divisions and to the top of the Catholic Church leadership. His most famous iteration came in his 2014 Christmas greetings to the Vatican bureaucracy, when he listed the "terrorism of gossip" as one of the 15 maladies his closest collaborators were suffering (alongside "spiritual Alzheimer's" and a "pathology of power.")

The Bangladeshi edition was far more jovial in tone, and many in the pews nodded along as Francis made one zinger after another to make his point. It was a humour-filled end to a tense diplomatic trip that saw Francis maintain public silence over the Rohingya refugee crisis while in Myanmar, only to address it head-on in Bangladesh with an emotional encounter with refugees themselves.

"The presence of God today is also called 'Rohingya,"' he told a group of 16 refugees who travelled to Dhaka from Cox's Bazar, the district bordering Myanmar where refugee camps are overflowing with more than 620,000 Rohingya who have fled what the UN says is a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Myanmar's military.

Francis' final event of the day was a youth rally where he urged young people to respect their elders and keep listening to them. "Don't spend the whole day playing with your phone and ignoring the world around you!" he said.

Afterward, Francis headed to the airport for the flight back to Rome and his traditional airborne news conference.