This Saturday, October 3, in Assisi, Pope Francis signed on the altar before the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi a landmark encyclical of hope for our times: On Fraternity and Social Friendship. “Fratelli Tutti,” the encyclical’s opening words, means “All brothers” in Italian. The phrase is taken from the writings of St. Francis, one of the major inspirations for the document.
The bishop of Assisi Domenico Sorrentino states that this encyclical “gives us new courage and strength to ‘restart’ in the name of the fraternity that unites us all.” Building on the Church’s long tradition of charity and social teaching, Pope Francis gives the reader a broad understanding of the current world situation and the language to engage in today’s issues in a way that unites us.
There is no way any of us can avoid facing the societal problems now affecting us all. Pandemic and lockdown. The killing of George Floyd and protests on our streets. Wildfires, hurricanes, and flooding. We’re in the middle of a contentious presidential election. Police both locally and internationally have rescued large groups of exploited and endangered children and brought them to safety. And the immediacy of these critical problems and issues has made us almost forget the people who are at our borders hoping for a new life, and those disadvantaged women, men, and children living in poverty and experiencing other forms of hardship within our country and throughout the world. And the list could go on.
So let’s take a moment and push pause….
Reading that list, what did you feel?
Well-intentioned people find themselves taking opposite approaches to these situations. If you’re like me, you have family and friends who fall on every side of these issues. Conversations about them can become contentious real fast. And depressing.
And I’ll be honest.
At different times, I have felt fear, guilt, anger, confusion in these conversations.
To jump into the midst of the public strife, holding one banner or other, I would find myself caught in a conceptual framework to which I can’t fully subscribe. And I have to admit, as strongly as I feel about these issues, I know in my heart of hearts that I haven’t had the opportunity to really study and pray about how the Church’s teaching about the dignity of every human life would apply in such complex situations, and how best to make a constructive contribution.
In this new encyclical, Pope Francis invites people to dialogue in such a way that they come “to know and understand one another, and to find common ground” (no. 198), no longer concerned about the “benefits of power or … ways to impose their own ideas. … The heroes of the future will be those who can break with this unhealthy mindset and determine respectfully to promote truthfulness, aside from personal interest” (no. 202).
Invest in Hope
To encounter others in this way requires an investment in hope. Pope Francis invites everyone in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, “to renewed hope, for hope … speaks to us of a thirst, an aspiration, a longing for a life of fulfillment, a desire to achieve great things, things that fill our heart and lift our spirit to lofty realities like truth, goodness and beauty, justice and love … Hope is bold; it can look beyond personal convenience, the petty securities and compensations which limit our horizon, and it can open us up to grand ideals that make life more beautiful and worthwhile.’ Let us continue, then, to advance along the paths of hope’” (no. 55).
5 keys from the encyclical for engaging with others on difficult issues
Here are five concepts I chose from the encyclical that can make an immediate difference in the way I personally engage with others about issues that are so important and defining in society today. I hope that you will find them helpful:
- I need others and they need me
“In today’s world, the sense of belonging to a single human family is fading, and the dream of working together for justice and peace seems an outdated utopia. What reigns instead is a cool, comfortable and globalized indifference, born of deep disillusionment concealed behind a deceptive illusion: thinking that we are all-powerful, while failing to realize that we are all in the same boat.”
“If only we might rediscover once for all that we need one another, and that in this way our human family can experience a rebirth, with all its faces, all its hands and all its voices, beyond the walls that we have erected” (nos. 55 and 35).
2. I can rebuild others by lifting them up
“The parable [of the Good Samaritan] eloquently presents the basic decision we need to make in order to rebuild our wounded world. …The parable shows us how a community can be rebuilt by men and women who identify with the vulnerability of others, who reject the creation of a society of exclusion, and act instead as neighbors, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good” (no. 67).
3. Wherever I am, with whatever I have, I can take an active part in renewing our troubled society
“Each day offers us a new opportunity, a new possibility. We should not expect everything from those who govern us, for that would be childish. We have the space we need for co-responsibility in creating and putting into place new processes and changes. Let us take an active part in renewing and supporting our troubled societies…. Like the chance traveller in the parable [of the Good Samaritan], we need only have a pure and simple desire to be a people, a community, constant and tireless in the effort to include, integrate and lift up the fallen. … For our part, let us foster what is good and place ourselves at its service” (no. 77).
4. Believe in the goodness present in others
“Good politics combines love with hope and with confidence in the reserves of goodness present in human hearts. Indeed, ‘authentic political life, built upon respect for law and frank dialogue between individuals, is constantly renewed whenever there is a realization that every woman and man, and every new generation, brings the promise of new relational, intellectual, cultural and spiritual energies.’ Viewed in this way, politics is something more noble than posturing, marketing and media spin. These sow nothing but division, conflict and a bleak cynicism incapable of mobilizing people to pursue a common goal” (nos. 196-197).
5. Think outside the categories and popular narratives for society’s problems promoted by the media and on social platforms
“Often, the more vulnerable members of society are the victims of unfair generalizations. If at times the poor and the dispossessed react with attitudes that appear antisocial, we should realize that in many cases those reactions are born of a history of scorn and social exclusion. The Latin American Bishops have observed that ‘only the closeness that makes us friends can enable us to appreciate deeply the values of the poor today, their legitimate desires, and their own manner of living the faith. The option for the poor should lead us to friendship with the poor.’… If we have to begin anew, it must always be from the least of our brothers and sisters” (nos. 234-235).
A way to open your heart to the world
My shorthand title for what Pope Francis is offering us in Fratelli Tutti is this:
From this moment on everyone is to be considered as a member of my immediate family, because they are.
When I started to write this article, I was going to write only two words: “READ IT.”
Fratelli Tutti is easy to understand. Read it yourself and don’t be satisfied with hastily-written headlines about the document. Simply by reading it, you’ll find yourself breathing in the teaching of the Church on the human dignity of every person and how it sheds light on the predicaments we are currently in. Pope Francis points to a way deep in the human heart that opens a path out of the power struggles, fragmentation, and violence that plague us. It describes how to restart our sense of social responsibility and to have a heart open to the world. It indicates a type of politics that would actually make a difference in our nations and in our international collaboration for the good of all peoples. And finally, in a straightforward way, it offers thoughtful reflection on what burdens us most as a people in the world today.
You can get the encyclical Fratelli Tutti at a special pre-sell discount. And if you don’t read it, you have all you need to start on the path Pope Francis marks out for us if you ask yourself this:
What would be different if from this moment on we all considered everyone as a member of our immediate family? Because they are.
by Sr Kathryn J. Hermes, FSP
Photo: Assisi, Italy