A call to all brothers (and sisters too)

Fratelli Tutti” (literally “Brothers All”) is the way Pope Francis opens his latest encyclical, quoting the way St. Francis of Assisi addressed everyone — rich or poor, male or female, Italian or non-Italian, Christian or Muslim. This latest missive from our Holy Father is still being digested and internalized, but much of its message is very clear.

The pope talks here about the vital importance of what he calls “fraternity and social friendship” in admittedly grievous times. Early on in the encyclical he credits the contribution of Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew to his encyclical on care for the earth, “Laudato Si’.” 

In this new one, he cites his meeting with Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb and their focus on common concerns on which Catholics and Muslims can agree. In noting their conversations on the conditions which would contribute to the common good of humanity, Pope Francis was consciously following the footsteps of St. Francis when he went to meet Sultan Malik-el-Kamil as the Crusades were being waged.

In this column I will take a look primarily at Chapter Seven of this new encyclical, “Paths of Renewed Encounter.” Encounter is a word which Pope Benedict XVI used frequently when speaking of our need to have a personal understanding of, and relationship with, Jesus Christ. Pope Francis too has emphasized how dependent a joyful, vibrant faith is on our sense of who Jesus really is and how important an ongoing encounter with him must be. 

And “Encuentro” has, for years, been the theme of meetings of Hispanic/Latino Catholics. It is described by the U.S. bishops as “a model of church that is evangelizing, communitarian, and missionary.”

In many ways that is a good description of what Pope Francis talks about in Chapter Seven. Encounter with God is axiomatic. From that flows encounter with people. That encounter is evangelizing — not by words or proselytizing but by our brotherly and sisterly love and willingness to listen. 

It is communitarian in the sense that it is based on honest dialogue, engagement with people different from ourselves, and dedication to the common good. It is missionary in that it entails going out to the margins, which, as Francis has often said, means readiness to go beyond our comfort zones and to exude an abundance of hospitality.

Pope Francis refers to bishops from Congo, South Africa, South Korea, and Latin America — margins for those of us from Europe and North America — as he calls for concrete commitments to the tedious work of peacemaking. This demands process as well as what he calls “art and architecture.” And there is no doubt that the pope grasps the concrete barriers to peace that exist today amid COVID-19, outbursts of terrorism, racial strife, vitriolic politics, border crises, human trafficking, and what he calls “various mafias.” We need peace, obviously, but early on in the encyclical he notes that we seem to lack a roadmap. 

Harking back to Luke’s gospel, he suggests that the lines of that roadmap can be found in the example of the Good Samaritan. Nearly everyone grasps the parable’s message that anyone in need, any stranger, is our neighbor. Not everyone catches on immediately to Jesus’ strategy of choosing as the exemplar of loving kindness and generous solicitude the character who would, to his hearers, be thought of as the natural enemy. 

The roadway encounter of the Good Samaritan and the injured man is a highly personal one. Pope Francis is concerned to show that such an encounter can fan out to our broader communities and even internationally. The process he suggests demands renouncing what he calls “local narcissism” — egocentrism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia. He asks us to come at diverse cultures not as enemies but as those which we need to encounter with respect and a willingness to learn. 

“Each particular group,” he says, “becomes part of the fabric of universal communion and there discovers its own beauty.” Our part is to discover the beauty not only in our own traditions and customs but in those of others.

The process of peacemaking, as Pope Francis describes it, entails steps. They are (in my own enumeration): 1) confronting truthfully the origins of old resentments and harms; 2) resolving to set goals for mutual benefit; 3) bringing appropriate parties to the table; 4) negotiating so that there is not some piecemeal or token gain but, rather, “a single great creative project” which honors the dignity of all; 5) advocating for the most vulnerable; 6) forgiving but not forgetting.

The last step requires some explanation. Pope Francis observes that forgiveness is not a matter of burying grievances. It is, instead, letting them surface, without fueling anger, and resolving to move on while also learning from the errors and even crimes of the past. 

He cites both the Holocaust and the use of atomic bombs in World War II, the slave trade of the past and the present, and repeated episodes of genocide as examples of “historical events that make us ashamed of our humanity.” Remembering such things must stir what he calls “collective conscience” even as we try to move far from them.

The pope reminds us that warfare and the death penalty leave us worse rather than better and that a steadfast resolve to pursue peace and deter crime must be the labor to which we commit and recommit.

Pope Francis never mentions this, but the recent Abraham Accords would seem to be an example of how such a process of peacemaking can have positive results. 

In mid-September, at the White House, Israel, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States signed a peace agreement which details commitments to cooperation and dialogue. It includes a treaty of peace, diplomatic relations, and “normalization” focusing on stabilizing the Mideast, combatting “extremism,” and advancing science, health, tourism, energy and environmental quality, education, access to water and food, maritime and agricultural interests, and cooperation in legal matters. 

It includes a commitment to advance “people-to-people programs” and resolves that the parties, who include Christians and Muslims and Jews, will seek ways to exist in peace and mutual respect “in the spirit of their common ancestor Abraham.” 

I may have missed something in nightly news, internet headlines, and print journals, but for some reason it seems that this agreement received little attention. I learned of it through a presentation by the Rumi Forum. The Forum is one of the interfaith organizations that accelerated its online activity during the pandemic. Perhaps — though I hate to say it — the anti-religious tenor of the times may have influenced the lack of drumroll for an international milestone named for a Biblical and Koranic patriarch.

That having been said, it seems that anyone looking for signs of hope these days might note this accord. As we have seen in ecumenical and interreligious efforts in this state and diocese, sometimes gentlemanly and gentlewomanly encounter does translate into cooperation and positive action. It has been so from the time of Bishop John England and St. Katharine Drexel, both of whom exerted influence in this diocese. Sometimes revolutions of grace begin when we are willing to plumb the minds and hearts of one another: “fratelli tutti.” 

About Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM 130 Articles
SISTER PAMELA SMITH, SSCM, is the Director for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at psmith@charlestondiocese.org.