Friday, 11 June 2021 17:00

Pope Francis and Human Fraternity

Pope Francis started to write his third official document before Covid-19 exploded on the global stage, but it only added more urgency to his message addressed to humanity, “We are all brothers!”

If you want to know more about Pope Francis, read my thoughts on the first document, a pastoral letter calling for the renewal of the church on the basis of mission (Evangelii Gaudium, or “Joy of the Gospel”) and on the second, an encyclical calling on humanity to care for its planet (Laudate Si, “Praise be to you”). It makes sense that Pope Francis would use his first document to address the church, his second one to call for action on climate change and his third one for a kinder, more peaceful world.

 

The backdrop of Fratelli Tutti

Pope Francis signed this encyclical letter in Assisi (Italy) on the feast day of St. Francis, October 4, 2020. British Catholic theologian Christopher Lamb connects this letter’s theme to the pope’s namesake, St. Francis, who in 1219 “crossed the battle lines of the Crusades to meet the Sultan of Egypt in a bid to end the conflict.” This crossing of human borders for the sake of peace dovetails nicely with the Parable of the Good Samaritan which the pope leverages in this letter to exhort people everywhere to nurture a culture of dialogue, kindness and love, so that those suffering the most find help and comfort.

A Latina theologian teaching at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago noticed another element to this letter’s backdrop. Pope Francis’ ancestors emigrated to Argentina from northern Italy. There’s an Italian connection. First, note that the title (“All Brothers”) comes from a Latin text, the Admonitions of St. Francis to his fellow friars. Changing the Latin omnes fratres into the Italian fratelli tutti is a nod to the saint and to his country of origin. Second, Professor Nanko-Fernándes points to a nineteenth-century event which nicely ties the Parable of the Good Samaritan to the action of the women of Solferino in northern Italy:

 

“In 1859, the carnage of war devastated the northern Italian landscape and overwhelmed the town of Castiglione delle Stiviere with thousands of casualties from the battle of Solferino and San Martino. Churches literally became field hospitals, sheltering enemies who were made vulnerable neighbors because of the suffering and space they shared. Ordinary townsfolk, many of them women and girls, cared for the wounded and offered a comforting presence for the dying. A monument near the cathedral now commemorates the sacrifice of these heroic women.”

 

There is yet another layer to this story. A Swiss Calvinist, Henri Dunant, happened to be in Castiglione at the time. He witnessed the selfless and compassionate work these women did, which he later documented in a book, A Memory of Solferino. Dunant wrote of “injured, mutilated, and dying soldiers from all sides, some from across the Italian peninsula as well as troops who were French, German, Austrian, Arabs, Slavs, Bohemians, Croatians, Hungarians, and Africans from lands colonized by Europeans.” Yet these women cared for all of them, because they “recognized that regardless of uniform, race, or nation, these were ‘all brothers’.”

This in itself might have nudged the pope to keep the title in Italian, but there is more. This experience led Henri Dunant and several colleagues in Geneva to found the International Red Cross (1863) and Red Crescent (1869). Among its “fundamental principles,” we read, “The Red Cross … endeavors … to alleviate human suffering wherever it may be found … to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being. It promotes human understanding, friendship, cooperation and lasting peace amongst all peoples.” The influence of St. Francis is unmistakable (see my two-part piece on him).

 

The Good Samaritan Parable for our times

I easily picture this parable in my mind – at least the physical landscape. We used to live on the road to Jericho behind the Mount of Olives at the entrance of what was Bethany in Jesus’ day. Jerusalem is about 2,800 feet above sea level. Jericho and the Dead Sea, about 17 miles down the road, are over 1,300 feet below sea level and the road is pretty much desert a few miles from the top. In those days, it was notorious for its lawlessness and danger. Jesus’ hearers could instantly imagine someone badly beaten, almost naked, left to die by the roadside.

A Jewish priest, and then a Levite who likely was coming home after serving his Temple shift, both crossed the road to avoid the injured man. Finally, a Samaritan man came along (from a group the Jews famously despised at the time), looked at him with compassion, treated his wounds, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn. He took care of him that night and the next day, then gave money to the innkeeper as he left to make sure he got better. Jesus asked his listeners, “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” (Luke 10:36). The man who had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” answered, “The one who showed him mercy.” “Go and do likewise,” replied Jesus.

Such a story is all the more poignant in our global village today. We are either the Samaritan or the passers-by. Yet our call is to be a neighbor, better yet, a brother or sister to the needy. Pope Francis puts it this way:

 

“The parable … speaks to us of an essential and often forgotten aspect of our common humanity: we were created for a fulfilment that can only be found in love. We cannot be indifferent to suffering; we cannot allow anyone to go through life as an outcast. Instead, we should feel indignant, challenged to emerge from our comfortable isolation and to be changed by our contact with human suffering. That is the meaning of dignity” (18).

 

We know the robbers, he writes. “We have seen, descending on our world, the dark shadows of neglect and violence in the service of petty interests of power, gain and division. The real question is this: will we abandon the injured man and run to take refuge from the violence, or will we pursue the thieves? Will the wounded man end up being the justification for our irreconcilable divisions, our cruel indifference, our intestine conflicts?” (18). Here the Pope, as elsewhere, calls us to work as individuals to alleviate suffering and need, and calls on us as citizens to ensure that our governments are responsive to social justice. The divisions he talks about, we too are responsible for them. Christians are called to see Christ in the hurting, the broken, naked and hungry. His infinite love “confers infinite dignity” upon all people everywhere. We cannot be passers-by. We must roll up our sleeves and help the suffering in any way we can.

 

A political message, but beyond ideology

In essence, Pope Francis is urging us to believe that a better world is possible and that each of us can help make it that way. We need to be building societies of dialogue and friendship. Dialogue is “approaching, speaking, listening, looking at, coming to know and understand one another, and to find common ground” (50). Unfortunately, and particularly in the last decade, people have increasingly retreated to their favorite social media platforms where rather than engage in open debate they fall into “parallel monologues” that are often manipulated by powerful interest groups. This dynamic has given way to shameless aggression and the proliferation of ideologies, he laments. He adds this,

 

“Social aggression has found unparalleled room for expansion through computers and mobile devices. This has now given free rein to ideologies. Things that until a few years ago could not be said by anyone without risking the loss of universal respect can now be said with impunity, and in the crudest of terms, even by some political figures … How can this contribute to the fraternity that our common Father asks of us?” (12).

 

Notice the phrase, “even by some political figures.” Writing as he does in 2020, we might guess to whom he might be referring: “Political life no longer has to do with healthy debates about long-term plans to improve people’s lives and to advance the common good, but only with slick marketing techniques primarily aimed at discrediting others.” Another Catholic commentator, Christine Allen, argues that Fratelli Tutti is “intensely political.” Yet this first encyclical to comment on our use of social media, and its emphasis on the plight of migrants and our treatment of immigrants is not ideological. Allen rather sees this document as “a radical blueprint for a post-coronavirus world.” She explains:

 

“The Pope urges us to follow the example of the Good Samaritan, to become a neighbour to those who are despised and excluded, particularly migrants and refugees. He agrees that it is challenging, not just for politicians, but for society. How can we discover the joy of a culture of encounter? Can we see the other as a gift instead of a threat? How can we love the local, our neighbourhood, our country, without closing it off to other people?"

 

Christopher Lamb best states the Pope’s distaste for ideology in the form of a prayer attributed to St. Francis:

 

“Where there is populism, Pope Francis focuses on people; where there is nationalism, he calls for reform of the United Nations; where there is individualism, he pushes for solidarity; where there is digital trolling, he asks for kindness; where there is inequality, he urges fairer distribution; when politicians hate, he recommends dialogue; when there is ideology, he calls for genuine faith.”

 

Solidarity tied to justice and love

In my last post on why Christians should support Fair Trade, I wrote that justice and love were both sides of the same coin in the currency of God’s kingdom: “Justice is when each person is treated according to his/her rights as a person created in God’s image and dearly loved by him. Love is doing everything I can to make sure everyone can flourish, especially the weak, the poor, the disabled.” In going over my notes on Fratelli Tutti, I was struck again that Pope Francis also believes this, though without using those terms exactly.

 

“Every human being has the right to live with dignity and to develop integrally; this fundamental right cannot be denied by any country” (27).

 

This has profound political implications. Some argue that an unfettered market will cause all boats to rise (everyone will benefit), in which case it makes no sense to invest in those who are slower or less talented than others, or even just disabled, because you would lose money. Wrong, he exclaims! “What we need in fact are states and civil institutions that are present and active, that look beyond the free and efficient working of certain economic, political or ideological systems, and are primarily concerned with individuals and the common good” (27). He continues,

 

“A truly human and fraternal society will be capable of ensuring in an efficient and stable way that each of its members is accompanied at every stage of life. Not only by providing for their basic needs, but by enabling them to give the best of themselves, even though their performance may be less than optimum, their pace slow or their efficiency limited” (28).

 

That said, the language of rights has to come under the umbrella of the common good. This is an important caveat: “Unless the rights of each individual are harmoniously ordered to the greater good, those rights will end up being considered limitless and consequently will become a source of conflicts and violence.” That’s another reason to pair up justice and love. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put it, the goal is always the “beloved community.”

 

The importance of Christian-Muslim dialogue

Since the theme of this encyclical is to build a world of “human fraternity” and a culture of dialogue and kindness, it's no surprise that he refers three times to the Abu Dhabi “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” which he co-wrote with Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyeb of Egypt (February 4, 2019, see Mohamed ‘Arafa’s excellent commentary on this from a Muslim perspective). The first instance has to do with people from different cultures listening to and learning from one another. Quoting from the document: “good relations between East and West are indisputably necessary for both.” And then this lengthier passage:

 

“It is important to pay attention to religious, cultural and historical differences that are a vital component in shaping the character, culture and civilization of the East. It is likewise important to reinforce the bond of fundamental human rights in order to help ensure a dignified life for all the men and women of East and West, avoiding the politics of double standards” (34).

 

The second passage highlights how people of different faiths can join to help solve some of the world’s most intractable problems, including terrorism: we must call upon “the architects of international policy and world economy to work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace; to intervene at the earliest opportunity to stop the shedding of innocent blood” (48; again on p. 71).

Finally, at the end of encyclical, he offers the “Appeal” from the joint document – eleven two or three-liner statements starting with “In the name of …” I offer here numbers one, six, seven, ten and eleven:

 

“In the name of God, who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and

who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters, to fill the earth and make known the values of goodness, love and peace; . . .

In the name of human fraternity, that embraces all human beings, unites them and renders them equal;

In the name of this fraternity torn apart by policies of extremism and division, by systems of

unrestrained profit or by hateful ideological tendencies that manipulate the actions and the future of men and women; . . .

In the name of all persons of goodwill present in every part of the world;

In the name of God and of everything stated thus far, [we] declare the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.”

 

The terms “human fraternity” and later, “fraternity,” were in bold print in the encyclical – after all, it was in the title (“All Brothers”). Yet it’s significant that this appeal in eleven points had been jointly issued by a Christian and a Muslim leader. The leader of al-Azhar University in Cairo is de facto Egypt’s top Muslim leader. That university, arguably the oldest in the world (970), has been always been considered the most prestigious center of Islamic learning for Sunnis (about 85 percent of Muslims). Pope Francis, perhaps harkening to the groundbreaking Common Word letter of 2007, was calling attention to an important symbol. With Christians and Muslims forming over half of humanity, “[w]ithout peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world.” It then adds, “The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.”

Even the Pope’s conclusion is a nod to Christian-Muslim understanding. Leading up to it, he offers this thought, perhaps setting him off as the most ecumenical of popes: “In these pages of reflection on universal fraternity, I felt inspired particularly by Saint Francis of Assisi, but also by others of our brothers and sisters who are not Catholics: Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi and many more.” Then this: “Yet I would like to conclude by mentioning another person of deep faith who, drawing upon his intense experience of God, made a journey of transformation towards feeling a brother to all. I am speaking of Blessed Charles de Foucauld.”

That name wistfully sends me back to my nine years in Algeria and my friendship with several Little Brothers of Jesus and Little Sisters of Jesus, two Catholic religious congregations among a dozen others inspired by Charles de Foucauld. Born in 1858 into an aristocratic family in Strasbourg, France, he became an officer in the French cavalry, then a geographer who explored Morocco and wrote an award-winning book documenting it. He then joined the Catholic Cistercian Trappist order and lived for a while in Syria but later left the order to become a hermit seeking to live his ideal of poverty and love of others, first in Palestine and then for the remainder of his life in the Algeria Sahara. His last ten years were spent living among the nomadic Tuareg people in southern Algeria. He learned their language, identified with their Muslim faith and wrote a Tuareg-French dictionary esteemed to this day. He was “martyred” in 1916 in a tribal raid.

Pope Francis lifts up Foucauld’s quest to be “a brother to every human being” as a dream we should all ask God to fulfill in us. That dream also leads us to the injured man on the side of the Jericho road: “Yet only by identifying with the least did he come at last to be the brother of all.”

May we all aspire to live out this ideal in our lives, and as we do so more and more, we will find God – I will say Jesus – in the stranger, the immigrant, the poor and suffering, and we’ll sense God’s love drawing us closer to himself.