Brothers and Sisters All

Encyclical of Pope Francis, October 3, 2020

On Saturday, October 3, the eve of the feast of St Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis visited the tomb of St Francis to launch his new encyclical, Fratelli tutti. The title is from a message of St Francis to the members of his religious community. In the opening lines of the encyclical, Pope Francis acknowledges the inspiration he has drawn from his namesake.

“Fratelli tutti”. With these words, Saint Francis of Assisi addressed his brothers and sisters and proposed to them a way of life marked by the flavour of the Gospel. This saint of fraternal love, simplicity and joy, who inspired me to write the encyclical “Laudato Si’”, prompts me once more to devote this new encyclical to fraternity and social friendship. Francis felt himself a brother to the sun, the sea and the wind, yet he knew that he was even closer to those of his own flesh. Wherever he went, he sowed seeds of peace and walked alongside the poor, the abandoned, the infirm and the outcast, the least of his brothers and sisters. (par 1-2)

In 2015, the Pope began his encyclical on the care of creation with the words of a hymn by St Francis calling on all creatures to be united in praise to God. In 2020 he begins his new encyclical with a greeting of St Francis that highlights the special bond we share with our sisters and brothers in our human family. He then goes on to spell out what this bond could mean for our relationships with those who are near and even with those who are far away. Pope Francis encourages us to nurture the links we have as members of one human community throughout the world. In typical fashion, he puts the message in the form of a contrast: Isolation, no; closeness, yes. (par 30)

The Pope rejoices in the advances of our modern era, such as those of science and technology. At the same time, he laments the harmful divisions between people and the injustices that darken our lives. He prays that the discoveries in the physical world might be mirrored in our discovering the bonds we have with one another. How wonderful would it be, even as we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters who orbit around us. (par 31)

Pope Francis started writing this encyclical before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world. However, the pandemic has highlighted some of the key messages he wished to share. The common suffering has reminded us that we are members of a global community. As we recognise that we share a common problem, we might also recognise that we need to work together to find a common solution.

A worldwide tragedy like the COVID-19 pandemic momentarily revived the sense that we are a global community, all in the same boat, where one person’s problems are the problems of all. Once more we realised that no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together. The storm has exposed our vulnerability and uncovered those false and superfluous certainties around which we constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities… revealing once more that we are part of one another, that we are brothers and sisters. (par 32)

The tragedy of the pandemic might have some positive outcome if we can take this lesson to heart. However, the tragedy would be compounded if we quickly forgot this lesson and reverted to former ways that ignored the links between us and focused again just on our individual needs.

All too quickly, we forget the lessons of history, “the teacher of life”. Once this health crisis passes, our worst response would be to plunge even more deeply into feverish consumerism and new forms of egotistic self-preservation. God willing, after all this, we will think no longer in terms of “them” and “those”, but only “us”. If only this may prove not to be just another tragedy of history from which we learned nothing. If only we might keep in mind all those elderly persons who died for lack of respirators, partly as a result of the dismantling, year after year, of healthcare systems. If only this immense sorrow may not prove useless, but enable us to take a step forward towards a new style of life. 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. (par 35)

Pope Francis offers a commentary on the parable of the Good Samaritan. He refers to each of the characters in the story – the man who was travelling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the robbers who attacked him, the priest and Levite who passed by on the other side, and the Samaritan who came to his aid. The Pope invites us to consider how there is something of each of these characters in each one of us. All of us have in ourselves something of the wounded man, something of the robber, something of the passers-by, and something of the Good Samaritan. (par 69) Recognising this can help us appreciate all the more how much we have in common – both strengths and weaknesses.

The Pope makes a further point from this parable about the value of working together to achieve good results. He highlights the fact that the Good Samaritan did not do everything himself. He enlisted the help of the inn-keeper. The Samaritan discovered an innkeeper who would care for the man; we too are called to unite as a family that is stronger than the sum of small individual members. (par 78)

As he develops the theme of working together as a community, Pope Francis reflects on the role of politics. He observes that people often have a dim view of politics. For many people today, politics is a distasteful word, often due to the mistakes, corruption and inefficiency of some politicians. And yet, he sees politics as a necessary means to achieving the best for society. Can there be an effective process of growth towards universal fraternity and social peace without a sound political life? (par 176)

What is needed is a healthy politics – one that looks beyond the coming election to the long-term good of the community. In the face of many petty forms of politics focused on immediate interests, I would repeat that “true statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good. Political powers do not find it easy to assume this duty in the work of nation-building”, much less in forging a common project for the human family, now and in the future.

Thinking of those who will come after us does not serve electoral purposes, yet it is what authentic justice demands. (par 178)

We might not generally associate the word “politics” with the word “charity”. Yet, Pope Francis links the two and speaks of “political charity”. I appeal for a renewed appreciation of politics as a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good. (par 180) He gives a simple example. “If someone helps an elderly person cross a river, that is a fine act of charity. The politician, on the other hand, builds a bridge, and that too is an act of charity.” (par 186)

In the course of the encyclical, Pope Francis quotes from documents published by conferences of bishops in various countries. He quotes from the Australian bishops on the subject of communication in the digital world. The Australian document was published last year, with the title Making It Real: Genuine Human Encounter in Our Digital World.

The Pope confirms a number of points that the Australian bishops made about the good and bad use of technology. On the one hand, the various communications platforms can be used to exploit people’s weaknesses and in very nasty ways, such as in “digital campaigns of hatred and destruction” (par 42). Yet, they can also be used for great good. The media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which in turn can inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all . . . The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God”. (par 205)

After considering some global questions such as the need for dialogue to resolve international disputes and promote peace, Pope Francis offers a reflection on our lives at the local, personal level. He highlights the value of kindness.  Often nowadays we find neither the time nor the energy to stop and be kind to others, to say “excuse me”, “pardon me”, “thank you”. Yet every now and then, miraculously, a kind person appears and is willing to set everything else aside in order to show interest, to give the gift of a smile, to speak a word of encouragement, to listen amid general indifference. If we make a daily effort to do exactly this, we can create a healthy social atmosphere in which misunderstandings can be overcome and conflict forestalled. (par 224)

Towards the end of the encyclical, Pope Francis recalls a meeting he had in Abu Dhabi last year. He met with the Moslem leader, the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb. They signed a declaration expressing their shared conviction that “God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and has called them to live together as brothers and sisters”. The Pope compared his journey to Abu Dhabi to the journey of St Francis to meet with Sultan Malik-el-Kamil in Egypt. In both cases, they were meetings across languages and cultures and religions to express a common faith in God as the Creator of all and a common desire for peace among all the members of God’s family.

The final part of the encyclical echoes the invitation made in the opening paragraphs, an invitation to dream together so that we might live together as one family. Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travellers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all. (par 8)

 Bishop Paul Bird CSsR

Fratelli tutti
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