In the midst of this crisis, the Pope offers a steadying and hope-filled message, writes Fr Niall Coll
The recent surge in Covid-19 infections rates and tightening of restrictions throughout the country in its wake have shaken us and the world has been shocked by the news that the President of the United States, Donald Trump, and his wife Melania, are among those who have caught the virus. All around us there seems to be a general feeling of despondency and loss of agency. In the midst of this crisis, it is heartening that Pope Francis’ third encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All, better Brothers and Sisters All) – a term borrowed from the writings of St Francis of Assisi), has appeared, with a steadying and hope-filled message which sounds a clarion call to promote a universal sense of human fraternity and social friendship. It is a most welcome and encouraging message at this difficult time.
Written in a generally accessible style, the document offers an analysis of what the Pope terms the “dark clouds” which hover over our “closed world” before going on to envisage the shape of a more loving and “open world”, in ways which are both compelling and far-reaching. In doing so, Francis draws upon and skilfully brings together many of the themes he has explored in his earlier writings and speeches as Pope.
The document’s freshness and acuity are reflected, for example, in the manner of its engagement with the challenges posed to society by the current refugee crisis, developments in digital technology and, of course, the pandemic. As the world struggles to respond to a virus which “has exposed our false securities,” the critique of society in general which Francis has articulated over his seven years pontificate (revisited here) – including such prominent themes as “a culture of walls”, the plight of immigrants and the existence of “globalised indifference” – has an added piquancy.
This is a virus which is no respecter of wealth and social standing, though it still does disproportionately affect the poor. The Pope hopes that our experience of the pandemic may lead humanity to a new realisation of our interdependence and need for fraternity and social friendship. The battle against the virus is reminding us, he adds, that “our lives are interwoven” and are sustained by ordinary people, whom he carefully identifies as doctors, nurses, pharmacists, shopkeepers and supermarket workers, cleaning personnel, caretakers, transport workers, volunteers, men and women working to provide essential services and public safety. It would indeed, he argues, be a tragedy, a profound loss of opportunity if, once the health crisis is past, it was followed by a return to “feverish consumerism and new forms of egotistic self-preservation”
It must be said that Francis’ outlook throughout this encyclical is grounded in a compelling analysis of global political realities. He pinpoints both the exploitative tendencies concerning the vulnerable which can hide behind populism in politics and a liberalism which is elitist and in hock to the economic interests of the powerful. In one way or another, “in both cases, it becomes difficult to envisage an open world that makes room for everyone, including the most vulnerable, and shows respect for different cultures”. It is absolutely clear that a global community of fraternity requires a better kind of politics.
How then are we to respond? Francis argues that the task involves nothing less than a rediscovery of the dignity of each human person, one which will allow us to contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity. He locates a key to this hermeneutic of fraternity in a reading of the well-known parable of the good Samaritan: “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 neighbours, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good.” Simply and significantly, he argues that for the Christian belief and worship of God are not enough to ensure that we are actually living in a way pleasing to God – “the passers-by”, the priest and the Levite were ostensibly religious people.
“The guarantee of an authentic openness to God, on the other hand, is a way of practising the faith that helps open our hearts to our brothers and sisters.” Francis draws on St John Chrysostom’s challenge to his Christian hearers to elaborate on this point: “Do you wish to honour the body of the Saviour? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honour it in church with silk vestments while outside it is naked and numb with cold”.
Francis’ tone throughout this document is one that is clearly informed by the Second Vatican Council. He demonstrates a wish to promote a culture of encounter and he identifies the need to promote a dialogue and friendship with the world, with the other faiths and the other Christian traditions. Interestingly, he acknowledges that some of the key themes of this encyclical have emerged from his conversations with the Sunni Islam Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, with whom he is committed to spreading a “culture of tolerance and of living together in peace”.
The direction that Pope Francis sets in Fratelli Tutti is one that should be of great interest to the Church in Ireland which has been greatly diminished by the tides of secularisation and fallout from the abuse crisis over recent decades. Wearied by lost political battles regarding marriage and abortion rights over the last few decades, and the ongoing struggle to maintain a meaningful ethos in our schools, our future depends on a better articulation of the Gospel and its values in a society that the Church cannot control but can influence for the good. A Church with open doors that goes forth to accompany life, to sustain hope, to build bridges, to break down walls, to sow seeds of reconciliation, one which is both faith-filled and open to dialogue, may yet have much to learn and say of value in the contemporary Irish context.
Fr Niall Coll is a theologian and parish priest of Ballintra, Co. Donegal.