My mother-in-law Agnes used to hate the dark nights drawing in, the changing of the clocks, the prospect of winter. I can understand that many people may feel like that and that this year may feel even more challenging. Perhaps that is why the timing of Pope Francis’ new encyclical seems to me to be perfect.
I won’t attempt here to explore all that Pope Francis is offering us in Fratelli Tutti (Brothers and Sisters All). It is well worth reading and the text itself plus plenty of resources are available online – or nip into Veritas and pick up a copy. The central theme throughout is that we find our deepest identity and our deepest joy in and through relationship. We are created for relationship, for connection, for encounter. Previously Pope Francis has said,
“Rivers do not drink their own water; trees do not eat their own fruit; the sun does not shine on itself and flowers do not spread their fragrance for themselves. Living for others is a rule of nature. We are all born to help each other. No matter how difficult it is…Life is good when you are happy; but much better when others are happy because of you.”
In essence, Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti is inviting us to imagine how the world would be if we treated everyone as if they were our sister or brother. We would not exploit or demean our brother or sister. We would not see them go hungry or sleep on the street. We would not leave them suffering, vulnerable or alone without reaching out in love to remedy the situation. This document is an invitation to love everyone as sisters and brothers. It is addressed to ‘all people of good will’ not just to Christians or Catholics but at the same time, it is clear that Pope Francis is calling us, as people of faith, to live and love as Jesus did.
As he says, “For us the wellspring of human dignity and fraternity is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. From it, there arises, for Christian thought and for the action of the Church, the primacy given to relationship, to the encounter with the sacred mystery of the other, to universal communion with the entire human family, as a vocation of all” (FT 277).
So why does the timing seem so right? I think as we move through autumn and into winter, with Covid-19 restrictions impacting on all our lives we need to make this a winter of connection not a winter of discontent. How can we connect in a socially distanced world? Something I enjoy is a trip to the ‘virtual café’. With a wee bit of planning and a hot cuppa you can get on Zoom, Facetime, Skype or whatever you prefer and have a face to face chat with a friend or family member. If that doesn’t appeal why not write a letter? There is something wonderful about a letter dropping through the letter box. Some nursing homes are inviting people to become pen-pals for their residents – what a lovely initiative and one we could get younger children involved with. Pick up the phone and call someone. Text just to ask how a friend or family member is doing. If there has been distance or discord in a relationship maybe now is the time for rebuilding.
Pope Francis invites us to learn “the art of encounter” and to “cultivate kindness”. The encounter is not only with those we love but also those different from us, far from us, challenging to us. He tells us, “No one can experience the true beauty of life without relating to others, without having real faces to love. This is part of the mystery of authentic human existence.” (FT87) This invitation is not simply to get us through what may otherwise be a tough winter. It is a vision for building a society, a world based not on market values and ‘usefulness’ but on the dignity and worth of every human being. We can begin that rebuilding this winter, reaching out beyond ourselves, creating encounters of kindness. And in doing so, we will find joy – and each other.