By Christian Bergmann
It is difficult to summarise Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (‘brethren all’). Originally, I was going to do a series of ‘key takeaways’, but honestly, the document spans such a vast array of topics that even that would fail to do it justice. Instead, maybe I’ll touch on a couple of things that stood out to me that make this encyclical more than worthwhile.
There is probably a particular providence in this encyclical being released when it was. Francis started writing it before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the need for it has become all the more urgent: moved by the lives of Saint Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Ghandi, Desmond Tutu, and Blessed Charles de Foucault, Pope Francis’ aim in this document is to offer “a new vision of fraternity and social friendship” (#6) that will inspire every person of goodwill to live together as brother and sister and in a world fractured by so many things: war, violence, politics, social division, racial hatred, ideological manipulation, even the illusion of digital connectivity that only entrenches us farther apart from each other. Francis spends the entire first chapter on all of these things he sees as fracturing our world, and then begins to offer his response in what is probably the most remarkable chapter.
The first thing that struck me was Francis’ extended reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). This reflection takes up the entirety of the document’s second chapter and is, I would argue, the key to understanding the whole thing. I’m not the first to note this, but this is not insignificant: the reflection he takes us on throughout the course of the chapter is a typically Ignatian one. The Pope is inviting us to reflect with him on this great parable in an imaginative way, to see it as ingredient to Christian discipleship and wonder at its implications for Christian practice today. The parable, one of Jesus’ most famous, tells of a man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho who is beaten by robbers, stripped naked and left for dead. Both a priest and a Levite passed by, choosing not to help the beaten man. But a Samaritan, a man from a group of people sometimes considered “not even a people” (Sirach 50:25), chooses to take pity and help the man. Francis asks: “Which of these persons do you identify with?” (FT, #64). Francis says the parable is not interested in “abstract moralising” or “social and ethical” messaging, but instead contains an imperative not to be indifferent to the sufferings of others; “we should feel indignant, challenged to emerge from our comfortable isolation and to be changed by our contact with human suffering” (#68). So often in the Gospels is the language used that Jesus “took pity” on people’s suffering, a mild translation of what in the Greek literally means “wrenched in the gut”. To allow ourselves to be moved to compassion, to be “wrenched in the gut” by the sufferings of others and act in service rather than passing by is integral to a properly Christian ethic.
In that act of pity, the “distinctions between Judean and Samaritan, priest and merchant, fade into insignificance . . . Here, all our distinctions, labels and masks fall away: it is the moment of truth. Will we bend down to touch and heal the wounds of others?” (#70). In fact, in his act of compassion, the Samaritan “became a neighbour” when he wasn’t before, crossing “all cultural and historical barriers” (#81). Neighbourliness here, then, is a kind of vocation. To be a neighbour, as I’ve written before, is not simply to be a recipient of love, but to be the one who gives. The implications for this are significant: neighbours do not have borders. Jesus “asks us not to decide who is close enough to be our neighbour, but rather that we ourselves become neighbours to all” (#80). In a way that reaffirms Catholic Social Teaching, however, Francis prioritises the smaller, more local needs: “We can start from below and, case by case, act at the most concrete and local levels, and then expand to the farthest reaches of our countries and our world, with the same care and concern that the Samaritan showed for each of the wounded man’s injuries” (#78).
When Pope Francis talks about fraternity in this document, and building a sense of fraternity amongst all humanity, he is not talking abstractly or even ideologically. He is talking first and foremost about a sense of fraternity that is rooted in this: being “Good Samaritans who bear the pain of other people’s troubles rather than fomenting greater hatred and resentment” (#77). The fact that this is integral to his understanding of fraternity is important, because this isn’t a vision of humanity tinted by rose-coloured glasses; it isn’t an optimistic, happy-go-lucky roadmap to everyone singing Kumbaya together. For Francis, fraternity is rooted primarily in the willingness to share in another person’s suffering and help them bear the burden of it, something that, as the parable of Jesus demonstrates, is a non-negotiable element of discipleship.
This is also why – and this is a second thing that really stood out to me – Francis spends time at the beginning and end of the document also critiquing what he calls the “illusion of communication”. Digital connectivity has provided us with the illusion of human relationship, the illusion of human encounter. For all of its benefits, digital media leaves our lives under constant surveillance, available to be combed over by anonymous ‘others’ (#42). Because the digital world deprives us of forms of human communication that are essential to building stable friendships – “facial expressions, moments of silence, body language, and even the smells, the trembling of hands, the blushes and perspiration” – we will only ever have the “appearance of sociability”, never real community (#43). It is only when we have real community that we can produce a culture of encounter where the sufferings of others are truly shouldered by all and not simply passed by.
There is a lot more to say, but I think I’ll leave it for later. This has only been a tiny snapshot of what I think Pope Francis is trying to communicate to us through Fratelli Tutti.