Laurie Johnston, Ph.D., is associate professor of theology and religious studies at Emmanuel College in Boston. A social ethicist, she has written on just war theory, peacebuilding, Catholic-Muslim relations, and political theology. Her co-edited volumes include The Surprise of Reconciliation in the Catholic Tradition (with J.J. Carney) and Can War be Just in the 21st Century? (with Tobias Winright).
In 2016, Pope Francis was scheduled to visit Mexico, but quickly arranged to make a detour when he learned that Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill would be in Cuba around the same time. For the first time in nearly 1,000 years of schism, the Roman Catholic pope met with the Russian Orthodox patriarch. It was brief—they simply met at Havana airport for a few hours—but particularly in the midst of the conflict in Ukraine, this was a meeting with major geopolitical implications. When he caught sight of Patriarch Kirill, Pope Francis immediately exclaimed, “Finally! We are brothers.”
It is clear from the words of Fratelli Tutti that Pope Francis yearns deeply for the divides of today’s world to be overcome by such a recognition of fraternity. But as idealistic as he may sound at times, this not pie in the sky. Pope Francis has taken clear and consistent steps to promote peace in many places throughout the world. It is important to read this encyclical in light of those concrete actions, so that, as Pope Francis says, “we may prove capable of responding with a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words” (no. 6, emphasis mine).
But as idealistic as he may sound at times, this not pie in the sky. Pope Francis has taken clear and consistent steps to promote peace in many places throughout the world.
Besides that historic meeting in Cuba, one of the most dramatic moments of Pope Francis’ tenure was the occasion on which he entered an active war zone—the first pope do to do in the modern era. Like St. Francis visiting the sultan during the Crusades, Pope Francis embarked on a dangerous journey for the sake of fraternity with Muslims. He traveled to Central African Republic in 2015 and inaugurated the Jubilee Year of Mercy at the cathedral in Bangui. And then he paid a visit to a mosque. This was not just any mosque; the Koudoukou Mosque was in the center of a siege zone where 15,000 Muslims were surrounded by Christian militias, and the mosque itself was housing many Muslims displaced by the violence. Once inside, the pope gave the traditional Muslim greeting of salaam (peace), and told his listeners: “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters.” As The Guardian reported, a spokesman for the displaced Muslims said, “We are very proud to welcome him. The pope is not only for the Christians, he is a servant of God for all Central Africans.”
Affirming brotherhood and sisterhood seems preposterous in the midst of a war zone. And yet there are times when such a simple affirmation can be an important step towards concrete political change. One person who knows this well is Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio. It is no coincidence that he was one of the five people whom Pope Francis invited to make the formal presentation of Fratelli Tutti. Riccardi reminded those present that what passes for realism is often merely fatalism. Taking a stand for peace and fraternity is a way to push back against resignation; “we must engage every day in daring and creative rebellion against war,” Riccardi said. Listening, I was reminded of one of the times when Riccardi himself “rebelled” against the logic of war and instead made a case for fraternity. As mediator between warring parties in Mozambique, Riccardi urged them to take the first step towards peace by issuing a communique in which they referred themselves as “members of the larger Mozambican family” who wished to begin formal peace negotiations. A step towards fraternity was a step towards real political change.
A step towards fraternity was a step towards real political change.
More recently, Pope Francis has pushed for fraternity—and political change—in another country struggling with internecine conflict: South Sudan. The pope’s deep desire for peace there prompted an extraordinary gesture. He invited the rival leaders, Riek Machar and Salva Kiir, for a two-day retreat at the Vatican in April of last year. At the end of that time, he knelt and kissed their feet, saying: “I am asking you as a brother to stay in peace. I am asking you with my heart, let us go forward….” This dramatic plea to the two men seems to have had a real effect; they signed the Rome Declaration in January 2020. Though the pandemic has made negotiations and implementation more difficult, a new ceasefire agreement was signed this month which brought in opposition groups that had resisted past peace attempts. Talks hosted by Sant’Egidio are due to continue in November 2020.
Pope Francis’ gesture of kissing the feet of the South Sudanese leaders was a shocking and even controversial one. Yet, reading Fratelli Tutti, we can see that this gesture of humility is quite consistent with his understanding of what real peace and fraternity require. Genuine brotherhood and sisterhood requires a willingness to let go of power. Francis is not naïve about how power works in the world—a striking line in the encyclical notes that “true love for an oppressor means seeking ways to make him cease his oppression; it means stripping him of a power that he does not know how to use, and that diminishes his own humanity and that of others” (no. 241). Indeed, the two figures with whom Francis frames the encyclical—St. Francis and Blessed Charles de Foucauld—both lived in times and places that were marked by oppression and violent conflict. And yet, as the pope says, “Francis was able to welcome true peace into his heart and free himself of the desire to wield power over others. He became one of the poor and sought to live in harmony with all. Francis has inspired these pages” (no. 4).
Fratelli Tutti concludes with a reference to Blessed Charles de Foucauld, who also chose humility over power and, “by identifying with the least…did…come at last to be the brother of all” (no. 287). A figure who is not well known in the United States, Foucauld had been a soldier with the French colonial authority in Algeria, but he returned there as a monk and hermit. He believed his calling was to quietly and humbly live a monastic vocation amidst Muslims—and he has inspired many Catholics, including Christian de Chergé and Paolo Dall’Oglio, to pursue a similar vocation. Like Foucauld, they also met martrys’ deaths in the process. Foucauld’s inclusion here is a reminder that this encyclical, while concerned with universal fraternity, highlights Pope Francis’ particular emphasis on friendship with Muslims as a vital calling for Christians today. And while Pope Francis does not say so explicitly, the example of Foucauld is a reminder of just how exigent true brotherhood and sisterhood is. It is, after all, a path that leads us to the cross: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).