Pope Francis: Creating a Culture of Encounter

By: Leo Lefebure

November 30, 2021

Creating a Culture of Encounter

Fratelli Tutti: “Sisters and Brothers All!” The words of St. Francis of Assisi, proposed as a program for renewal by Pope Francis, challenge the way we view the world and invite all humans to a radical conversion of attitudes and actions. Commenting on the invitation inscribed in the title of his most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis notes how St. Francis of Assisi “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” (FT, 2). The culture of encounter to which both Pope Francis and St. Francis of Assisi call us is both human and also cosmic, and the pope holds up Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s call to care for creation (FT, 5). This is a call for ecological wisdom, respecting all creatures as valuable for their own sake in the eyes of God and not assessing them only as opportunities for exploitation.

Pope Francis laments that the current horizon of technocracy objectifies all creatures and warps our culture into patterns of behavior based on domination, manipulation, and profit-seeking. The pontiff knows that to many, the notion that all creatures are our sisters and brothers seems outrageously naïve and unrealistic: “What reigns instead is a cool, comfortable and globalized indifference, born of deep disillusionment concealed behind a deceptive illusion: thinking that we are all-powerful, while failing to realize that we are all in the same boat” (FT, 30). In a world awash with data, Pope Francis cautions, “The flood of information at our fingertips does not make for greater wisdom” (FT, 50).

The culture of encounter to which both Pope Francis and St. Francis of Assisi call us is both human and also cosmic, and the pope holds up Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s call to care for creation.

Creating a culture of encounter begins with realizing that “we are all in the same boat”: To see all creatures as our sisters and brothers is to value the interconnectedness of our universe. In a world dominated by seemingly unstoppable technocratic imperatives, Pope Francis looks not to frantic human effort but rather trusts in the healing and reconciling mercy of God. This unexpected grace is for him the beginning and end of religious practice. From the time he was a young man, Jorge Bergoglio saw himself as a sinner embraced by God’s mercy; this conviction has shaped his life at every stage, especially when difficulties seemed insuperable. From this starting point, the pontiff continues to look for signs of mercy in every experience and every religious tradition, linking encounter with other persons with encounter with the earth. Rejecting the technocratic objectification of everything for the sake of profit, Pope Francis pleads for an alternative perspective: “Only a gaze transformed by charity can enable the dignity of others to be recognized and, as a consequence, the poor to be acknowledged and valued in their dignity, respected in their identity and culture, and thus truly integrated into society. That gaze is at the heart of the authentic spirit of politics” (FT, 187).

In addition to emphasizing the cosmic dimension of a culture of encounter, Pope Francis turns to relations with Muslims, which have so often been fraught with difficulties. He comments on the implications of St. Francis’ visit to Sultan Malik-el-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade and the saint’s admonition to his followers: “If they found themselves ‘among the Saracens and other nonbelievers’, without renouncing their own identity they were not to ‘engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake’” (FT, 3). Pope Francis stresses how remarkable this was: “In the context of the times, this was an extraordinary recommendation” (FT, 3). He takes away the all-embracing lesson from his namesake: “Francis did not wage a war of words aimed at imposing doctrines; he simply spread the love of God” (FT, 4). This lesson was the inspiration for Pope Francis’ meeting with Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayyeb in Abu Dhabi in 2019 and for the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, which they issued together as a program for Muslim-Christian relations. They denounced religiously motivated violence and called for a culture of tolerance and peace (FT, 192). Aware that aggressive nationalism and religious rivalries are on the rise in many areas, Pope Francis appeals to all humans to be friends and help the world.

As the example of St. Francis transformed the culture of his time, so Pope Francis hopes that respectful encounters with those who are different can bring healing and hope to our world.

The COVID-19 pandemic poses new challenges and manifests in dramatic form our interdependence, our mutual vulnerability, and the radical inequality of resources among different communities, as well as polarized responses. In response, Pope Francis distrusts unilateral, top-down responses and emphasizes instead the need for both subsidiarity and solidarity, respecting the competence of local communities and valuing the connections among us. Instead of relying solely on self-interested economic calculations, Pope Francis calls for “an exchange of gifts for the common good. It may seem naïve and utopian, yet we cannot renounce this lofty aim” (FT, 190). He calls for exchange rooted in a dialogue that first seeks to listen to others and come to know them in order to explore the common ground on which we all stand (FT, 198). Noting the danger of incessant, angry proclamations against others on social media, Francis holds up the power of listening and dialogue between generations and among different people to transform lives (FT, 200). Above all, he prizes “the ability to respect the other’s point of view and to admit that it may include legitimate convictions and concerns” (FT, 203).

To a world in which many have grown cynical and are tempted to despair, Pope Francis proposes a dream founded on recognizing the connections that bind us together: “Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers 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” (FT, 8). As the example of St. Francis transformed the culture of his time, so Pope Francis hopes that respectful encounters with those who are different can bring healing and hope to our world.

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