On Sunday, Pope Francis promulgated his third encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship. His timely assessment of the state of our world touches on issues including war, extreme inequality and economic disparity, environmental degradation, and the fractured global response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
His entire encyclical centers on love for our neighbor and our brothers and sisters. We are one family, he reminds us, and we need to look out for each other. This is a rich encyclical worthy of study and reflection. I pray and encourage everyone to read it. You don’t have to be a Catholic to appreciate it, because he addresses this letter to everyone. In this essay, I would like to reflect on the third chapter of the document, “Envisaging and Engendering an Open World.”
The first section of the chapter explains what is meant by “moving beyond ourselves.” Often in our world, we’re self-absorbed. Social media has helped enhance this narcissism and led to the creation of self-enclosed bubbles with like-minded people, essentially cut off from anyone outside our group. This is antithetical to real love. Pope Francis states in paragraph 88: “Since we were made for love, in each one of us ‘a law of ekstasis’ seems to operate: “the lover ‘goes outside’ the self to find a fuller existence in another.”
He is encouraging all of us to look with love beyond our own families, small circles of friends, even our communities. Instead, he wants us to foster authentic relationships, ones that are organic and stem from love and respect. In the following paragraph, he expands on this idea, “Our relationships, if healthy and authentic, open us to others who expand and enrich us … authentic and mature love and true friendship can only take root in hearts open to growth through relationships with others.”
Through love, our hearts expand to embrace others—yes even those who don’t agree with our beliefs or come from a different race, culture, economic situation, language, nationality, or sexual orientation. We are called to open our hearts to everyone we encounter. Francis offers an example that I especially took to heart as a novice Benedictine oblate. In paragraph 90, he states, “Significantly, many small communities living in desert areas developed a remarkable system of welcoming pilgrims as an exercise of the sacred duty of hospitality. The medieval monastic communities did likewise, as we see from the Rule of Saint Benedict.”
This is a reference to Chapter 53 of the Rule, titled “On the Reception of Guests”:
“1All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35). 2Proper honor must be shown to all, especially to those who share our faith (Gal 6:10) and to pilgrims…15Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received; our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect.”
Pope Francis offers this example as a way that all of us must welcome everyone we meet. It’s an essential challenge in fostering Human Fraternity.
In the second section of the chapter, Pope Francis reflects on the unique value of love, specifically in cultivating the values that helps one to foster openness and union with others. This is made with the charity that God gives to us:
“Without charity, we may perhaps possess only apparent virtues, incapable of sustaining life in common. Thus, Saint Thomas Aquinas could say – quoting Saint Augustine – that the temperance of a greedy person is in no way virtuous. Saint Bonaventure, for his part, explained that the other virtues, without charity, strictly speaking do not fulfil the commandments “the way God wants them to be fulfilled” (FT 91).
To Pope Francis, the spiritual stature of a person’s life is measured by love. In paragraph 92, He expresses his concern that too often, Christians impose themselves on others with no love in their hearts, “Yet some believers think that it consists in the imposition of their own ideologies upon everyone else, or in a violent defence of the truth, or in impressive demonstrations of strength. All of us, as believers, need to recognize that love takes first place: love must never be put at risk, and the greatest danger lies in failing to love (cf. 1 Cor 13:1-13).”
This exhortation to love—love without imposing ideologies—is a challenge to all of us, especially for those who are on social media and other internet forums, where discussions give way to arguments. It becomes a source of pride to assert ideologies or to obsess over the smallest minutiae. These obsessions can be liturgical in nature, about some document here or there, or the particulars of some traditional devotion. Without love, none of it means anything.
However, love is not static. It can’t be. It must act. Pope Francis says that truly loving actions “have their source in a union increasingly directed towards others, considering them of value, worthy, pleasing and beautiful apart from their physical or moral appearances. Our love for others, for who they are, moves us to seek the best for their lives. Only by cultivating this way of relating to one another will we make possible a social friendship that excludes no one and a fraternity that is open to all” (FT 94).
How do we do this? How do we love more? The Holy Father takes this up in the second section of the chapter, on a “Love more Open.” To him, love impels us toward a more universal communion. He says in paragraph 95. “No one can mature or find fulfilment by withdrawing from others. By its very nature, love calls for growth in openness and the ability to accept others as part of a continuing adventure that makes every periphery converge in a greater sense of mutual belonging. As Jesus told us: ‘You are all brothers’ (Mt 23:8).”
How do we transcend ourselves and our own limitations to embrace the whole world, especially the periphery? This is where Pope Francis—no fan of social media—points out that yes, our high speed communications can help reach the periphery, even the most remote regions:
“The ever-increasing number of interconnections and communications in today’s world makes us powerfully aware of the unity and common destiny of the nations. In the dynamics of history, and in the diversity of ethnic groups, societies and cultures, we see the seeds of a vocation to form a community composed of brothers and sisters who accept and care for one another” (FT 96).
Such communications are only a beginning. It can’t just end with a chat but must build to an intimate connection, a true integration.
He takes this up in the following subsection, “Open societies that integrate everyone.” We must keep in mind that those on the peripheries aren’t necessarily only those who are geographically distant. They can be found within our own cities, our own communities, even our families. This openness to love fosters a desire to expand to the periphery. Hence, evil ideologies like racism and bigotry have no place in love, nor do they have any place in our hearts as Christians, because all are our brothers and sisters.
Pope Francis explains in paragraph 97 how this applies to all the needy, “When abandoned or ignored by the society in which I live, becomes an existential foreigner, even though born in the same country. They may be citizens with full rights, yet they are treated like foreigners in their own country. Racism is a virus that quickly mutates and, instead of disappearing, goes into hiding, and lurks in waiting.
In the peripheries are not limited to those who are foreigners or of a different race. Francis points out that those with disabilities (either physical or mental) and often the elderly are considered “hidden exiles” and are treated as “foreign bodies” in society. He’s rightly concerned that these brothers and sisters aren’t fully integrated into participation in society. This is a challenge to all of us, to integrate them fully. Everyone has wisdom and many gifts to offer society. As we expand our hearts and create a more integrated society, the important role of every individual will be recognized, in contrast to the utilitarian throwaway society we see too often today.
Yes, this is difficult, especially in light of our society’s current makeup. Contemporary society leaves very little room for love. Francis takes up this problem in paragraph 99, of inadequate understandings of universal love. Love must be based on genuine friendship, and not on choosing one group over another:
“A false universalism of those who constantly travel abroad because they cannot tolerate or love their own people. Those who look down on their own people tend to create within society categories of first and second class, people of greater or lesser dignity, people enjoying greater or fewer rights. In this way, they deny that there is room for everybody.”
Pope Francis doesn’t want a false—or worse, authoritarian—universalism devised by a small group of elites in order to level and plunder society. He is deeply concerned about approaches to globalization that create one-dimensional uniformity across the world, flattening and hurting many diverse cultures for the sake of creating unity. That isn’t authentic. Instead, he stresses the importance of recognizing differences—even celebrating them—in a spirit of love and solidarity. A true openness to friendship is the way forward. This is how Pope Francis challenges us to cultivate truly open hearts: regardless of where or who they are, we must love and respect all our brothers and sisters.