“God wills, Man dreams, the work is born”
— Fernando Pessoa
“O Infante,” “Mensagem” (my translation)
Pope Francis often asks us to dream. In fact, the Holy Father signs off his most recent encyclical with these words: “Yet only by identifying with the least did [Blessed Charles de Foucauld] come at last to be the brother of all. May God inspire that dream in each one of us. Amen” (Fratelli Tutti 287).
It is, therefore, fitting, that the title of his latest book is Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future.
What does Francis mean by “dream”? Some of his critics are likely uneasy about this word. “Dream” appears to evoke the kind of naïve, sentimentalist, saccharine spirituality that they decry.
It is indeed true that our modern society seems to have a shallow understanding of the concept of dreaming. For example, in movies and on television, a hero will receive a happy ending for “following his heart.” Self-help books and motivational speakers will urge us to “reach for the stars,” but this is usually nothing more than striving for some form of earthly success or validation.
Sometimes, a personal project may stand in the way of God’s will for our lives. Other times, dreams—in the form of daydreams or fantasies—can alienate us from reality and serve as a type of escapism. In some cases, what we call our “dreams” are simply desires or what ancient Christian mystics called “passions,” “the flesh,” or “the world.”
None of this is what Francis has in mind. The type of dreams that the Holy Father encourages are not mere desires or fantasies. Not every dream is good. In Fratelli Tutti, Francis is critical of how “we fed ourselves on dreams of splendour and grandeur, and ended up consuming distraction, insularity and solitude” (FT 33). In Amoris Laetitia, Francis warns us that it is “not helpful to dream of an idyllic and perfect love needing no stimulus to grow” (AL 135).
Dreams, just like anything in Christianity, need to be properly ordered towards the good. But how do we discern what type of dreams we should have? Francis provided an explanation in a recent tweet:
“We were not created to dream about vacations or the weekend, but to make God’s dreams come true in this world. God made us capable of dreaming, so that we could embrace the beauty of life. The works of mercy are the most beautiful works in life.”
The Holy Father provides a very comprehensive explanation of what he means in the prologue to Let Us Dream. In a passage imbued with profound Christian spirituality, Francis writes (my emphasis):
Some respond to the suffering of a crisis with a shrug. They say, “God made the world that way, that’s just how it is.” But such a response misinterprets God’s creation as static, when it’s a dynamic process. The world is always being made. Paul in his Letter to the Romans 8:22 says creation is groaning from birth pangs. God wants to bring forth the world with us, as partners, continually. He has invited us to join Him from the very beginning, in peaceful times and in times of crisis—at all times. It’s not like we’ve been handed this thing all wrapped up and sealed: “Here, have the world.”
In the Genesis account God commands Adam and Eve to be fruitful. Humankind has a mandate to change, to build, to master creation in the positive sense of creating from it and with it. So what is to come doesn’t depend on some unseen mechanism, a future in which humanity is a passive spectator. No: we’re protagonists, we’re—if I can stretch the word—co-creators. When the Lord told us to go forth and multiply, to master the earth, he’s saying: Be the creators of your future (p. 4).
This is similar to what Francis taught in Amoris Laetitia, about the family: “to want to form a family is to resolve to be a part of God’s dream, to choose to dream with him, to want to build with him, to join him in this saga of building a world where no one will feel alone” (321).
In other words, a Christian does not dream without God, much less against God. A Christian dreams with God. In the prologue to this new book, Francis cries, “Let us dare to dream,” and in the next paragraph adds, “God asks us to dare to create something new.” And in Christus Vivit, his exhortation to Youth and Young People, Francis teaches that, “the very first dream of all is the creative dream of God our Father, which precedes and accompanies the lives of all his children” (CV 194).
We dream because God dreams and we are created in His image and likeness. In Amoris Laetitia, Francis says: “Each child has a place in God’s heart from all eternity; once he or she is conceived, the Creator’s eternal dream comes true” (AL 168). He goes on, saying, “A pregnant woman can participate in God’s plan by dreaming of her child. ‘For nine months every mother and father dreams about their child’” (AL 169).
In other words, we dream with God when we love and care for a concrete, real person, who is part of God’s dream too. The paradigm and archetype of this is, of course, Jesus Christ, towards Whom all Christian dreams must point to:
Jesus can bring all the young people of the Church together in a single dream, “a great dream, a dream with a place for everyone. The dream for which Jesus gave his life on the cross, for which the Holy Spirit was poured out on the day of Pentecost and brought fire to the heart of every man and woman, to your heart and mine. To your heart too, he brought that fire, in the hope of finding room for it to grow and flourish. A dream whose name is Jesus, planted by the Father in the confidence that it would grow and live in every heart. A concrete dream who is a person, running through our veins, thrilling our hearts and making them dance.”
— Christus Vivit, #157
The concreteness of a real person is the antidote to false dreams that alienate us and entrap us in abstractions. Reality is greater than ideas is one of the principles Francis laid out in Evangelii Gaudium. In Let Us Dream, he develops this principle even more:
I find it helps to focus on concrete situations: you see faces looking for life and love in the reality of each person, of each people … The abstract paralyzes, but focusing on the concrete opens up possible paths … One of my hopes for this crisis we are living is that we come back to contact with reality. We need to move from the virtual to the real, from the abstract to the concrete, from the adjective to the noun. (pp. 16-17)
In Let Us Dream, Francis contrasts dreams (properly understood) with individualism and self-sufficiency. The latter are the false dreams of modern society, which inevitably breed indifference. But where there is indifference love cannot exist, and where there is no love, there can be no dream as Francis envisions it. “To dream of a different future we need to choose fraternity over individualism as our organizing principle” (p. 68). This is why in Fratelli Tutti, Francis ties dreams to the virtue of fraternity:
How important it is to dream together… By ourselves, we risk seeing mirages, things that are not there. Dreams, on the other hand, are built 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).
All the dreams the Holy Father has mentioned throughout his literary and magisterial corpus must be read in this light. They are dreams meant to raise us up towards God through the acts of love and mercy aimed at concrete human persons. We can see Francis is consistent with this when he confesses his dreams to us.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis dreamt of a “missionary option… capable of transforming everything” (#27). In Querida Amazônia, Francis described four dreams for the Amazon region: a social dream, a cultural dream, an ecological dream, and an ecclesial dream. And in Let Us Dream, Francis dreams of a post-COVID-19 society, in which the marginalized and those who have been cast aside can become “the agents of a new future” (p. 18):
“This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities—what we value, what we want, what we seek—and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of. What I hear at this moment is similar to what Isaiah hears God saying through him: Come, let us talk this over. Let us dare to dream” (p. 6).
How much better it would be if we Catholics were to take this dream the Holy Father describes into our own hearts, and make this dream come true!
Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future by Pope Francis (in collaboration with Austen Ivereigh) was released by Simon & Schuster on December 1, 2020. In this book, Pope Francis explains why we must—and how we can—make the world safer, fairer, and healthier for all people now.
Image: By Unknown artist, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21570852
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.