Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge reflects on Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti
ENCYCLICAL letters from popes don’t come all that often.
They’re the highest form of papal teaching, addressed these days not just to Catholics or Christians but to all people of good will.
The last one published by Pope Francis was in 2015 and it bore the title Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You), words taken from a prayer of St Francis of Assisi whose name the Pope took when he was elected.
The sub-title was “On Care for our Common Home”.
Now we have a new encyclical letter entitled Fratelli Tutti (Brothers and Sisters All), words again taken from St Francis.
The sub-title this time is “On Fraternity and Social Friendship”.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis spoke in deeply biblical and Christian terms of what he called integral ecology.
By that he meant that our violation of the natural world ends up being a violation of the social world where the many are plundered for the advantage of the few.
The letter drew upon St Francis’ mystical and ecstatic vision of the interconnectedness of all things, but it became a compelling call to personal and cultural conversion on the basis of that vision. It showed what the world looks like when viewed through the lens of the Gospel.
Now in Fratelli Tutti the Pope reads integral ecology in a more explicitly socio-political key. In that sense the new encyclical builds upon Laudato Si’.
It also builds upon the Declaration “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” signed in early 2019 in Abu Dhabi by Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb who, remarkably, is mentioned five times in the encyclical which itself speaks volumes.
Pope Francis has a quite distinctive voice, but this letter is nothing if not symphonic.
Many voices are heard, but all singing in harmony.
It starts with St Francis and ends, intriguingly, with Blessed Charles de Foucauld who lived most of his life hidden in the Muslim world wanting to be a brother to all.
In between, we meet Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, Martin Luther King, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mahatma Gandhi, to say nothing of various popes and bishops’ conferences, including our own in Australia.
This is a potent and typically Petrine combination of I and We, with the We now expanding to include the whole human family. Never has the papal ministry of communion looked more global than this.
Pope Francis says that he began work on Fratelli Tutti before the outbreak of COVID-19. But he then notes that its theme has become even more important as we make our way through the weird landscape of the pandemic, wondering what lies beyond it.
The danger is that we head into an unknown future without a roadmap. In the new encyclical, the Pope offers a roadmap not just for some but for everyone.
In analysing the current situation, there is in the papal voice a touch of prophetic lament and the text can turn quite dark.
Yet one of the paradoxical things about Pope Francis is that though he can at times seem unrelenting, even harsh in his critique, he invariably ends up with encouragement that looks to hope and eventually to joy.
He is certainly capable of delivering a jeremiad; but in this letter, as with Jeremiah himself, lament is not the last word, though neither does the last word come too quickly.
In a world riven by divisions old and new, the Pope sets himself to undo all kinds of binaries. The mystical and ecstatic meet and marry the political and economic; politics and charity join hands; walls are knocked down, bridges are built; the rich and powerful listen to the poor and powerless who are allowed to speak first; virtues considered private, like kindness and tenderness, become social and even political virtues; all people and peoples are interconnected, members of a common family that dwells within the God-given common home.
The Pope is quick to acknowledge that this may seem naïve or utopian. But it is, he says, the only realistic way into a future that learns the hard lessons of this time when we have come to see how fragile we are and how much we depend upon each other.
It’s the only practical way beyond dystopia into a more human and civilised world, the only way beyond a gilded barbarism where the social contract is shattered and the brutality of chacun pour soi holds sway.
This presumes that we take on board a culture of encounter, which means in turn recognising the humanity of the other, listening to them and seeing through their eyes.
Encounter can then lead to a culture of dialogue – not shouting the other down or demonising them, but recognising that none of us has the whole truth, that we may actually learn from the other, that we can only move forward together.
The 40,000 words of the letter flow into simple words of prayer at the end. There are two prayers – one for those who are not Christian and the other for those who are.
Through Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis has spoken of the need for an open heart that gives birth to an open world, and this at a time when so many hearts and doors and borders are closed.
He means openness to each other at the personal, communal and international level.
But he also means openness to the truth of our current situation, however uncomfortable that might be, and an openness to the truth about what is possible if we say yes to genuine cultural conversion.
Ultimately for the Pope this openness means an openness to God whose children we all are. From this flows the grand and simple truth that we are brothers and sisters all – to which St Francis himself would say a resounding “Amen”.