On the eve of the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, 4 October 2020, Pope Francis published his third encyclical letter: ‘Fratelli tutti‘.
As the person in charge within an international congregation that fulfils a clear mission in the world, more specifically in the world of education and health care, on the basis of its own charism, Bro. René Stockman offers here a short summary of each chapter followed by a more personal reflection.
On the eve of the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, 4 October 2020, Pope Francis published his third encyclical letter. It seems to summarize the social dimension of his pontificate and it is telling that once again he uses a phrase from his patron saint as Pope to define the encyclical. Just as Saint Francis explicitly invited his fellow brothers and sisters to experience and promote mutual love and to love all without distinction or preference, so Pope Francis invites us to develop and promote fraternity and social friendship in our concrete world today.
The encyclical is largely composed of quotations from the addresses he has given in many places during the last seven years of his pontificate, in which the guidelines he wanted to give to the world as leader of the Church are now formally established and put into a clear framework. He also makes use of texts sent to him through bishops’ conferences. It sounds like his testament, in which he takes stock of his pontificate. He also regularly refers to his previous encyclical Laudato Si’ and to social encyclicals of his illustrious predecessors.
There were many reactions from the Catholic community right away, mostly positive, but the publication of the encyclical did not go unnoticed on a global scale either. After all, the themes that the Pope addresses affect everyone and the entire world order. It can therefore certainly not remain an inner-church document but rather invite communities, both local, national, and international, to reflect and hopefully to take action. A serious reading of this text cannot and will not leave anyone unmoved. It is like an extensive examination of conscience as to how we build our lives in community: do we do it as individuals, enveloping ourselves in devastating indifference or competition with one another, or do we do it as brothers and sisters in love for one another?
Everyone will read this encyclical from their specific background, from their own life story, and from the position they have in society. I wish to do so as the person in charge within an international congregation that fulfils a clear mission in the world, more specifically in the world of education and health care, on the basis of its own charism. As a method I choose a short summary of each chapter followed by a more personal reflection. May it be a space and an invitation in which everyone can make their own reflection for themselves and for the group to which they belong.
Chapter 1: Dark clouds over a closed world
The first chapter will be described by many as rather gloomy and pessimistic. It gives a razor-sharp analysis of the current world view and the partial destruction of the dream of being able to grow towards a greater unification on a global level. First of all, it points to the rising trend of a certain nationalism, in which countries and peoples adopt a superior attitude towards others. It seems to be an illusion that what the global economy is trying to impose on us is a unique cultural model. It is a model that does lead the world towards greater virtual unity, but at the same time it further divides individuals and nations. Instead of the greater closeness that should result from it, the distance between each other is growing. It is a growing globalization that does not, however, prompt us to grow in fraternity with each other. Some seem to forget their history and others deny their tradition, which leads to new forms of cultural colonialism. People who deny their history and their traditions lose their souls, their spiritual identity, their acquired morality and, finally, their ideological, economic, and political independence. In the end, what do the terms democracy, freedom, justice, and unity still mean? These have become hollow terms that are now used to dominate others. The concern for our common home, which the world is after all, is by no means a concern for the economic powers that are only interested in making a quick profit. Who are the first victims here? The poor, people with disabilities who are not considered useful to this global economy, unborn children who are not yet included, and the elderly who have become a burden. With the falling birth rate, there is a strong growth in the older population, which is suffering from ever-increasing loneliness and neglect, which emerged so poignantly during the recent and current pandemic.
Greater inequalities are emerging between population groups with the development of new forms of poverty.
It seems that human rights are not the same for all people in the world. One cannot turn a blind eye to the gross discrimination that keeps rearing its ugly head time and again. If the dignity of human beings were respected and the rights of all were recognized, fresh and creative initiatives would emerge that would further the common good. Now we often see the opposite happening, and it is painful to see that what was solemnly proclaimed 70 years ago is far from being a reality and is certainly not respected everywhere. Severe forms of injustice dominate the world view fuelled by aberrant anthropological visions aimed at so-called control of the world’s population and an economic model aimed solely at the acquisition of profit, which does not shy away from exploiting, excluding, or even killing people.
Are women’s rights guaranteed everywhere? What stain on our civilization are the new forms of slavery, perpetuated by criminal networks?
How many wars are not waged and how many persecutions do not take place based on racial or religious grounds? It is like a third world war fought piecemeal. What always perishes first is the spirit of fraternity, which should be the cement and the calling of our human family. Nowadays, a so-called stability and peace are often propagated based on a mentality of fear and mutual distrust. This can never bring true peace. In a world where walls are being erected to shield oneself from others because one supposedly fears the other, one cannot speak of peace. Instead, it promotes a mentality of fear, insecurity, loneliness, and creates a terrain for mafia groups.
Looking at the world, we cannot deny the great advances in science, technology, medicine, industry, and the standard of living of people in developed countries. But is it proportionate to the same progress morally and spiritually? There is something profoundly wrong here. How can it be that where such progress reigns there is an icy silence, a total indifference to a totally different reality worldwide where, because of grave injustices and political crises, millions of children are dying of hunger? Is this the result of globalization, in which we should be striving for shared growth towards greater justice worldwide?
The COVID-19 pandemic proved that we are all in the same boat where no one can save themselves on their own. It turned out to be a confrontation of how necessary it is for us to achieve greater cooperation on a global scale. Apparently, very little has been learned from the past financial crisis and people have very quickly fallen back into a mentality of every man for himself. What will be the next step at a global level once this pandemic has been beaten? Will it soon be forgotten, with everyone falling back on themselves? And, in the ongoing fight against COVID-19 and its prevention, will the so-called ‘useless’ groups once again be relegated to second place? These are confronting questions that we must dare to ask ourselves. The only way forward is to grow towards a community where mutual belonging and solidarity become real priorities.
Another social pain we are facing today is that of the issue of refugees. Never before have so many people been on the run in search of greater security for themselves and their families. Of course, when it comes to world politics, everything should be done to ensure that people can stay in their own countries and do not have to flee. That should be and remain the primary option. But reality is different. That is why we cannot close our eyes to this global tragedy that we are facing today. Especially the way in which these people are deprived of their human dignity and are treated in an inhumane manner. Do refugees suddenly have less value, less importance, and have fewer rights simply because they are refugees? We are aware that we are facing a difficult problem here, in which fear is often the basis for various forms of exclusion. However, let us also continue to see the positive side of the greater intercultural and even interreligious exchange that this migration can entail.
Today, we are living in the heyday of communication. But is this great progress always used in a positive way? New forms of criminal activity are emerging through these media, as well as personal addictions and the illusion that a virtual world can replace the real world. In the wake of this, we are witnessing a growing individualism which, among other things, manifests itself in an aforementioned xenophobia and a disdain for the vulnerable. Platforms are being created via the internet where all forms of extremism can be expressed and organized. The fact is that virtual communication can never replace personal encounters. True wisdom grows through living encounters with reality and not by surfing the internet for hours on end every day to gather seemingly endless information. One might wonder if one is not losing the capacity of listening to each other in the process.
Another phenomenon we should mention is the way in which certain countries behave superior to others and dominate them, thereby blocking local development and imposing on them strange ideologies that are in stark contrast to their own traditions and morals.
Yes, quite a lot to take in, but still an urgent invitation not to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that it does not concern us. The strength of Pope Francis is precisely that he does not stop calling on us to break our complacency and to feel jointly responsible for the common good. The first step is to become more and more aware of reality and to do so in an objective and correct way, without allowing ourselves to be dragged along by opinion formers who have intentions other than to proclaim the truth. The greatest malady that emerges here is a growing individualism, which is developing into a political and economic model and which undermines the realization that we are all each other’s brothers and sisters and that we are responsible for each other and for the common good. A first step and thought must always be: what do I and my specific community in which I live have to do with this? The danger is that we hide behind the excuse that we are not world politicians or big industrialists who can set trends because of the power and money they have. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is a well-known saying that also applies here. For many phenomena that we see evolving on a global level and that are being considered here, we also see on a small scale in our own hearts and in the small communities to which we belong. So, let us be self-critical and ask ourselves how our social fraternity and love are doing. And with that we move on to the next chapter that wants to go deeper into precisely that.
Bro. René Stockman,
Superior General of the Brothers of Charity.
Source: Brothers of Charity Website.