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Pope Francis’ new encyclical calls everyone to recognize that: ‘No one is useless. No one is expendable.’

An elderly woman becomes emotion as Pope Francis greets her as he arrives for a May 2014 weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. The most serious ailment the elderly face and the greatest injustice they suffer is abandonment, Pope Francis said. CNS PHOTO/TONY GENTILE, REUTERS

by Msgr. Stuart Swetland

The pandemic interrupted everything. For Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, where I work, COVID-19 meant that we had to move almost all our instruction online, a very different modality for most of our faculty and students.

It also meant that our students lost the normal opportunities of socialization where so much formal and informal formation takes place. Humans are social beings, and we need healthy, robust friendships, especially as we grow and mature. All of us had to learn how to adjust to the “new normal.”

In Italy, like here, much of society was locked down to mitigate the spread of the virus. This included the closing of all offices and churches, including those at the Vatican.

I will never forget the beautiful and poignant Lenten Holy Hour last March led by Pope Francis in a hauntingly empty St. Peter’s Square as he prayed for an end to the coronavirus pandemic.

Pope Francis prays in front of the “Miraculous Crucifix” from the Church of St. Marcellus in Rome during a prayer service in an empty St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican March 27, 2020. CNS PHOTO/VATICAN MEDIA

Many things changed in a hurry in the life of the Vatican and Pope Francis due to the virus. Almost daily, there were reports of public meetings, trips and liturgies being canceled or postponed.

One thing that went unreported at the time, however, was how the pandemic changed Pope Francis’ plans for a forthcoming encyclical letter. What became “Fratelli tutti” (FT) was originally planned as a reflection inspired by Pope Francis’ interreligious dialogue on universal fraternity, especially his meeting with Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb in Abu Dhabi (FT, 5).

As he was working on a draft of this, his third encyclical, however, everything changed. In his words: “The Covid-19 pandemic unexpectedly erupted, exposing our false securities” (FT, 7).

Pope Francis went on to reflect upon these false securities: “Aside from the different ways that various countries responded to the crisis, their inability to work together became quite evident. For all our hyperconnectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all. Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality” (FT, 7).

Note that Pope Francis did not write that the pandemic caused this fragmentation and lack of harmony. No, this hard-hearted unwillingness or inability to work together for the common good predated the virus. The pandemic did not cause fragmentation, but it did reveal and exacerbate it.

Considering this real-world crisis that we are still experiencing, Pope Francis’ message became even more urgent and necessary. In this letter, Pope Francis calls all of humanity to a universal brotherhood: “It is my desire that, in this our time, by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we can contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity. Fraternity between all men and women” (FT, 8).

A woman wearing a mask for protection from COVID-19 sits in a confessional during Mass at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi, Italy, Oct. 2, 2020. The pandemic changed Pope Francis’ plans for the encyclical letter “Fratelli tutti.” CNS PHOTO/PAUL HARING

As an introduction to “Fratelli tutti,” I have been asked to respond to several questions put to me by The Leaven. These answers are meant only as an overview of the encyclical, which is rich and complex and rewards repeated reading and reflection.

Q. Thank you, Monsignor Swetland, for being willing to accompany us through this new encyclical of Pope Francis. Let’s begin at the beginning. What is an encyclical?

A. I discussed this when I wrote on Pope Francis’ encyclical on stewardship and the environment, “Laudato Si’” ( dato-si): “An encyclical is technically a ‘circular’ letter from the Holy Father sent to all the bishops of the world (or to a specific region of the world) in union with the Holy See. It is one of the most authoritative ways that the pope teaches, and all Catholics are required to give its teachings in the areas of faith and morals at least a religious assent of mind and will” (cf. “Lumen Gentium,” 25).

Q. What does “Fratelli tutti” mean and why does Pope Francis use this Italian phrase as the title instead of the more traditional Latin name?

A. Literally, the name means “brothers all” but in the very first paragraph Pope Francis makes clear why he chose this title. It is a reference to the teaching of St. Francis of Assisi. In his “Admonitions” to his confreres, the very earliest Franciscans, St. Francis spoke of the pastoral attitude or commitment that they were to embody as they went forth on their missions. Pope Francis calls this attitude “fraternal openness” — a commitment to love others as brothers and sisters. He wishes everyone to see others, near and far, as part of the same family — we are all brothers and sisters called to live in peace and harmony with each other.

Pope Francis writes: “Of the counsels Francis offered, I would like to select the one in which he calls for a love that transcends the barriers of geography and distance, and declares blessed all those who love their brother ‘as much when he is far away from him as when he is with him.’

“In his simple and direct way, St. Francis expressed the essence of a fraternal openness that allows us to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives” (FT, 1).

Internally displaced Syrian children who fled Raqqa city stand near their tent in Ras al-Ain, Syria, on Jan. 22, 2017. Pope Francis condemns any society — or individual, for that matter — that “seeks prosperity but turns its back on suffering.” CNS PHOTO/RODI SAID, REUTERS

Because Pope Francis wished to emulate the same “simple and direct way” as his namesake, he chose to leave the title in its original Italian rather than the more traditional Latin.

Q. It was released on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Was that just incidental, or is there some significance to it?

A. It is significant on several levels. First, it was signed on the vigil of the feast day at the tomb of St. Francis in Assisi and promulgated on his feast. Second, it was written by Pope Francis who took Francis’ name to reflect the type of pontiff he wished to be. Third, it takes its name and spirit from the “Admonitions” of St. Francis to his brothers. Fourth, the encyclical is focused on inculcating the virtues of fraternity and social friendship that St. Francis taught and lived so heroically in his saintly life. Every saint imitates Christ, but St. Francis did so in such a complete way that he is sometimes referred to as “the second Christ” in art and hagiographies. Of course, as Christians we are all called to be other Christs in the world (cf. Gal 2:19-21). Pope Francis wanted to tie this social encyclical to the teaching and example of St. Francis.

Q. Who is the document written for? Who is the pope’s intended reader?

A. In this instance, instead of a document just written to Catholics and for Catholics, Pope Francis addresses this encyclical to “all people of good will” (FT, 6). Thus, he has been careful not to rely too much on the faith language and traditions that would only be familiar to those well-versed in Catholic theology. Even when he turns to examples of people who have embodied the values and virtues he is discussing, he often moves beyond canonized Catholic saints. 

Of course, Pope Francis references the writing and heroic lives of saints such as Paul, Benedict, Francis,  John Paul II and Blesssed Charles de Foucauld, among others, but he also holds up the example of Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu and Mahatma Gandhi. As always with Pope Francis, many references are made to the maternal love, devotion and humble example of Mary, the Mother of Our Lord.

Pope Francis hopes that many people of all backgrounds and faith traditions will read and reflect on this document. He wants there to be a great dialogue between all people of good will on how we might foster a “culture of encounter” as we work toward a genuine peace built on social friendship — the understanding that we are in this together. In fact, the terms “encounter” and “dialogue” are each mentioned 49 times in the document. Pope Francis is hoping for a culture of encounter leading to genuine dialogue.

Q. In a very unusual way, “Fratelli tutti” is the spiritual product of the pandemic. How do you see the conditions the pope was writing under reflected in what he chose to write about?

A. Pope Francis wants us to reject the cynicism of indifference and isolation that can at times overwhelm us. He writes: “In today’s world, the sense of belonging to a single human family is fading, and the dream of working together for justice and peace seems an outdated utopia. 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. This illusion, unmindful of the great fraternal values, leads to ‘a sort of cynicism. For that is the temptation we face if we go down the road of disenchantment and disappointment. . . . Isolation and withdrawal into one’s own interests are never the way to restore hope and bring about renewal. Rather, it is closeness; it is the culture of encounter. Isolation, no; closeness, yes. Culture clash, no; culture of encounter, yes’” (FT, 30).

A woman carries her belongings following a fire at the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos Sept. 9, 2020. The camp, which was mostly destroyed, was home to at least 12,000 people, six times its maximum capacity of just over 2,000 asylum-seekers. CNS PHOTO/ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS, REUTERS

In Pope Francis’ estimation, the pandemic made us stop and recognize that we are really a “global community” (FT, 32). But the danger is that we will revert to the type of selfishness and isolation that can lead to indifference. 

Instead, Pope Francis wants us to learn from history which he calls, quoting Cicero, “the teacher of life”: “Once this health crisis passes, our worst response would be to plunge even more deeply into feverish consumerism and new forms of egotistic self-preservation. God willing, after all this, we will think no longer in terms of “them” and “those”, but only “us.” . . . If only we might rediscover once for all that we need one another, and that in this way our human family can experience a rebirth, with all its faces, all its hands and all its voices, beyond the walls that we have erected” (FT, 35).

Q. Some are seeing the encyclical to be a natural continuation of the discussion he started in “Laudato Si.’” Could you explain why and do you agree?

A. Yes, “Fratelli tutti” is a continuation of the discussion engendered by “Laudato Si.’” Both flow directly from the teaching of Christ. Both were inspired by the example of St. Francis of Assisi. Both speak directly to our social responsibility of stewardship and justice. Both call us to put into practice the command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mk 12:31) and to seek first the kingdom (Mt 6:33), a kingdom of fraternal love, justice, mercy and peace (“Gaudium et Spes,” 38-39). Both call for us to really act as if we are part of one family.

Pope Francis writes: “To care for the world in which we live means to care for ourselves. Yet we need to think of ourselves more and more as a single family dwelling in a common home” (FT, 17).

Sun rays shine through trees in a forest in late September near Biere, Switzerland. Some see “Fratelli tutti” as a continuation of the discussion engendered by “Laudato Si.’” Pope Francis writes: “To care for the world in which we live means to care for ourselves.” CNS PHOTO/DENIS BALIBOUSE, REUTERS

Q. What are the key messages of the encyclical — the points that Pope Francis would hope that all readers would take away from it?

A. Before I give you some bullet- point highlights there is one central point that must be mentioned. The very heart of the encyclical is Chapter Two, entitled “A Stranger on the Road.” This chapter is a profound and challenging reflection on the story of the good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37). The most compelling part of this retelling of an ancient story is the pope’s insistence that you must choose: Are you going to “pass by” safely on the other side of the road like the Levite and the lawyer, ignoring your brother in need, or will you “cross over” to encounter the man who “fell in with robbers” like the Samaritan did? Cross over or pass by?

Pope Francis challenges us to choose to become engaged: “Which of these persons do you identify with? This question, blunt as it is, is direct and incisive. Which of these characters do you resemble? We need to acknowledge that we are constantly tempted to ignore others, especially the weak. Let us admit that, for all the progress we have made, we are still ‘illiterate’ when it comes to accompanying, caring for and supporting the most frail and vulnerable members of our developed societies. We have become accustomed to looking the other way, passing by, ignoring situations until they affect us directly” (FT, 64).

Pope Francis rightfully condemns any society — or individual, for that matter — that “seeks prosperity but turns its back on suffering” (FT, 65).

The fraternal love of the good Samaritan is the antidote to the jealousy and hatred symbolized by Cain’s murder of Abel and an answer to his haunting question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gn 4:9). The answer Pope Francis wants us all to see is given in Jesus. He is the good Samaritan who has come to rescue fallen humanity. The pope writes: “Each day we have to decide whether to be good Samaritans or indifferent bystanders” (FT, 69).

Police officers salute as the casket of Lt. Robert Van Zeyl of the Suffolk County, N.Y., Police Department is carried from St. Gerard Majella Church in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y., following his funeral Mass Jan. 26, 2021. Van Zeyl, who died of COVID-19 at age 60, is survived by his ex-wife, Christine Zubrinic, and their 14-year-old children, Hailey and Tyler. CNS PHOTO/GREGORY A. SHEMITZ

Additional challenges posed by Pope Francis include:

• the danger of regression to new forms of selfishness and aggressive nationalism (FT, 11)

• the reality of new forms of isolation and loneliness even in an increasingly interconnected world (FT, 12)

• the challenges posed by empty individualism, limitless consumption and cultural colonization that leads to a “throwaway culture” (FT, 13-21, 188)

• the declining birthrate in many parts of the world coupled often with a cruel abandonment of the elderly, the weak or the sick. (FT, 19)

• the re-emergence of racism and the continuing of systemic poverty in many parts of the world and even within richer nations (FT, 20-21)

• war, human rights violations, human trafficking, terrorism, abortion, organized crime, refugees, religious persecution and many other ancient problems besetting humanity (FT, 22-46).

Rohingya refugees are evacuated from a boat by locals near the coast of Seunuddon beach in Aceh, Indonesia, June 25, 2020. (CNS PHOTO/ANTARA FOTO, RAHMAD VIA REUTERS

Pope Francis says that the way to address these challenges is through “a truly human and fraternal society” where each and every person “is accompanied at every stage of life” leading to integral human development (FT, 110-112). This will mean:

• true solidarity based on a benevolence that wills and works for the good of the other (FT, 114- 116).

• recognition of the ancient Christian teaching about the universal destiny of goods and the social purpose of private property (FT, 119-120). (“The world exists for everyone, because all of us were born with the same dignity. Differences of color, religion, talent, place of birth or residence, and so many others, cannot be used to justify the privileges of some over the rights of all. As a community, we have an obligation to ensure that every person lives with dignity and has sufficient opportunities for his or her integral development” (FT, 118)).

• The recognition of universal rights, including the right to life, religious freedom, food, health care, housing, education and to immigrate, if necessary, among other basic rights (FT, 121-132).

Q. Isn’t the pope essentially calling on us to create a different culture? And even a different economy? Is that even possible?

A. Yes, he is, and it is possible. For as Jesus taught: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).

Pope Francis is calling for a different type of politics (Chapter 5) and economy based on a renewal of culture. A culture of encounter should lead people to view the world differently. A politics based on zero-sum thinking — I only win if you lose — and power manipulation should  give way to a politics at the service of the common good.

Pope Francis writes: “The development of a global community of fraternity based on the practice of social friendship on the part of peoples and nations calls for a better kind of politics, one truly at the service of the common good” (FT, 154).

A politics dedicated to the common good will reject populism and selfishness and be particularly mindful of those most in need: “Lack of concern for the vulnerable can hide behind a populism that exploits them demagogically for its own purposes, or a liberalism that serves the economic interests of the powerful. In both cases, it becomes difficult to envisage an open world that makes room for everyone, including the most vulnerable, and shows respect for different cultures” (FT, 156).

An elderly woman reacts as she meets Pope Francis during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican March 22. CNS PHOTO/PAUL HARING

A healthy economy is based on the logic of the gift: We have received everything from God as a gift. Our first response should be that of gratitude and the desire to share what we have received with others: “Life without fraternal gratuitousness becomes a form of frenetic commerce, in which we are constantly weighing up what we give and what we get back in return. God, on the other hand, gives freely, to the point of helping even those who are unfaithful; he ‘makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good’” (FT, 140; Mt 5:45).

But neither political or economical renewal is possible without a change in attitude or culture. Here is where a true metanoia (conversion) must occur. It begins with the human heart. “Everything, then, depends on our ability to see the need for a change of heart, attitudes and lifestyles. Otherwise, political propaganda, the media and the shapers of public opinion will continue to promote an individualistic and uncritical culture subservient to unregulated economic interests and societal institutions at the service of those who already enjoy too much power” (FT, 166).

Instead of this “technocratic paradigm,” as Pope Francis calls it, we must embrace a political charity or social love dedicated to the common good that “makes it possible to advance towards a civilization of love, to which all of us can feel called. Charity, with its impulse to universality, is capable of building a new world. No mere sentiment, it is the best means of discovering effective paths of development for everyone. Social love is a ‘force capable of inspiring new ways of approaching the problems of today’s world, of profoundly renewing structures, social organizations and legal systems from within’” (FT, 183).

Q. Although clearly Pope Francis differs in many stylistic ways from his predecessors, do you see in it echoes of the thinking of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict in this “Fratelli tutti”?

A. In most of what Pope Francis writes, especially in the area of social ethics, he is building on the foundations laid in the prolific magisterial writings of his immediate predecessors. For example, there are 16 direct references to John Paul II either in the text or footnotes. In addition, the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” published during his pontificate, is quoted or referenced nine times. Benedict XVI is referenced 15 times with many direct quotations from his social writing.

Migrants are pictured in late March on the island of Lesbos, Greece, as they wait to board a Greek navy ship. CNS PHOTO/COSTAS BALTAS, REUTERS

There are some areas where Pope Francis has gone further than his predecessors. In his condemnation of the death penalty (FT, 263-270) and his questioning of the morality of nuclear deterrence (FT, 262), he has challenged us to move beyond security based on fear, retribution and the threat of death. He also has invested heavily in modeling the interreligious dialogue that he believes we most desperately need today.

Q. What are your personal thoughts on “Fratelli tutti”?

A. We live in perilous times. Postmodernism has challenged the basic premise that there is truth and that the truth is knowable. Without truth, there is only power — raw and destructive. With this encyclical, Pope Francis has stood in the breach and said to the proponents of postmodern relativism: You are wrong!

Here is a vision of a just and lasting social order built on truth — on social charity, fraternity and friendship. Against the globalization of indifference, he offers a vision of solidarity and a culture of encounter where each person’s human dignity is recognized and protected.

I did my doctorate on the social teaching of John Paul II. In his encyclical “Centesimus Annus,” he wrote: “If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others. . . . The root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights that no one may violate — no individual, group, class, nation or state. Not even the majority of the social body may violate these rights, by going against the minority” (44).

Francis quotes this profound passage and makes it his own in FT 273. This is the challenge of our time and this day — to stand up for truth, to stand up for the dignity of all human persons, to stand up for those on the margins or peripheries. This is what Pope Francis is doing in his pontificate and in this encyclical.

Q. A pastor I know has suggested that the encyclical be read over time, at the pace of 6 or 8 points a day, to give the reader time to digest the ideas a bit. Do you think that would be a good way to approach it? Especially, maybe, as a Lenten practice?

A. Yes, most certainly. I keep coming back to certain ideas, phrases and passages which I found challenging or profound. For example, in FT 215, Pope Francis writes: “Life, for all its confrontations, is the art of encounter.”

While so much of modernity is attempting to depersonalize us and to reduce everything to a series of transactions, this stark reminder by Pope Francis is that at the heart of it all is an encounter. And of course, as he has emphasized elsewhere, it is the encounter with the event, the person of Jesus Christ, that is the foundational reality of life (Jn 14:6; “The Joy of the Gospel,” 7-8).

Pope Francis arrives for a prayer service in an empty St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican March 27, 2020. At the conclusion of the service the pope held the Eucharist as he gave an extraordinary blessing “urbi et orbi” (to the city and the world). The service was livestreamed in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. CNS PHOTO/YARA NARDI, POOL VIA REUTERS

Later, in the same paragraph, he writes: “No one is useless and no one is expendable. This also means finding ways to include those on the peripheries of life.” Again, this is so apropos, especially to me as president of Donnelly College. We are called to serve and provide the highest quality, faith-based education possible with special concern for those who might otherwise be excluded from college. Education, even Catholic higher education, has become financially inaccessible to so many. 

One of the best ways to read this encyclical is by meditating on passages such as these and prayerfully applying them to one’s own vocation.

Q. Pope Francis ends “Fratelli tutti” with a call to action. How can regular Catholics respond to that?

A. He actually ends the encyclical with prayer, a reminder to us all that prayer should come first. But you are correct that before the final prayers — one Christian and one interfaith — he ends with an appeal to human fraternity and a culture of dialogue.

First, we should read the Gospels and attempt to put them into practice in one’s own life in accordance with one’s personal vocation. Next, we should study our Catholic faith which flows from the Gospel, including the church’s social teaching. There is so much wisdom in the social teaching of the church in general and “Fratelli tutti,” in particular, that when I read it, I often feel like the proverbial man trying to get a drink from a fire hose. It can be a bit overwhelming.

This is why it is important to pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance to discern how to apply these teachings to one’s own vocation. Studying as a family or in peer groups can also be helpful.

Also, we must have confidence that the church’s social teaching and mission of social justice is, as St. Paul VI taught, “a constituent element of the Gospel.” I have studied political philosophy and economics at Oxford University. I have watched nations and economies, parties and politicians, leaders and institutions from many eras and nations. We are always better served by those who put into practice the moral truths embodied in Catholic social teaching.

And we are always placed on the path to chaos, confusion and ruin when these basic principles are ignored.

Unfortunately, outside of committed Catholics, few take the time to read and reflect on encyclicals like “Fratelli tutti.” This is partially the Catholic Church’s own fault. We in positions of pastoral leadership have not effectively communicated these teachings, especially to the younger generations. Even many devout Catholics do not study church teaching or see its relevance. Still others choose to deliberately ignore it or even brazenly contradict it while still claiming to be fully Catholic.

It cannot be so with us.  At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us: “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined” (Mt 7:24-27).

We must be like the wise man who built his house on rock — we must listen to the words of Christ as taught by his church and put them into practice.

About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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