Oct 14

Since its release, I had seen bits and pieces of the new Encyclical Letter from Pope Francis, “Fratelli Tutti.” I was more and more intrigued, and I could not resist sitting down and diving deeper. It is powerful. It is timely. It is important.

Ironically it was the same week I watched “Social Dilemma” on Netflix. With that, these words from Pope Francis hit me, “Technology is constantly advancing, yet “how wonderful it would be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation could come with more equality and social inclusion. How wonderful would it be, even as we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters who orbit around us” (Encyclical paragraph 31). The “Social Dilemma” points out the consequences of technology, including mental health struggles, disinformation, and discrimination. How we choose to remain “connected” really isn’t authentic. How we communicate is problematic. The promo for the documentary says “if we can’t address our broken information ecosystem, we’ll never be able to address the challenges that plague humanity.”

We have our texting groups, our circles, our “friends.” Who is left out? Who do we include? Then we have the political campaigning pulling apart family members, co-workers and neighbors. Signs are stolen or destroyed. We have inner circles in our workplaces and churches which are not transparent or inclusive. This is an incredibly big problem and I think Pope Francis recognized that and why he chose this topic for his Encyclical.

The National Catholic Reporter wrote that: ‘”Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” This saying exists in variant forms in Southern Africa’s bantu languages and translates as, “A person is a person through other persons” or “I am because we are.” Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti contains an equivalent: “Each of us is fully a person when we are part of a people; at the same time, there are no peoples without respect for the individuality of each person” (Encyclical paragraph 182). Pope Francis’ social love goes beyond the immediacy of neighborliness; it is expansive and enriches the lives and existence of others. This kind of love manifests as hospitality because it welcomes and values others for who they are.’

Spanish Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, explained further, “It’s nothing more than creating a space in which one’s identity can be affirmed by others, where understanding of the other can be developed and promoted, and where there’s sincerity of intention” (cruxnow September 25, 2020).

Emails, texts, posts, snaps and tweets may “have the appearance of sociability” but there are people hurting, left out, left behind. “Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity” (Encyclical paragraph 43). There is another reference to humanity. Think about what much of social media is right now, and consider if what you are seeing is compassionate or sympathetic or even genuine.

“Everything has become a kind of spectacle to be examined and inspected, and people’s lives are now under constant surveillance” (Encyclical paragraph 42). This is a choice, admittedly one which I do not understand. The documentary “Social Dilemma” was eye-opening and frightening when it comes to this. I highly recommend it.

“We can choose the people with whom we wish to share our world. Persons or situations we find unpleasant or disagreeable are simply deleted in today’s virtual networks; a virtual circle is then created, isolating us from the real world in which we are living” (Encyclical paragraph 47).

“As silence and careful listening disappear, replaced by a frenzy of texting, this basic structure of sage human communication is at risk. A new lifestyle is emerging, where we create only what we want and exclude all that we cannot control or know instantly and superficially. This process, by its intrinsic logic, blocks the kind of serene reflection that could lead us to a shared wisdom” (Encyclical paragraph 49).

“Destroying self-esteem is an easy way to dominate others. Behind these trends that tend to level our world, there flourish powerful interests that take advantage of such low self-esteem, while attempting, through the media and networks, to create a new culture in the service of the elite” (Encyclical paragraph 52).

We forget that “there is no worse form of alienation than to feel uprooted, belonging to no one.”  Pope Francis’ encyclical is a plea for awareness and a challenge to turn the tide. We need to “avoid all that makes us insensitive to others and leads to further alienation”(Encyclical paragraph 53). This is a bigger issue during the pandemic with social distancing, forced quarantining and isolation, and compounded further by being an election cycle.

The encyclical is built around the foundation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Who do we include and exclude? How do we judge who gets our time? The parable teaches us that difference is not a basis for exclusion. The Good Samaritan “gave him something that in our frenetic world we cling to tightly: he gave him his time. Certainly, he had his own plans for that day, his own needs, commitments and desires. Yet he was able to put all that aside when confronted with someone in need. Without even knowing the injured man, he saw him as deserving of his time and attention” (Encyclical paragraph 63).

As we approach the election and we see countering campaign signs in neighbors’ yards, we can and should be OK with that. It is OK to have a different opinion. It does not affect anyone’s value as a person. Would the Good Samaritan today decide whether to stop and help the man depending if he had a Biden or Trump sticker on his vehicle in the ditch? I pray that is not the case, but I wonder.

I am very impressed by the relationship between Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, very conservative, and the very progressive, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Their views were almost always polar opposites on opinions of law. But they had a deep mutual respect for each other. They made space for each other. Their friendship went beyond labels and judgments.

In families, people who do not share the same opinion, about politics or other things, are still human beings. Making them feel that way is important. If they feel differently about stuff, there is a reason and instead of dismissing them, we should try to understand. In workplaces and at Church, we should not actively try to silence and shut out individuals. Everyone has something to contribute. Silencing and marginalizing people is hurtful and cruel.  Absences matter, whether from gatherings, meals or pews.

Holding space is about being physically, mentally, and emotionally present. It is means focusing on what is truly important, managing judgments, and being willing to make space for difference.

It is too easy, in this digital world, to forget that “A person is a person no matter how small” (Dr. Seuss).

In the introduction to this encyclical, Pope Francis wrote, “I offer this social Encyclical as a modest contribution to continued reflection, in the hope that in the face of present-day attempts to eliminate or ignore others, we may prove capable of responding with a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words” (Encyclical paragraph 6).

Thank you Pope Francis, for knowing how important your guidance in “Fratelli Tutti” is right now. May we take time to reflect on it, hold space for your words, and then turn it into action, holding space for each other. May your words guide us through this election, through this pandemic, and through our upcoming holidays.

Sheila Hellermann is a member of St. Rose of Lima Church in St. Rosa. She works at St. John’s University as a program and department coordinator for several academic departments. Read more about Sheila on the “Meet Our Bloggers” page.


Leave a Comment:

(1) comment

Sheila Nelson October 15, 2020

Thanks, Sheila, for this wonderfully inspiring and desperately needed reflection! There’s so much wisdom AND challenge here! And now I’m eager to read Pope Francis’ encyclical!

Add Your Reply

Leave a Comment: