On October 4 this year, Pope Francis issued his third encyclical, entitled Fratelli tutti. The letter is a very complex one which touches on many issues and themes which are all central to the teaching of Pope Francis. In this encyclical, the Pope refers to much of his own writings and statements as well as to the teaching of Saint John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. He also frequently refers to statements of Bishops’ Conferences from around the world.
All of the bishops received the letter on the afternoon of October 2, with a personal note from the Holy Father. The note begins, “Dear Brother, I share with you the encyclical letter, Fratelli tutti. Its title is the message of Jesus encouraging us to recognize one another as brothers and sisters and to live accordingly in a common home that the Father has entrusted to us.” I found the encyclical to be very much in keeping with the theme of Pope Francis’s first message for the World Day of Peace on January 1, 2014, entitled Fraternity, the Foundation and Pathway to Peace. Of course, this was a much briefer and concise statement.
Pope Francis expresses in the very beginning of his encyclical that he was writing the letter as the COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly erupted and exposed many human false securities. The Pope reflects, “Aside from the different ways that various countries responded to the crisis, their inability to work together became quite evident. For all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all. Anyone who thinks the only lesson to be learned was a need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.” The Pope stresses that his intention is to acknowledge the dignity of every human person so that we can dream like a single human family as brothers and sisters in the manner by which God has created us for this life.
The encyclical is entitled after the words of Saint Francis of Assisi’s address to his followers as he began his community. Translated into English they mean, We are all brothers and sisters. The Pope explains that, “In his simple and direct way, Saint 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.” Pope Francis divides the reflection of his encyclical into eight chapters which give us insight into its scope and meaning. They are: Dark Clouds Over a Closed World; A Stranger on the Road; Envisaging and Engendering an Open World; A Heart Open to the Whole World; A Better Kind of Politics; Dialogue and Friendship in Society; Paths of Renewed Encounter; and, Religions at the Service of Fraternity in our World. As one reads these challenging reflections, there is nothing new that is found in the teaching of Pope Francis as he has expressed it during the seven years of his pontificate. His words are rich in meaning as well as inspiring in regard to faith, hope and charity.
I personally found the second chapter of the encyclical, A Stranger on the Road, to be central to the entire encyclical and a very inspiring reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan in St. Luke’s Gospel. The Pope begins by explaining that this parable has to do with the age-old problem which goes back to the killing of Abel by his brother, Cain, with Cain’s question to God, in response God’s question to him, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The Pope reflects that this question resounds throughout the Old Testament as well as the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel. Pope Francis asks us to reflect on all of the characters of the parable and to respond to the call of the Lord to each of us as we encounter others.
The reading of Pope Francis’s chapter on the parable of the Good Samaritan is a true spiritual exercise. If one wants to get a good sense of the encyclical, without the ability to read all of it, this would be the place to start. As the Pope reflects, “The parable is clear and straight forward, yet it also evokes the interior struggle that each of us experiences as we gradually come to know ourselves through our relationships with our brothers and sisters.” Pope Francis calls us to ask ourselves the blunt question as to which of the characters in the parable do we identify with most, especially since we each share some of their characteristics. He reminds us among other things, of the harsh reality that, “Robbers usually find secret allies in those who pass by and look the other way.”
I mentioned that I found the encyclical to be very much in keeping with Pope Francis’s first World Day of Peacemessage, Fraternity, The Foundation and Pathway to Peace. In this message, the Pope goes to the center from which all fraternity emanates which is the family. In his teaching, Pope Francis understands that the family is the wellspring of all fraternity and as such is the foundation and pathway to peace. We are made in the image and likeness of God who is a communion of love in the Trinity. The family reflects the life of God to the fullest degree as men and women give themselves to each other in an unbreakable bond of love which brings life into the world. We do not come into this world on our own. We do not adopt our own identity as we come into this world. We come into the world through God’s creation and our identity is given to us by God. Our family helps us to understand that identity and to grow it as we continue to grow in relationship with our family as well as to reach out to other families in our lives. Pope Francis expresses this understanding well in his new encyclical when he states, “Families are the first place where the values of love and fraternity, togetherness and sharing, concern and care for others are lived out and handed on.”
Fratelli tutti is a complex and challenging encyclical. As with all teaching from Pope Francis, it comes from his heart and speaks of the tenderness of humanity as made in the image and likeness of God. When the encyclical is read, it should be done so in a manner that captures its whole meaning as based on the Gospel and not, as the media often does, by putting words in the mouth Pope Francis which are far from his. The encyclical will take many readings in order to fully understand its depth and a lifetime to live in accord with the Gospel.
I conclude my reflections on Fratelli tutti with the moving prayer with which Pope Francis concludes his encyclical:
Come, Holy Spirit, show us your beauty,
reflected in all peoples of the earth,
so that we may discover anew
that all are important and all are necessary,
different faces of the one humanity
that God so loves. Amen
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
November 13, 2020