Maybe this is only my experience, but as I reflect on Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti, I find myself having this recurring emotional reaction: Really?
Where I want to walk away in resignation or disgust, Francis keeps making points that a) I know are true and b) mean I can’t walk away. It’s awfully frustrating.
We are surrounded by seemingly hopeless situations. I won’t name them; you see them as well as I do. And the point of a hopeless situation is to, you know, give up hope. And, well, give up.
My friend Patrick in Uganda and his school of hundreds of orphans and refugees is in desperate straits. I mean, they were in desperate straits before COVID not only further clamped down on their ability to provide for their kids, but now, not only is life immeasurably harder there, but here in the US, in our current civic brokenness, we have nothing to offer. So the sane thing is to cut our losses, wish them well, focus on the millions of unemployed, sick and hungry right here.
But Fratelli Tutti carries an incessant reminder that we are *all* members of the same humanity, and those of us who have even a little must look out for our brothers and sisters who aren’t so lucky, even if they are in a place you probably would struggle to pin on a map. They are still ours, members of our family, even if their need so outstrips our capacity to help. Do your part, be a sibling, see what magic happens and what loaves multiply. So I chipped in what I could for some thermometers for their school to reopen and encourage you to donate to We Can Save Children and send a note that says “For Patrick” when you do.
This week, Chapter 7, Pope Francis does it again.
Several years ago, I went on a pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy (home of Sts. Francis and Clare). Part of St. Francis’ story is that when he really didn’t know what to do with his life, he hung out in an abandoned and crumbling church. One day, he heard Jesus say from the crucifix in the ruin of a church say, “Francis, go rebuild my church, which as you see is in ruins,” and so he did. Maybe too literally. He rebuilt the abandoned San Damiano church in which he heard that message with supplies he scrounged up by begging and “borrowing” from his father, then set out to rebuild other abandoned churches, before he got some additional clarity from God that God was meaning this request more symbolically. Francis created the Franciscan order after that and built a community that has brought good into the world for eight centuries and in many respects rebuilt the ruined Church of the 13th Century.
When I went to Assisi that time, I expected God to talk to me like He talked to Francis. I sat in San Damiano. I prayed in front of the exact same cross (which has moved up the road to the Basilica of St. Clare). I went to a hermitage in the middle of nowhere where St. Francis liked to pray. And…nothing. No talking Jesus. Great trip, great time with family, great time to take stock, great food. No talking Jesus, though. No “If you build it” type epiphany.
After the trip, I was sharing this disappointment with my spiritual director, a truly holy man whose testimony as a prisoner to the faith in Vietnam speaks far more eloquently than his command of his adopted English language. He heard me out, asked me a couple of insightful questions, and said in response to whatever I replied, “It sounds like God told you to be a peacemaker.” I guess you’re right, I responded upon reflection. Unfortunately.
I say “unfortunately,” because for the last few weeks I have been marinating in the hopelessness of the brokenness of our culture. As much as we may want to hope otherwise, the narrative is pretty clear that, at least right now, we are not a country ready for reconciliation with each other. We will see Patrick in Uganda as our brother before we see our neighbor with the wrong yard sign as our sibling. Peacemakers need not apply.
So Chapter 7 of Fratelli Tutti begins “In many parts of the world, there is a need for paths of peace to heal open wounds. There is also a need for peacemakers, men and women prepared to work boldly and creatively to initiate processes of healing and renewed encounter.” (225)
This chapter is going to be remembered as the place where Francis put in an encyclical that the death penalty could not be justified under any circumstances (building on his predecessors, most notably St. John Paul II). And he will re-up St. John XXIII’s Cold War statements against war as being unacceptable in any modern setting.
But in a way, those bold statements are a setup for us. Because if we can’t feel justified in waging war, and we can’t feel justified in denying the humanity of a murderer, then we can’t turn our back on the neighbor with the offending yard sign either.
He brings in the counsel of the Bishops of South Africa, and the Congo, and Columbia, to testify that reconciliation isn’t impossible. With a commitment to truth, justice and mercy, a willingness to acknowledge the past, and an unwillingness to abandon the notion that the person opposite you is a beloved child of God, anyone patient enough can get there.
If you’re willing to actually be a peacemaker, even if you’d rather go rebuild ruined churches with borrowed rocks.
Incidentally, you may be thinking of this:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.
(It’s attributed to St. Francis, but he almost certainly did not write it. It’s only traced back to 1912, and in French. As with many things, it doesn’t have to be historically factual in order to be true.)
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