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Fraternity and Social Friendship

This essay consists of extracts taken from the 92-page Encyclical Letter “Fratelli Tutti” (All Brothers) written by Pope Francis and published in October 2020, based on the teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Pope’s namesake. In his letter, Pope Francis seeks to promote Saint Francis’s teachings, which encourage a universal aspiration toward fraternity and social friendship. The letter was written during the Covid-19 pandemic, which, the Pope reveals, "unexpectedly erupted" as he was writing this letter. He writes that the global health emergency has helped demonstrate that "no one can face life in isolation," and that the time has come to live together as a “single human family" in which we are "all brothers and sisters." You can find the entire letter “Fratelli Tutti” online through a Google search or on the Vatican’s website: www.vatican.va

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Of the many counsels Saint Francis of Assisi offered to his brothers and sisters in how to live their lives, there was one in which he calls for a love that transcends the barriers of geography and distance. 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 currently lives.

There is an episode in the life of Saint Francis that shows his openness of heart, which knew no bounds and transcended differences of origin, nationality, colour, or religion. It was his visit to Sultan Malik-al-Kamil, in Egypt, which entailed considerable hardship, given Francis’s poverty, his scarce resources, the great distances to be travelled, and their differences of language, culture, and religion. That journey, undertaken at the time of the Crusades, further demonstrated the breadth and grandeur of his love, which sought to embrace everyone. Francis’s fidelity to his Lord was commensurate with his love for his brothers and sisters. Unconcerned for the hardships and dangers involved, Francis went to meet the Sultan with the same attitude that he instilled in his disciples: if they found themselves “among the Saracens and other nonbelievers,” without renouncing their own identity they were not to “engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject (humble) to every human creature for God’s sake.”

In the context of the times, this was an extraordinary recommendation. We are impressed that some eight hundred years ago, Saint Francis urged that all forms of hostility or conflict be avoided and that a humble and fraternal “subjection” be shown to those who did not share his faith. Yet Francis was able to welcome true peace into his heart and free himself of the desire to wield power over others. He became one of the poor and sought to live in harmony with all.

As I was writing this letter, the Covid-19 pandemic unexpectedly erupted, exposing our 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 hyper-connectivity, 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.

It is my desire that 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. Here we have a splendid secret that shows us how to dream and to turn our life into a wonderful adventure. No one can face life in isolation. We need a community that supports and helps us, in which we can help one another to keep looking ahead. How important it is to dream together!

For decades it seemed that the world had learned a lesson from its many wars and disasters, and was slowly moving towards various forms of integration. Europe, after centuries of wars fought on the continent, has envisioned a “European Union” with a future based on the capacity to work together in bridging divisions and in fostering peace and fellowship between all the peoples of this continent.

However, these days there seems to be signs of a certain regression. Ancient conflicts thought long-buried are breaking out anew, while instances of a myopic, extremist, resentful, and aggressive nationalism are on the rise. In some countries, a concept of popular and national unity influenced by various ideologies is creating new forms of selfishness and a loss of the social sense under the guise of defending national interests. Once more we are being reminded that each new generation must take up the struggles and attainments of past generations, while setting its sights even higher. This is the path. Goodness – together with love, justice, and solidarity – are not achieved once and for all; they have to be realized each day. It is not possible to settle for what was achieved in the past and complacently enjoy it, as if we could somehow disregard the fact that many of our brothers and sisters still endure situations that cry out for our attention. Expression of vicious attitudes that we thought long past, such as racism, which retreats underground only to keep re-emerging. Instances of racism continue to shame us, for they show that our supposed social progress is not as real or definitive as we think.

A worldwide tragedy like the Covid-19 pandemic has momentarily revived the sense that we are a global community, all in the same boat, where one person’s problems are the problems of all. Once more we realized that no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together. Amid this storm, the facade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos, always worrying about appearances, has fallen away, revealing once more the ineluctable and blessed awareness that we are part of one another, that we are brothers and sisters of one another. The pain, uncertainty and fear, and the realization of our own limitations brought on by the pandemic have only made it all the more urgent that we rethink our styles of life, our relationships, the organization of our societies and, above all, the meaning of our existence.

If everything is connected, it is hard to imagine that this global disaster is unrelated to our way of approaching reality, our claim to be absolute masters of our own lives and of all that exists. I do not want to speak of divine retribution, nor would it be sufficient to say that the harm we do to nature is itself the punishment for our offences. The world is itself crying out in rebellion.

All too quickly, however, we forget the lessons of history, “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 no longer think in terms of “them” and “those” but only of “us.” If only this may prove not to be just another tragedy of history from which we learned nothing. If only this immense sorrow may not prove useless, but enable us to take a step forward towards a new style of life. If only we might rediscover once and 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.

Oddly enough, while closed and intolerant attitudes towards others are on the rise, distances are otherwise shrinking or disappearing to the point that the right to privacy scarcely exists. Everything has become a kind of spectacle to be examined and inspected, and people’s lives are now under constant surveillance. Digital communication wants to bring everything out into the open; people’s lives are combed over, laid bare and bandied about, often anonymously. Respect for others disintegrates, and even as we dismiss, ignore, or keep others distant, we can shamelessly peer into every detail of their lives. Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity; instead, it tends to disguise and expand the very individualism that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable.

The ability to sit down and listen to others, typical of interpersonal encounters, is paradigmatic of the welcoming attitude shown by those who transcend narcissism and accept others, caring for them and welcoming them into their lives. Yet today’s world is largely a “deaf world,” at times; the frantic pace of the modern world prevents us from listening attentively to what another person is saying. We must not lose our ability to “listen.” Saint Francis heard the voice of God, he heard the voice of the poor, he heard the voice of the infirm, and he heard the voice of nature. He made of them a way of life.

Together, we can seek the truth in dialogue, in relaxed conversation or in passionate debate. The flood of information at our fingertips does not make for greater wisdom. Wisdom is not born of quick searches on the internet nor is it a mass of unverified data. That is not the way to grow in the encounter with truth. Conversations revolve only around the latest data; they become merely horizontal and cumulative. We fail to keep our attention focused, to penetrate to the heart of matters, and to recognize what is essential to give meaning to our lives. Freedom thus becomes an illusion that we are peddled, easily confused with the ability to navigate the internet. The process of building fraternity, be it local or universal, can only be undertaken by spirits that are free and open to authentic encounters.

God continues to sow abundant seeds of goodness in our human family. The recent pandemic enabled us to recognize and appreciate once more all those around us who, in the midst of fear, responded by putting their lives on the line. We began to realize that our lives are interwoven with and sustained by ordinary people valiantly shaping the decisive events of our shared history: doctors, nurses, pharmacists, storekeepers and supermarket workers, cleaning personnel, caretakers, transport workers, men and women working to provide essential services and public safety, volunteers, priests and religious leaders. They understood that no one is saved alone.

I invite everyone to renewed hope, for hope speaks to us of something deeply rooted in every human heart, independently of our circumstances and historical conditioning. Hope speaks to us of a thirst, an aspiration, a longing for a life of fulfillment, a desire to achieve great things, things that fill our heart and lift our spirit to lofty realities like truth, goodness and beauty, justice and love. Hope is bold; it can look beyond personal convenience, the petty securities and compensations which limit our horizon, and it can open us up to grand ideals that make life more beautiful and worthwhile. Let us continue, then, to advance along the paths of hope.

The ancient commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) was usually understood as referring to one’s fellow citizens, yet the boundaries gradually expanded, especially in the Judaism that developed outside of the land of Israel. We encounter the command not to do to others what you would not want them to do to you (cf. Tobit 4:15). In the first century before Christ, Rabbi Hillel stated: “This is the entire Torah. Everything else is commentary.” The desire to imitate God’s own way of acting gradually replaced the tendency to think only of those nearest us: “The compassion of man is for his neighbour, but the compassion of the Lord is for all living beings.”

Each day offers us a new opportunity, a new possibility. We should not expect everything from those who govern us, for that would be childish. We have the space we need for co-responsibility in creating and putting into place new processes and changes. Let us take an active part in renewing and supporting our troubled societies. Today we have a great opportunity to express our innate sense of fraternity, to be “Good Samaritans” who bear the pain of other people’s troubles rather than fomenting greater hatred and resentment.

In the depths of every heart, love creates bonds and expands existence, for it draws people out of themselves and towards others. Since we were made for love, in each one of us “a law of ecstasy” seems to operate: “the lover ‘goes beyond’ the self to find a fuller existence in another.” For this reason, “man always has to take up the challenge of moving beyond himself.” Our relationships, if healthy and authentic, open us to others who expand and enrich us. Nowadays, our noblest social instincts can easily be thwarted by self-centered “chats” that only give the impression of being deep relationships. The spiritual stature of a person’s life is measured by love, which in the end remains the criterion for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth or lack thereof.

In order to truly love we must be able to truly forgive. Those who truly forgive do not necessarily forget. Instead, they choose not to yield to the same destructive force that caused them so much suffering. They break the vicious cycle; they halt the advance of the forces of destruction. Free and heartfelt forgiveness is something noble, a reflection of God’s own infinite ability to forgive. We cannot experience God unless we experience love because God is Love.