By Alessandro Gisotti
“'Where is your brother? The voice of his blood cries out to me,' God says. This is not a question addressed to others. It is a question addressed to me, to you, to each of us.”
Seven years have passed since Pope Francis visited the Italian island of Lampedusa and addressed that question to all of humanity at Mass celebrated at the sports ground in the heart of the Mediterranean. The journey lasted only a few hours, but in some way set the stage for the Pope's magisterium. There, at the Southern tip of Europe, Pope Francis showed what he means when he speaks of a “Church that goes forth”. He visibly affirmed that reality can be seen better from the peripheries than from the center. Amid migrants who had fled from war and misery, he made his dream of a “poor Church for the poor” come alive.
On the other hand, talking about Cain and Abel, he also brought the question of fraternity to the foreground in Lampedusa. A fundamental question for our time - or perhaps, for all times.
The entire Papacy of Pope Francis rotates on the axis of fraternity. “Brothers” is precisely the first word he addressed to the world as Pope on the evening of March 13, 2013. The dimension of fraternity is, if one may say so, in the DNA of this Pontiff who chose the name of the poor man of Assisi - a man who only wanted the title of “friar”, “frater”, “brother”.
The way he defines his relationship with Pope emeritus Benedict XVI is also fraternal. After signing of the Document on Human Fraternity, this feature of the Pope certainly appears more accentuated and evident to all. Yet, going back over the first seven years of Pope Francis’s papacy, we find several milestones on the path that led to the signing, together with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, of the historic document in Abu Dhabi on 4 February 2019. That path now continues, because the event on Arab soil was certainly not just a point of arrival, but also a new beginning.
Returning to the “Lampedusa question”, it is particularly significant that the Pope took up the same words again in another highly symbolic visit - the one he made to the Military Shrine of Redipuglia on the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. Here too, in September 2014, the dialogue between God and Cain, after the killing of his brother Abel, will resound with all its drama. “What do I care? Am I my brother's keeper?” (Gen 4:9).
For Pope Francis, in that refusal to consider himself as his brother’s keeper, as the keeper of every brother, lies the root of all the evils that shake humanity. This attitude, emphasizes the Pope, “is exactly the opposite of what Jesus asks of us in the Gospel”. “Whoever takes care of his brother or sister enters into the joy of the Lord; whoever does not, who in his omission says: ‘What do I care?’, remains outside.”
With the progression of his papacy, we see that the common belonging to human brotherhood and sisterhood is declined in all its multiform dynamism, ranging from ecumenical to interreligious, from the social to the political dimension. Once again the polyhedron is the figure that best represents Pope Francis’s thought and action. In fact, brotherhood and sisterhood, have many facets: as many as there are men and women, and relations between them.
Pope Francis spoke of brothers in the Prayer and Peace meeting in the Vatican Gardens with Shimon Peres and Abu Mazen. “Your presence”, he emphasized, addressing both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, “is a great sign of fraternity, which you fulfill as children of Abraham, and a concrete expression of trust in God, the Lord of history, who today looks upon us as brothers and sisters to one another and wishes to lead us on his path”. In the name of fraternity, enlivened by a common faith in Christ, there was also the encounter, which was unthinkable a few years earlier, of the Bishop of Rome with the Patriarch of Moscow - an event blessed by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I.
In Cuba, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill signed a joint declaration which, in its opening words, emphasizes: “With joy, we encountered each other as brothers in the Christian faith who meet to ‘speak with a loud voice’”. Fraternity is also the keyword that allows us to decode one of the strongest and most surprising acts of the Pontificate: the gesture of kneeling and kissing the feet of the leaders of South Sudan summoned to the Vatican for a spiritual and peaceful retreat. “To the three of you, who signed the Peace Agreement," said the Pope with heartfelt words, "I ask you as a brother, remain in peace. I ask you from the heart. Let us move forward."
So if the Abu Dhabi Declaration represents the flowering of seeds planted at the beginning and then throughout the course of the Papacy, certainly the “epochal change” that we are experiencing, accelerated by the pandemic, makes it imperative to take responsibility for the question of human fraternity. “Where is your brother?” That question-appeal, launched on the sunny morning of 8 July 2013 in Lampedusa, is today “the” question. The world, convinced that it can make it on its own and that it can go ahead with the selfish logic of “it has always been done like this”, has instead found itself incapacitated, incredulous, and powerless in the face of an invisible and elusive enemy. Now the world is struggling to get up because it does not find the right foundation to support itself. This foundation, Pope Francis repeats to us, is fraternity. In it are the only foundations on which to build a solid home for humanity.
The coronavirus has dramatically shown that no matter how different the levels of development among nations and income within nations are, we are all vulnerable. We are brothers and sisters in the same boat, shaken by the waves of a storm that strikes each and everyone indiscriminately. “With the storm," said the Pope in the rain on 27 March in an empty St. Peter’s Square, "the trick of those stereotypes with which we disguised our ‘egos’ which are always worried about our own image has fallen. And once again, that (blessed) common belonging from which we cannot escape has been discovered: belonging as brothers and sisters.” This is what can awaken our slightly-anesthetized consciences in the face of the many “pandemics”, such as war and hunger, which have knocked on our doors, but which we did not care about because they could not get into the house. “There are many other pandemics that make people die," recalled Pope Francis at Mass in Santa Marta on 14 May, "and we don’t realize it, we look elsewhere."
Today, just as seven years ago in Lampedusa, the Pope tells us that we must not look the other way, because if we really consider ourselves as brothers and sisters, members of one another, the other side does not exist. The other side is us. (Translated from the original Italian)