By Msgr. Kevin W. Irwin
In chapter twelve of his Confessions, St. Augustine recounts being in his garden in an agitated state, not to say personal turmoil. He writes about hearing the voice of a child say, “Take and read.” He picked up a bible and read a passage from the New Testament. He experienced an inner calm and deepened his resolve to dedicate himself to God. When you take up this encyclical, I urge you not just to “read” it but to “pray” it. In the opening lines of Fratelli tutti Pope Francis quotes his patron, who addressing his followers, “proposed to them a way of life marked by the flavor of the Gospel.” I daresay it is that simple. But it is also enormously difficult.
A Way of Life
Fratelli tutti is not about making adjustments here and there to our personal and communal lives. Rather it is nothing less than about a way to reread and to live the Gospel for our times. What the pope writes is needed for us to survive not only the coronavirus pandemic (which is sparingly mentioned in a treatise far more wide ranging than even this death-dealing virus) but for the contemporary world to survive. It is that serious. It is that compelling. It is that demanding.
The pope calls this his second “social encyclical.” He wants to offer “a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain on the level of words.” In today’s parlance, he wants us to “walk the walk,” not just “talk the talk.” It is a primer on the Catholic Christian way of viewing life and living life in dialogue among all people of good will.
A Quintessential Pope Francis Document
Pope Francis dedicates Fratelli tutti to his namesake, Francis of Assisi, at whose tomb he celebrated Mass the day before its publication date, the feast of St. Francis. The Vatican “rollout” of the encyclical at noon on the feast itself was marked by a prior meeting with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin and the Muslim leader of a joint commission established after Pope Francis’ visit to Abu-Dhabi in February 2019. In “Vatican-speak,” this is a big deal.
Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ was also inspired by St. Francis. There, the pope acknowledges the influence of Patriarch Bartholomew on his thinking about care for creation. In Fratelli tutti, the pope acknowledges the influence of the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb from his trip to Abu Dabi. That modern popes travel is now a given. What they say and do on the trips, as well as the destinations themselves, reveal many things. The same is true of Pope Francis’ trip to a largely Muslim nation.
This encyclical is an invitation for all of us to broaden our perspective to view a “world without borders” (nn. 3-8) and to view every single person on the planet, and yes the planet itself, as brother and sister. In particular, he pleads on behalf of the world’s poor on the margins of society, as well as the handicapped, the infirm and the elderly who often live on the margins but who ought to be at the center.
Conversion of Life
Fratelli tutti is a fulsome document written in an invitational style. Nevertheless, be prepared for an unremitting invitation to nothing less than a conversion of life in light of Pope Francis’ astute assessment of the brokenness and polarization of today’s world. This includes the scandal of rampant personal and institutional individualism and the need for religious bodies to come together in “fraternity and social friendship” in order to witness to counter cultural values before the world. The Catholic characteristic and challenge—the common good—is cited and explored here in numerous ways.
Continuity and Contributions
Like almost all encyclicals, Fratelli tutti is thoroughly researched and documented. Pope Francis cites his immediate predecessors in the papacy for their teachings on many things, including the economy and the death penalty. These are not-so-subtle reminders that he did not invent these Catholic positions. He inherited and then applied them to today. Other sources range from Latin authors from the ancient world, to contemporary philosophers to a novelist to a playwright!
Where and Who Are We?
The first chapter of the encyclical is an enormously insightful “read” on our situation in the world. It typifies the “see, judge, act” method that the pope has employed in several documents. Spoiler alert: this is not an easy read. It is like a precise medical diagnosis, which then leads to treatment and as close to a cure as we, brothers and sisters all, can come.
Two Lenses on the World
Laudato Si’ and Fratelli tutti are not your typical papal encyclicals. They are both addressed to men and women of all faiths and places, not only Catholics or the hierarchy. They offer a way to look at our world and at life itself. They are not about in-house theological fine tuning. These encyclicals serve as lenses through which we look at everything—yes, everything. The glasses are by no means rose colored. But both of the lenses are tinted with the virtue of hope, so necessary and so needed now.
In the first weeks when coronavirus was unleashed on an unsuspecting worldwide population, one political leader kept saying, “we are in this together.” That phrase could well be an additional subtitle to this text. “We are in this together” means raising up to be our best selves and being “the good Samaritan” to one another. Many welcomed the insight and challenge. Many resented it, defending themselves with “I,” “me,” and “my” pronouns. Fratelli tutti is about the plural pronouns: “we,” “our,” and “us.” We are in this together, all on our common home.
Fratelli tutti is a profound encyclical. It can change minds and hearts. It can be one avenue to do nothing less than “renew the face of the earth.” Take and pray.
© Paulist Press, used with permission.
Msgr Kevin Irwin is Ordinary Research Professor in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America,
in Washington, D.C.