Pope Francis Makes a Clarion Call for Belonging
Living in the age of COVID-19, there are five words that most of us hear in virtually every conversation: “When this is all over.”
Whether it’s a couple months or a couple years away, the thinking goes that the crisis will be over someday soon, and we will return to business as usual.
In a major new essay released on October 3rd, Pope Francis offers a poignant rejection of this pervasive assumption.
We are in a different world. There is no turning back. The only positive path forward is to thoroughly transform the social fabric of our global system.
“The Covid-19 pandemic unexpectedly erupted, exposing our false securities,” Pope Francis writes in his new Encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” named for the Latin words of St. Francis of Assisi: “We are all brothers and sisters.”
“For all our hyper-connectivity,” he writes, “we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all.”
Pope Francis makes the case that we are actually contending with more than one pandemic right now. Even before COVID took hold at the beginning of the year, we were already facing pandemics of inequality and xenophobia and pollution — pandemics that are even more pernicious than the virus over the long run. He argues that these pandemics have been largely exacerbated by the virus and its subsequent retrenchments and lockdowns.
The new essay offers a clear, coherent, and emotionally resonant framework for addressing all of the interlocking crises of the moment.
As we consider the news — radical rises in global hunger amidst economic retrenchment, homeless people with no place to go, migrants trapped in resettlement camps that are hotbeds for virus transmission, climate-driven storms and wildfires, increasingly vicious authoritarian politics, and rhetoric of apathy and exclusion — it’s clear that we need more than piecemeal policy change.
“In today’s world, the sense of belonging to a single human family is fading, and the dream of working together for justice and peace seems an outdated utopia.”
Pope Francis writes: “What reigns instead is a cool, comfortable and globalized indifference, born of deep disillusionment concealed behind a deceptive illusion: thinking that we are all-powerful, while failing to realize that we are all in the same boat.” He contends that: “Isolation and withdrawal into one’s own interests are never the way to restore hope and bring about renewal. Rather, it is closeness; it is the culture of encounter.”
This “encounter” of which Pope Francis speaks has both personal and political dimensions. He writes that building a “‘culture of encounter’ means that we, as a people, should be passionate about meeting others, seeking points of contact, building bridges, planning a project that includes everyone.” It’s also about the deeper work of truly meeting other people, through deep and careful listening, through a rethinking of assumptions about hierarchies and separate identities.
For many years, I’ve been thinking about the question of how to restore “the sense of belonging to a single human family.”
I’m currently working on a book on how we, as a human family, can awaken our Right to Belong.
For me, this means building a world where we can all be ‘at home’ in the social, environmental, organizational, and cultural contexts of our lives. It means building societies where every person plays a part, and where every part is valued and supported. It means building societies where everyone can understand not only their entitlements and prerogatives but also their responsibilities to one another. It’s the fulfillment of what is written in Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that: “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of one’s personality is possible.”
As I consider the current situation, I see that this belonging is essential to our resilience. If we construct our political, economic, and social systems on principles of belonging, then, we’re better equipped to meet crises. Our systems for the provision of food and medical care are founded on principles of access rather than profit. If we cultivate the sense of belonging to one another and to the lands of which we live, then we may be able to change the way we interact with our economies and ecosystems such that we can prevent new pandemics in the first place.
Pope Francis’s new Encyclical supports this vision exquisitely. He writes about how we need to cultivate this kind of shared belonging both within and between societies. For example, he describes how people with disabilities and older people often live as what he calls “hidden exiles…treated as foreign bodies in society.” Many, he writes, “feel that they exist without belonging and without participating.”
The answer, he contends, is not just to care for people, but to “ensure their active participation” in the community.
At the broader level of global society, Pope Francis decries the rise of a homogenized worldwide cultural system, wherein people feel that all need to assimilate by learning the English language, consuming the same media, participating in the same kinds of consumerist economic systems. “Just as there can be no dialogue with “others” without a sense of our own identity,” he writes, “so there can be no openness between peoples except on the basis of love for one’s own land, one’s own people, one’s own cultural roots. I cannot truly encounter another unless I stand on firm foundations, for it is on the basis of these that I can accept the gift the other brings and in turn offer an authentic gift of my own.”
He summarizes both what’s required of us and what’s possible for us:
“Working to overcome our divisions without losing our identity as individuals presumes that a basic sense of belonging is present in everyone.”
Preserving the rich social and cultural tapestry of humanity is, in fact, necessary for saving our people and planet in this moment. The solution isn’t domination, but, rather, respect.
If there’s one vital core element to the work of building belonging, it’s reciprocity. It’s knowledge of the fact that we all truly need each other in order to survive and thrive. In my forthcoming book, I work to illustrate how this truth of reciprocity can be a lodestar as we seek to restore our wholeness.
Pope Francis underscores that the antithesis of this reciprocity is belief in extreme individualism — that each of us can go it alone. “Individualism does not make us more free, more equal, more fraternal,” he writes. “The mere sum of individual interests is not capable of generating a better world for the whole human family.”
For all the challenges we’re facing, there’s reason for hope. We know the answers to the current predicaments.
It’s love, says Pope Francis, that “impels us towards universal communion. No one can mature or find fulfilment by withdrawing from others.”
“By its very nature, love calls for growth in openness and the ability to accept others as part of a continuing adventure that makes every periphery converge in a greater sense of mutual belonging.”