(This is the introduction to the forthcoming Paulist Press edition of Pope Francis's new encyclical, "Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship.”)
In Chapter 12 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, 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 addressed his followers and “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.
I caution that the document 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 Covid (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” in which 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” and 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.
This is a quintessential Pope Francis document. The pope dedicates it to his namesake Francis at whose tomb he celebrated Mass the day before its publication date, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. The Vatican “rollout” of the encyclical at noon on the feast itself was marked by a prior meeting with the Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin and the Muslim leader of the joint commission established after the pope’s visit to Abu-Dhabi in February 2019. This is “Vatican-speak” to say that this is “a big deal.”
Where in his previous encyclical “Laudato Si On Caring for our Common Home” (also inspired by St. Francis) the pope acknowledges the influence of Patriarch Bartholomew on his thinking so here 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 always reveal many things at the time and have lasting import. The very same is true of this 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. This fulsome document is written in an invitational rhetorical style. But be prepared for an unremitting invitation to nothing less than a conversion of life in light of the pope’s astute assessment of the brokenness and polarization of the world today. This includes the scandal of rampant and 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 as a not so subtle reminder that he did not invent these Catholic positions but 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. But it is like a precise medical diagnosis which then lead to treatment and as close to a cure as we -- brothers and sisters all -- can come.
Two lenses on the world. My sense is that Laudato Si and Fratelli tutti are not your “typical” papal encyclicals. By that I mean that they are both addressed to men and women of all faiths and places (not only Catholics or the hierarchy) and they both offer a way to look at our world and at life itself. These documents are not about “in house” theological “fine tuning.” These are documents that 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 needed now.
Countercultural. In the first weeks when Covid 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. By saying “we are in this together” the politician wanted to raise us up to be our best selves and in effect to be “the good Samaritan” to each other. Many welcomed the insight and challenge. Many resented it and defended themselves by using “I,” “me,” and “my” pronouns. This document is about the plural pronouns – “we,” “our,” and “us” as we belong to our own religions, among the world’s religions and all on our common home.
This profound encyclical can change minds and hearts and be one avenue to do nothing less than “renew the face of the earth.”
Do not “take and read.” “Take and pray.”
(Msgr. Kevin Irwin serves as a research professor at The Catholic University of America. Here is the link to the Vatican website's English translation of Pope Francis's new encyclical: