Archbishop George J. Lucas meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican Jan. 16 during his “ad limina apostolorum” pilgrimage to Rome, Jan. 12-18, 2020.

Shepherd's Voice

Archbishop Lucas: Love of neighbor the focus of pope’s new encyclical

In this week’s discussion, Archbishop George J. Lucas and communications manager David Hazen discuss the basic themes in Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti.” Early in the encyclical, the Holy Father reminds us of the parable of the Good Samaritan and invites us to enter into it. The central truth of the encyclical, the archbishop teaches, is that each person is created in the image and likeness of God and has, therefore, a transcendent dignity – a dignity we are called to recognize and uphold.

Q: As you have reflected on Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” what has struck you as most significant?

The subtitle is “On Fraternity and Social Friendship.” Those two themes help us understand what the pope is offering. He addresses a number of the challenges that we face in the world today in trying to see each other as brothers and sisters.

Early in the encyclical, he reminds us of the parable of the Good Samaritan, the teaching of Jesus in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus gives this beautiful and powerful parable, and the pope invites us to find ourselves in it. It begins with the poor man already beaten, lying on the side of the road. A couple of those who would have been well-respected in the community one by one pass by. We don’t know what was on their minds, where they were headed, what their responsibilities were. We don’t know whether they noticed him very much or not. But then along comes somebody – the audience of Jesus, when he first spoke the parable, wouldn’t have expected this person to be much of any good to anybody – a Samaritan. But the Samaritan noticed the man and stopped and extended himself for his care, this one who was lying injured on the side of the road.

The Holy Father asks in his own way, “Are you one of the people that’s going by or are you stopping?” It’s that simple in his mind. Going by or stopping for whom? Well, for those who are very near to us. The Holy Father has noticed and invites us to notice those who are wounded, who are within our sphere of activity and influence.

The central truth of the encyclical and the truth that he wants us to see again and to accept is that each person is created in the image and likeness of God and has, therefore, a transcendent dignity.

He is not coming from a sort of bland piety, saying that we should all just be nice and sweet to each other. He clearly understands the challenges that we are up against. At the same time, he knows and wants us to know we cannot think this present situation is the best we can do. In politics, or within the family, or among races, or among cultural groups, or among language groups we cannot settle for a lack of respect or for divisions that encourage or foment violence against the other.

Q: This encyclical comes at a time when it seems people are increasingly retreating into the sort of divisions you mention. The public discourse can often encourage this sort of polarization, as do the algorithms of social media. It is not easy or “safe” to engage in real dialogue. But if we in the Church do not, who else is going to come in and take up that call?

The Holy Father is telling us, we really don’t have a choice. If we are disciples of Jesus Christ, then we take his teaching and his example seriously. And we take his life as a pattern for our own lives. And we take from the power of his death and resurrection the strength to commit ourselves to it and believe that we can become more perfectly conformed to him. We can’t be absolutely perfect, but I think the pope would want us to think, each of us, I can do better. I can do better at this in the place where I have an influence. I can’t change the whole world. And neither can you. But the divisions that are being experienced around the country and across the world, we do experience them in our own society. These days you hear in so many (places) – it’s either family gatherings, or even groups of old friends – we can’t talk about politics. We can’t talk about this, that or the other thing.

I’m not sure what that means. What do we talk about? But as the pope introduces the concept of social friendship, he’s inviting us, as the parable encourages, first to notice the person who’s wounded nearby and then be open to entering into a relationship that allows that person to be himself or herself and where I’m myself. It’s not bland, just all blending together, thinking the differences aren’t different, or they’re not challenging, but that an important part of entering into relationships with others is listening – to allow another person to share his own experiences, to share his or her own perspective, to let that person talk about their dreams, their hopes, their fears.

Simple tolerance is easier, but the Holy Father is calling us beyond that to really create the bonds of social friendship within the human family. Again, we can do that in perhaps a romantic way, thinking of people halfway across the world, that we don’t have to deal with day by day. But there are those in our own neighborhoods, in our community, certainly in our own cities and towns from whom it’s easy enough to be estranged, against whom it’s easy enough to pass judgment. That help makes me think that that person is other than me in a way that really means less, that they’re less than I am, which violates this truth, that they have a transcendent dignity that God has given them. I don’t assign it to them, and it doesn’t depend on other social criteria.

Q: The word that comes to mind is reverence. The things of God demand reverence from those who would love him, and that is the opposite of violence or utility. Tolerance is how we treat something painful or annoying. But a person is to be respected, not merely tolerated.

And particularly where someone is hurting. I think that’s why the Holy Father chooses the parable. There is somebody there who has been injured. It may not be possible for me to fix it, but is it possible for me to come close to that man or woman, and reflect back to them the dignity that they have as a son or daughter of God?

There can be the beginning of what the pope calls a social friendship. We might not ever be the best of pals, but we glimpse each other at this basic level of human dignity. And then a bond is created, and the beginning of a trust that I can be myself in your presence, that you can be yourself in my presence. And although neither of us is perfect, but we do, in an imperfect way, but in a true way, reflect the imprint of our Divine Creator.

Reading this encyclical is a beginning. I really think we ought to try to take it to heart and be open to what the Holy Father is teaching.

We should look around where there is hurt and division in our family, in our neighborhood. Look at the person who, perhaps, is wounded or angry and ask ourselves who is that person to me. The Holy Father would give us the answer: “That is my brother. That is my sister.”

The question came to Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer is: many more people than you think. “How should I act toward my enemy?” Love your enemy; pray for your enemy. “Really?” Yes, really! This is what the Lord is asking of us if we really want to be his disciples. We can’t live up to it perfectly, but that’s not an excuse to keep from taking a step.

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