WASHINGTON, D.C. — The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has underscored the need for and the many ways in which dialogue and understanding are essential for humankind, Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington and Bishop John E. Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, said Feb. 5.
They made the comments in an online dialogue for the Roundtable Association of Catholic Diocesan Social Action Directors about Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship, Pope Francis’ recent encyclical.
Gregory and Stowe touched on the need for genuine dialogue — including teaching people the true meaning of the term — as a way of healing social ills.
As Pope Francis said in his introduction to the encyclical, intended originally to focus on interreligious dialogue, the COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly erupted, “exposing our false securities.”
“Aside from the different ways that various countries responded to the crisis, their inability to work together became quite evident,” the pope continued.
“For all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all,” he wrote. “Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.”
Stowe noted the encyclical was signed by Pope Francis just a month before the United States held “one of the most bizarre presidential elections,” highlighting the great need for new kinds of dialogue in society, for a new kind of politics that focuses on the common good and the dignity of all human beings, “reminding us that we are required to love our neighbor.”
In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis said the worldwide tragedy of the pandemic “momentarily revived the sense that we are a global community, all in the same boat, where one person’s problems are the problems of all.”
Gregory said this unique moment “has affected every area of our lives,” from physical health to emotional, economic and spiritual health. “Our health as a local and nationwide community is greatly impacted.”
“One of the most humbling aspects of the pandemic has been witnessing the many men and women of our church who are committed to lifting up and working side by side with those in need,” he said. “Their commitment to advocacy work and dialogue is at the center of this vital outreach to help maintain stability at a time it is needed most.”
Catholic social teaching “has been on full display in a most powerful way as a tremendous, tangible blessing for so many who do not how they were going to survive. It is through consistent dialogue that we will continue to reach out and readily respond as needed.”
Gregory and Stowe described how both their dioceses struggle at times with great cultural, political, economic and racial diversity.
But they said the Catholics of Lexington and Washington again and again have risen above differences, finding common ground through faith-based efforts to assist those in need and to understand each other.
Such progress depends on true dialogue, in which participants listen to each other “as much, if not more than we speak,” said Gregory. “When we enter into dialogue with someone we are opening ourselves to a relationship … we open ourselves up to the possibility of a mutually beneficial exchange.”
Good dialogue is characterized by a “deliberately listening with a genuine curiosity to understand,” he said, not just listening superficially while planning how to persuade the other person to one’s point of view.
Fratelli Tutti is intended to help people conduct dialogue through the lenses of compassion, mercy and recognition of each person’s human dignity, said Gregory.
Stowe said he has been profoundly struck by recognizing that “we don’t have many opportunities where we’re taught how to dialogue. We want to convince somebody of our opinion, we’re thinking ahead to how we’re going to convince them.”
His diocese has stark demographic contrasts, he said, with a politically “blue” base city of Lexington and very “red,” mostly rural communities and extreme Appalachian poverty as well as great wealth in some pockets, he said. The diocesan pastoral plan focuses on recognizing differences and what the diverse communities of Kentucky contribute, he said.
He gave an example of a parish that was successful in “changing hearts” around immigration issues by simply bringing parishioners together in small groups with immigrants to hear their stories. “It was a whole lot more difficult to be anti-immigrant once they knew them,” he said.
Gregory noted that Pope Francis refers in Fratelli Tutti to racism as a virus, which mutates and goes underground, lurking in waiting to resurface in new forms. The attention to racism that arose in the last year has made some people feel as though nothing has changed since the days of the civil rights movement of the 20th century.
“That is not the case,” he said. One of the “enduring gifts of this moment — and let’s face it, we have to look hard for enduring gifts — is that the issue of racism has captured the minds and hearts of people.”
A lesson for moving ahead from the protests and other actions of the last year is that hearts need to be changed, Cardinal Gregory said, noting that racism is not a problem that has an “add water and stir” simple solution.
For example, he said, the dismantling of statues and monuments to people who are representative of racist history “may be very important for society, but if we don’t change hearts, all we’ve done is dismantle a granite statue and the virus of racism simply lingers and endures in the human heart.”
Zapor is on the staff of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.