In what may be the most important speech for understanding his approach to Christian service, Pope Francis instructed Catholic leaders that the “ability to see yourselves in the faces of others, this daily proximity to their share of troubles and their little acts of heroism: this is what enables you to practice the commandment of love, not on the basis of ideas or concepts, but rather on the basis of genuine interpersonal encounter.”
“We do not love concepts or ideas,” the pope said. “We love people.”
Crux’s Inés San Martín is correct in saying, “The key to Francis, therefore, may be to understand that ideas are less fundamental for him than people.”
When visitors such as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., used to visit Buenos Aires when Francis was archbishop, they were not taken to the finest museums and most exciting tourist attractions, but to the slums.
Francis wanted them to see the reality of how people lived. He consistently enters into the lives of those who are often ignored by those of us in more affluent circles. This focus shaped his worldview and understanding of reality.
This focus on people rather than theoretical ideas or frameworks is a departure from his immediate predecessors, who dedicated more of their time to precisely this type of intellectual work. Pope Benedict XVI is widely regarded as a brilliant theologian. Pope John Paul II’s philosophical writings are admired by many.
Both made significant contributions to further articulating the worldview that animates Catholic moral and social teaching.
Yet it would be a mistake to argue that Francis represents a break from this personalist communitarian worldview. Instead, Francis’s person-centric approach might best be described as a lived personalism, in which the fundamental truths about the worth, dignity, and equality of human persons, as well as the nature of human flourishing and our responsibilities toward the common good, are best revealed by interacting with everyday people.
As I traveled across Guatemala and Honduras with other Catholic Relief Services Egan Fellows last month, meeting people from various walks of life, I was struck by the fundamental truths of personalism that underpin Catholic teaching. These theoretical truths became concrete in human persons whom we encountered.
The people I was meeting seemed, in many ways, like countless others I had met throughout my life. They loved their families. They wanted to work to provide for them and make a contribution to their communities. They had hopes and aspirations for the future.
They were, in a word, normal. Cultures vary, traditions differ, but there is a baseline human nature that underpins the fundamental unity of humanity and our equality as persons.
In Guatemala, I met a young woman who studied to become a teacher, but, lacking government connections, has been unable to secure a teaching job, despite looking for around three years and traveling across the country seeking opportunities. Many Americans would have little trouble understanding her sense of vocation and frustration in the face of systemic injustice.
I met a young man who had just completed a Catholic Relief Services program on “cupping” to improve the cultivation of coffee and dreams of studying agriculture in the US and returning home so that he can help his family achieve more economic stability.
I saw a remarkable young woman, Angelita, whose charisma, poise, and discipline reminded me of the valedictorians and school presidents you might see at an American high school.
I met a recently deported man, who had spent over a decade in the US and intended to make the journey to the US again, to reunite with his daughter. You could see the pain of the separation in his eyes. We are not that different. And that matters.
At the same time, personalism holds that each person is entirely unique. Each person is irreplaceable because of the place they occupy in the world of persons, in the network of relationships that surround his or her life.
We appreciate this when we think about the infinite worth of our loved ones, and I witnessed it in the tremendous sacrifices people were making for their family. But it also becomes glaring in their absence.
In Guatemala and Honduras, one common theme was people lamenting “family disintegration.” In Tegucigalpa, I spoke with a young woman at Casa Alianza—which provides shelter and assistance to homeless and at-risk young people—whose father had abandoned the family and mother migrated to Spain to provide the family with more economic security when she was 12.
She started using cocaine a week later. She is clean now and she understands her mother’s decision, but she is still hurt, wounded by her mother’s absence, barely able to veil her fragility and sadness.
Every story we heard was different, but they all mattered, because these people matter.
Meeting people and experiencing this commonality, as well as seeing how precious and valuable each person is, breaks down the myths that divide us. The depersonalization or dehumanization of others—the “othering” of others—breaks down when you meet people and realize that they are in many ways just like you. Their suffering becomes more intolerable. Their hopes become more reasonable or even inspiring.
The myth that the market always rewards the hard-working and prudent is exposed as an ideological delusion disconnected from reality. The portrayal of certain groups as inherently dangerous or lazy (or any other gross generalization) seems foolish. The idea that indifference to terrible injustice can be defended on legalistic or some other rationalistic grounds is harder to stomach.
Francis’s denunciations of a culture of indifference, and his exhortation that we say no “to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules, rather than service,” are more powerful when we think about the experiences of real people.
When you see talented young people whose opportunities are so limited; meet activists and journalists who fight for truth and justice in the face of threats; or talk to hard-working farmers who feel the government is indifferent to how precarious their position is, the status quo becomes intolerable.
It creates a desire to have our country, the wealthiest and most powerful in human history, provide assistance in efforts to break down these vicious cycles of poverty, violence, and corruption by doing what it can to increase transparency, strengthen civil society, improve security that protects people (not just members of the oligarchy), foster integral development, and reduce the pernicious influence of narcotraffickers and organized crime.
Addressing these problems is exceptionally difficult, a long-term project, and dependent on the actions of the people living in these countries in the Northern Triangle, but it is a humanitarian imperative, the only way to address the migration crisis that leads so many to make the dangerous trek north, and our responsibility since we have contributed to current conditions, notably through our illicit drug consumption.
Those fleeing to the US as migrants, meanwhile, are seen less as threats to one’s culture or jobs and more as regular people desperate to unite with loved ones, to keep themselves or their families safe, or to simply live in conditions that are compatible with human dignity. When we come to see these migrants as persons, it is easier to see the need for increased legal immigration and appropriate measures to ensure that no refugees fleeing violence are deported.
But even more than that, it reminds us of who we are as a people, as Christians and Americans. Catholic teaching calls for us to put people first. Pope Francis has shown us that this starts with a culture of encounter.
Robert Christian is the editor of Millennial, a PhD candidate in politics at The Catholic University of America, and a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies. He was awarded a 2016 Egan Journalism Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services to explore the root causes of migration.