One of Pope Francis’s top advisers said that the pontiff sees the current world situation comparable to that of the Cuban missile crisis, World War II, or 9/11 – and that to fully understand the papal encyclical released on Sunday, it’s necessary to acknowledge “we’re on the brink.”
“Depending on your age, what was it like to hear Pius XII deliver his Christmas messages during World War II?” said Cardinal Michael Czerny on Monday. “Or how did it feel when Pope John XXIII published Pacem in Terris? Or after the 2007/2008 crisis, or after 9/11? I think you need to recover that feeling in your stomach, in your whole being, to appreciate Fratelli Tutti.”
“I think Pope Francis feels today the world needs a message comparable to what we needed during the Cuban missile crisis, or World War II or 9/11 or the big crash of 2007/2008,” he said. “We’re on the brink. We need to pull back in a very human, worldwide and local way. I think that’s one way to get into Fratelli Tutti.”
Fratelli Tutti is the encyclical the Argentine pope released on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, after signing it the previous day in the Italian town where the Franciscan saint lived most of his life.
According to the cardinal, if Pope Francis’s previous encyclical, Laudato Si’, on the care of creation, “taught us that everything is connected, Fratelli tutti teaches us that everyone is connected.”
“If we take responsibility for our common home and for our brothers and sisters, then I think that we do have a good chance, and my hope is re-kindled and inspired to keep on going and do more,” he said.
Czerny, head of the Vatican’s migrants and refugees section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, made his comments during a “Dahlgren Dialogue” session organized online by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life of Georgetown University.
The prelate said that Fratelli Tutti “brings some big questions and brings them home to each of us,” with the pontiff attacking a theory that most subscribe to without realizing they’re doing so: “We believe to be self-made, without recognizing God as our creator; we’re prosperous, we believe we deserve everything that we have and consume; and we’re orphans, disconnected, totally free, and actually alone.”
Even though Francis doesn’t actually use the image he developed, Czerny said it helps him to understand what the encyclical is pushing against, to then focus on what the encyclical is leading readers towards: “The truth, and that’s the opposite to being self-made prosperous orphans.”
The Czechoslovakian-born Canadian cardinal was accompanied by Sister Nancy Schreck, former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious; Edith Avila Olea, an immigrant advocate in Chicago and is a board member of Bread for the World; and Claire Giangravé, the Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service (and former Crux culture correspondent).
“Many people today have a loss of hope and are afraid because there’s so much collapse, and the dominant culture tells us to work harder, work harder, do much of the same,” said Schreck. “What’s so delightful for me in this letter is that Pope Francis provides us with an alternative way to look into what’s going on in our lives, and that something new can emerge in this moment.”
The religious also said that Fratelli Tutti is an invitation to see one another as a “neighbor, as a friend, to build relationships,” particularly needed at a time when the world feels so politically divided, as it helps heal the divide.
As a Franciscan, she gave the example of St. Francis visiting the Muslim Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil during the Crusades, back when the “dominant thought was to kill the other.”
To put it in a “very short” version, she said the order the saint gave those who accompanied him was to not talk but to listen. After their meeting, “they came away with a relationship with each other,” and the saint went back to Assisi and incorporated into his life and that of the Franciscan family some small elements of Islam, like the call to prayer.
“The key from that is that we might go to the person who we perceive as an enemy or that our culture calls our enemy, and we might be able to build a relationship, and we see that in every element of Fratelli Tutti,” Schreck said.
She also said that the “genius” part of Fratelli Tutti in terms of the economy is “who is my neighbor, and how do I treat those who are cast aside by a system that generates people who are poor.”
“In many parts of the world, our current financial model is in the benefit of a few and the exclusion or destruction of the many,” Schreck said. “I think that we have to keep building bonds of relationship between those who have resources and those who don’t. It’s relationships what guide our thinking: We can have abstract economic theories, but they start to take hold when we see the impact that they have on people.”
Czerny argued that it’s not the role of Church leaders, not even the pope, to “tell us how to run our economy or our politics.” However, the pope can guide the world towards certain values, and this is what the pope does in his latest encyclical, issuing a reminder that the economy cannot be in the driver’s seat of politics.
Avila shared her vision as a “DREAMER,” who moved with her family to the United States when she was 8 months old.
“As an immigrant I’m in a unique place, because I can’t avoid the hardship,” she said. “I live with the uncertainty, with the constant anti-immigrant rhetoric that we hear in the media and social media, I live with the nightmares that I get from the constant threat. I don’t get to clock away.”
Yet, for her, Fratelli Tutti was “an invitation to rest, an invitation to continue with hope, to remember that the cross is extremely hard, but that there is a Resurrection.”
Avila said that as a Catholic, she saw Francis’s encyclical as an invitation to contribute to society and make it better.
She also felt that Pope Francis was talking to her as an immigrant: “Growing up in a mix status family, you’re given challenges that are not easy to navigate or comprehend. I was touched because I felt very listened to, because even though our church is here and far away from the Vatican, I felt like my pain and our suffering as an immigrant community in the U.S. is not in vain and it’s being heard.”
Giangravé said as a journalist one can become “a bit cynical, you learn more and that can make you lose hope to some of the ambitious dreams you had as a kid – when I was in university – about what kind of world Catholics, but everyone, from every religion, could build together. I remember conversations in cafes with people my age talking about borders and property and the right of every individual human being, and how religions could come together and how we could really have a dialogue and politics that reflected the interests of the most vulnerable, the poor.”
For her, it was “fun” to feel something that Pope Francis often said, but she’d never experienced: “Old people dream, and young people do.”
“The old people that I know weren’t really dreaming that much, they seem very busy reminiscing or thinking about a time that is gone,” Giangravé said. “But Pope Francis dreamed in this encyclical, and it made me as a young person, and many other young people, feel inspired, and maybe naïve, but excited about things not having to be this way in the world.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma