An emerging, dominant theme of this pontificate is the word “encounter.” Pope Francis uses it repeatedly, urging Catholics to go out to the peripheries, especially to the poor and the marginalized, and encounter other persons.
Among other things, this emphasis on encounter shows the new pope’s deep indebtedness to Don Luigi Giussani, the founder of Communione e Liberazione. Encounter is a central theme of his writings and a central charism of the movement he started.
What is meant by this phrase? It is no mere pop psychology term, but touches the deepest part of the Christian vocation. The capacity to encounter is about the Christian’s stance towards the world and especially towards other persons, the ability, achieved through grace, to stand towards the world as Christ stood towards the world. In his recent video talk to his fellow Argentines on the occasion of the Feast of San Cayetano, the Pope concluded with these words, which give a precise example of what encounter is all about:
Thank you for listening, thank you for coming here today, thank you for everything you carry in your hearts. Jesus loves you very much! San Cayetano loves you very much! We ask only one thing: that you reach out! And that you go and seek out and encounter the most needy! But not alone, no. With Jesus and San Cayetano! Does this mean going to convince someone to become became Catholic? No, no, no! You are just reaching out to meet him, he is your brother! That is enough. You reach out to help them, the rest is done by Jesus, by the Holy Spirit. Remember well: with San Cayetano, we need we encounter the neediest. With Jesus, we who are in need, we reach out to those who are even more in need. And maybe Jesus will show us the path to meet with those who need it most.
When you meet those most in need, your heart will begin to grow bigger, bigger and bigger! Because reaching out multiplies our capacity to love. An encounter with others makes our heart bigger. Take courage! "I don't know what to do on my own". No, no, no! With Jesus and San Cayetano! May God bless you and may this feast day of St Cajetan end well. And please, do not forget to pray for me. Thank you.
“That is enough.” Sadly, for too many priests and prelates and lay Catholic commentators, reaching out to our brothers has not been enough. They have reduced Catholicism to a checklist, and the key to being a good Christian is measured by the degree to which one assents to each item on the list. For our conservative Catholic friends, the most important items on the checklist are those that cohere with the platform of the Republican Party. For some of our liberal friends, a different checklist is key. In any event, being Christian is reduced to abiding by rules. But, Pope Francis is asking Catholics to consider what the Jewish philosopher – I had almost written poet – Levinas meant when he wrote of “moral challenge posed by the face of another.”
Levinas’ use of the word “moral” is key. We tend to think of morality as an assessment of different acts: “In my thoughts, and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do.” Levinas is speaking to a deeper sense of the moral life, to what precedes an assessment of acts, to that spiritual freedom which permits us to encounter another without forcing upon him our pre-conceived ideas, which are only so many chains with which to bind him. Or, as Cardinal O’Malley said in his speech to the Knights of Columbus, “The truth is not a wet rag that we throw in someone’s face.” I have written about conscience many times in this blog. This is conscience at its deepest point, the point at which we define the “I” with which we begin the Confiteor. “I confess to Almighty God….” That “I” is the issue when the issue is encounter. A genuine, Christian stance of encounter minimizes the “I” and leaves room for the Spirit to speak and act through us, it opens both ourselves and the other up to the eternal in the present.
Pope Francis is clear that we do not encounter another alone - there is no autonomous self here! - we encounter him with Christ and San Cayetano! The pope makes clear that there is no spiritual pride to be had here: Everything is accomplished through Christ. We are not the new wine to be poured, we are the glass and like any good glass, our job is to be clean and transparent. We do not make the wine. We do not pour the wine. We are not the wine. We are the glass. But, how great is the Christian vocation to be a glass into which Christ pours His new wine! And, without us, the wine ends up on the floor. God does not need us in the abstract. But, He needs us here and now to bring Christ to others, not in an overbearing way – “ Does this mean going to convince someone to become became Catholic? No, no, no!” – but because our stance towards the world is so informed, at such a basic level, by the spiritual freedom of the Gospels, that we can encounter others in such a way that the proposal of the Gospels, the invitation of Jesus to follow Him, the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit, and all the truths of the Catholic faith, these are there, available, manifest in our love, in our capacity for encounter.
How different Pope Francis’ approach is from that of the culture warriors! They have reduced the faith first to morality and, thence, to legalisms. They recite the Creed, which mentions nothing about any “non-negotiable” items and it does not dawn on them that the Christian faith is about a person, not an agenda. The culture warriors come with an agenda, a very detailed and clear agenda, and the capacity for encounter is not on the list. Encounter can’t be on a list.
There is nothing programmatic about Pope Francis’ call. We surrender ourselves to Christ and let Christ do the rest. How it will turn out is anybody’s guess. But, success is not a name of God, as Balthasar used to say, and therefore it is not a Christian category. Unfortunately, I wonder how many prelates have the ears to hear what Pope Francis is saying, and not only prelates. There are plenty of lay Catholics who have their agendas for the Church at the ready and wish to see if Francis conforms. But, this is not about us conforming ourselves to Francis, still less about him conforming to us. It is about all of us conforming ourselves to Christ. That takes a fascinating admixture of openness and commitment, of freedom and obedience. It is the adventure of discipleship. It is the grace of encounter.