For any Christian with an affinity for St. Francis of Assisi, having the first pope to take the name Francis issue a papal encyclical at the tomb of St. Francis, on the vigil of the Feast of St. Francis, is enough to make you downright giddy.
Pope Francis’ second encyclical, Fratelli Tutti — All Brothers — was released Sunday. It preaches eloquently on “fraternity and social friendship.” It is a beautiful document that “calls for a love that transcends the barriers of geography and distance, and declares blessed all those who love their brother.”
But, beautiful as it is, this document by the pop icon pope is not an easy pill to swallow in America.
Pope Francis addresses the letter to all people, in all lands. But, it is hard to not hear him speaking to our land of excess and inequality when he admonishes us to emulate his namesake, who “sowed seeds of peace and walked alongside the poor, the abandoned, the infirm and the outcast, the least of his brothers and sisters.”
It calls us to aspire to the footsteps of a saint with an “openness of heart, which knew no bounds and transcended differences of origin, nationality, colour or religion,” who did not draw distinctions based on doctrine, but “simply spread the love of God.”
The pope calls all people — not just Catholics, or Christians, for that matter — to this kind of selfless cooperation and love. And, he pulls no punches in pointing out where it is lacking.
Francis decries world response to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in America, as fragmented and partisan.
He goes directly after the unbridled capitalism on which America prides itself, writing “The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem,” and “this impoverished and repetitive school of thought always offers the same recipes … the magic theories of ‘spillover’ or ‘trickle’ — without using the name.”
He takes direct aim at the United States — in present and past administrations — as well as our wealthy European Union peers, in his section titled “An Absence of Human Dignity on the Borders.”
Likewise, he calls out growing wealth inequality in western countries — principally the United States — saying “the gap between concern for one’s personal well-being and the prosperity of the larger human family seems to be stretching to the point of complete division between individuals and human community.”
He reinforces his call for an end to the death penalty, and humane treatment and equality of opportunity, love and compassion for people of all classes — adding integrity to a sanctity of life argument that does not end at birth.
The pope goes directly after nationalism, as exemplified in post-2016 America, when he writes, “The true worth of the different countries of our world is measured by their ability to think not simply as a country, but also as part of the larger human family.”
Finally, to drive home the difference between how we are living, and how we are called to live, Pope Francis reflects on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and asks world leaders, and the nations they lead, “Which of these characters do you identify with?”
“This question, blunt as it is, is direct and incisive,” he continues. “Which of these characters do you resemble?”
The editors of America Magazine came to the uncomfortable truth, when they answered the pope’s question: “If the United States were to answer the question honestly, it would be filled with contrition.”
For a country that, especially in its more conservative corners, likes to style itself a Christian nation, Pope Francis’ encyclical points out the undeniable hypocrisy between preaching the path of peace, justice and love to which Christians — and adherents of every world faith — are called, and the realities of a society founded on inequality, perpetuated by greed and stained by the cancers of hate and fear.
In a country in which the mighty are above the law, in which selfish pride is the law of the land, in which the humble are crushed beneath the weight of our greed, the hungry are forgotten and the rich are worshiped, Pope Francis’ encyclical calls us to heed the words of Mary, in Luke 1 — Mary’s song, in which she praises God, who “has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”
Fratelli Tutti is every bit as radical and counter-cultural as Mary’s Magnificat. It is every bit as radical as the Gospel of a Messiah who separates the sheep and goats, based on how they treated “the least of these.” It is a searing image of what America willfully is not. It is a beautiful image of what America could, and should, become.