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Diplomacy Francis-Style: Global Governance as Encounter

By: Drew Christiansen

April 4, 2022

The Culture of Encounter and Global Governance

One curious event in recent papal diplomacy was Pope Francis’ shared prayer with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents, Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, in June 2014 in the Vatican Gardens. Neither was a practicing believer. But this did not discourage the pope, who had grown up in a squabbling extended family of Italian immigrants to Argentina. His boyhood experience of quarrels among relatives who nonetheless hung together imbued him with a practical faith in the capacity of rivals to come together in “reconciled diversity” when they truly encounter one another.

When Francis proposes global governance as a response to global crises, as he did in his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti, governance should not be seen as a matter simply of new or expanded international institutions. Rather, it must be understood as the fruit of “a culture of encounter” where the participants have learned the skills – what the ancients called “virtues” – that smooth the way for respectful encounter between persons, and ultimately lead to reconciled diversity.

In our hyper-competitive society, however, fraught with contending sects of aggrieved victims modeling their lives on the domineering behavior of alpha males and females, these gentle virtues are increasingly lacking. With individuals and nations self-centered, self-aggrandizing, and often deluded, hard bargaining, police power, and even limited and justified war will be necessary. We shall continue to verify even as we trust. While after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it may seem unimaginable, the gentle virtues have the capacity to nourish a global diplomacy of the common good.

The Gentle Virtues

The gentle virtues invite mutual openness and solicitude leading to interpersonal communion and reconciled diversity. They embrace qualities like hospitality, receptivity, listening, attentiveness, appreciation, kindness, reverence, self-effacement, and service. Pope Francis has celebrated two more: mercy and tenderness. These are skills that enable men and women to encounter one another as persons endowed with God-given dignity. Informed by the gentle virtues, diplomacy will be more frequent and more fruitful. Cooperative institutions will have a better chance of success; new institutions in service of the common good will garner more support and meet less resistance; and marginalized minorities will be able to enjoy self-government and join as equals in global governance.


What does it take to encounter another? First, encounter is a matter of openness, the willingness to welcome the other and make space in one’s life and even one’s home for a stranger. I think of my grandparents, who in Italian peasant fashion always prepared enough food for dinner so there would be servings remaining for unexpected guests.

Hospitality. Opening one’s home and sharing a table with strangers is the archetype of hospitality. Hospitality, however, can be manifest in many ways: in warm greetings, willingness to spend time with those we barely know, and the readiness to share one’s thoughts, feelings, and life experience. These behaviors put others at ease; they token goodwill and invite people into relationship.

Receptivity. Receptivity refers to deeper openness, accepting the other as one like myself but also a stranger with different experience, culture, and values. It also expresses a willingness to receive what the other has to give, whether it is a material gift, a different perspective, or an unfamiliar talent.

Listening leads to a deeper relationship. It implies readiness to wait to hear what is really on another’s mind or in their heart. It is a readiness to hear others’ stories, give them space to sit in silence, even express strong feelings.

Attentiveness allows others to reveal themselves, knowing their revelations will be treated with care.

Appreciation consists in valuing others and what they have to give and esteeming their differences with us as things of value.

Embracing the Other

Appreciation is the threshold to a further stage of encounter, embracing the other as other, as different than we are and equally worthy. I think of Christian De Chergé, the martyred prior of the Trappist priory in Thiberine, Algeria. During a night vigil he found himself accompanied by a mysterious Muslim stranger. All night long, they prayed together, alternating the prayers of both traditions. That night De Clergé discovered his vocation to Christian-Muslim reconciliation.

Embracing others in their differences is the hardest part of Pope Francis’ teaching on encounter. It brings relationships beyond mere friendliness. It is fostered by deeds of kindness, where we treat the others with the instinctive care we have for our own kin, and by mutuality of life, including self-effacing service of the other. Embracing the other-as-other also entails reverence. Deeper than respect, which holds back from harming the other, reverence “keeps its distance even as it draws near.”

When we embrace others in their differences, then we become capable of reaching reconciled diversity. For Francis, the Church, where the Gospel is enculturated in various ways, is an image of this reconciled diversity. For in the Catholic Church, the Roman church is only one of 24 churches rooted in different cultures, with disparate languages and rituals.

Antidote and Promise

A culture of encounter can grow out of creative cells within society and the work of normative entrepreneurs, but to make progress, it must become a culture shared by all sectors of society. While elites may contribute significantly, encounter cannot remain an elite matter and succeed. As Pope Francis has argued, it must take root in popular movements, in the lives of ordinary people as well. The poison fruit of populist nationalism is an object lesson in how global integration withers when it does not grow in the common soil of the gentle virtues.

A culture of encounter is an antidote to the collective selfishness that prevents us from meeting the global challenges of the times: pandemics, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and migrant flows. The gentle virtues hold the promise of reconciling diversity in service to the universal common good.