Georgetown University Georgetown University Logo Berkley Center Berkley Center Logo

Pope Francis and the Images of Encounter

By: Paul Elie

April 4, 2022

The Culture of Encounter and the Catholic Church

The idea of encounter set out in Fratelli Tutti has its sources deep in the life of the church and in Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s personal journey, and one goal of our project is to uncover those sources. Here I’d like to consider a source close to the surface. Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has enacted a “culture of encounter” vividly and informally through his everyday dealings as pope. In doing so, he’s carried forward an image of the papacy that has emerged gradually but unmistakably since the 1960s, to the point where it’s no stretch to say that the practice of encounter is now at the root of what it means to be pope.

For much of its history, the Catholic Church has regarded the pope variously as Christ’s vicar on earth, as a spiritual monarch, as an infallible authority in matters of faith and morals, or as a guarantor of continuity with an apostolic tradition going back to Peter, the first pope. But it seems to me that the popes within living memory have made the papal office a means for the church to engage in acts of encounter, often by going out ahead of doctrine and tradition.

John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council in order to bring about the church’s long-delayed encounter with the modern world. The council fathers drew on sources of encounter that were in the midst of profound renewal: biblical studies and patristics, theological reflection on war and peace, and Catholics’ dealings with people of other faiths, for example. The council itself was a practical instantiation of encounter, as pope and bishops engaged with other Christian leaders (there as “observers”) in ways without precedent at the time. Through its documents, the council set going sustained Catholic encounters with other Christian bodies, with Jews and Judaism, and (to a lesser extent) with other religions. During the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, John modeled the encounter approach personally: departing from Pius XII’s aloof approach to diplomacy, he sent a message to both Washington and Moscow urging them – and enabling them – to step back from the brink; and the next spring he addressed the encyclical letter Pacem in Terris not just to Catholics but to all “men of good will.”

Paul VI moved the act of papal encounter out of the Vatican and Italy. We’re now so accustomed to papal journeys that it is hard to register the drama surrounding Paul’s October 1965 trip to New York City, where he knelt to kiss the tarmac at the airport, celebrated Mass for 80,000 people at Yankee Stadium, and addressed the United Nations. (“Never Before in This Country! One Day Only! The Pope in New York City!” is how Andy Warhol characterized it, appreciatively.) For centuries, people had gone to Rome to encounter the pope; now here was the pope coming out into the world–the New World–to encounter modern people on their home ground.

John Paul II extended that motif indelibly through 104 “apostolic journeys” to 129 countries. It’s said that more people saw John Paul with their own eyes–encountered him directly–than have seen any other figure in history. On those trips, the pope met local political and religious leaders–from the Orthodox Patriarch Dimitrios to the Solidarity activist Lech Walesa, from Mother Teresa of Calcutta to Fidel Castro to men afflicted with AIDS in San Francisco’s Mission district. That he met these people in their own lands–not just at the Vatican–was significant. John Paul also went to an Italian prison for a one-on-one encounter with Mehmet Ali Agca, who had shot and nearly killed him during an audience in St. Peter’s Square; the two men sat together in Ali Agca’s cell.

As I see it, John Paul’s trip to Assisi in October 1986 is the moment when the culture of encounter came into its own. John Paul had convened a gathering of figures from the world’s religions at Assisi, home of St. Francis, the saint known above all for peace and fraternity–the saint who sought personal encounters with pope and sultan on the one hand and birds and animals on the other. There for the first time in modern history–and in photographs transmitted around the world–stood the pope, dressed all in white, among other symbolically garbed religious figures, one among many, in a position of equality rather than sovereignty.

The popes have been protagonists in interreligious encounter ever since. Traditionalists are leery, out of a concern that the position diminishes the pope, soft-pedals the church’s message of salvation, and scants the profound differences among religions. And yet John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI–who, as Joseph Ratzinger, theologian and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had taken a firm line on the limits of Christian encounters with other religions–defied critics by sending messages of support to the annual Prayer for Peace, rooted in the Assisi encounter and carried forward by the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio at John Paul’s behest.

The message Benedict sent for the meeting’s twenty-fifth anniversary at Assisi in 2011 is a crucial one in the emerging culture of encounter. After greeting the religious leaders, citing “the new faces of violence” often associated with religion, and synopsizing the recent history of efforts for peace, the pope turned his attention to the people–so many in today’s world–who are suspended between belief and unbelief. “Such people do not simply assert ‘There is no God,’” he explained. “They suffer from his absence and yet are inwardly making their way towards Him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness. They are ‘pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace.’ They ask questions of both sides.” He went on: “... all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible.” Here–as in Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity (1968)–the life of faith is seen as a sustained mutual encounter of believer and unbeliever, who must venture forth together.

This is the decades-long papal working-out of a culture of encounter that Pope Francis has brought to the fore these past nine years, at once making encounter his own and making encounter a core aspect of the papal office.

Francis’s pontificate began at the Paul VI guesthouse on via della Scrofa in Rome, where he surprised the staff by showing up personally to pay the bill for his stay during the conclave. The nine years since then can be seen as a series of personal encounters with others, whom Francis approaches as brothers and sisters–equals–and engages one on one and face to face, informally, without the aura of high drama that attended to so many of John Paul’s encounters.

The images are striking. On Holy Thursday, Francis kneels to wash the feet of women and Muslim men in a Rome prison. He hugs a leper. He meets Kirill, the Russian Orthodox patriarch, and Ieronymous II, the Greek Orthodox one. During a penitential service at St. Peter’s, he breaks away to go to confession at a wooden booth. In the Central African Republic, he meets evangelical Christian leaders. He sends handwritten letters to people on the Catholic margins: an atheist, a survivor of priestly sexual abuse, a transgender person. He sits across a desk from embattled figures in the church. In Iraq, he meets the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani; in the United Arab Emirates, he signs a joint statement of human fraternity with Sunni Muslim leaders. He pays a visit to the shopkeeper at Stereosound, near the Pantheon, before it closes its doors.

Some would say that these encounters are photo ops as much as anything else–gestures that bind no one, leave doctrines unaltered, and make nothing happen. There’s some truth to that–and yet, when considered against the long history of popes disdaining temporal leaders and forbidding ordinary Catholics to encounter non-Catholic others, they are signs of life.

Francis’s pontificate is so thoroughly defined by encounters with others that when he went out in the rain in St. Peter’s Square on a Friday night in March 2020, held up a gold monstrance, and sought the Virgin Mary’s intercession against the coronavirus, the image of a pope alone–once the standard image of the pope–was transformed into an image of the aloneness of the human family forced into isolation by COVID-19.

It’s such aloneness that Fratelli Tutti was written against. In the encyclical the plain imagery of Francis’s homily that night (“we are all into the same boat”) is made into a complex account of the ways our common humanity draws us into encounters with one another–and the ways those encounters, which bring out the fullness of our humanity, represent the best way forward for world civilization in crisis.