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Reflections on Core Values for a Culture of Encounter

By: Gemma Tulud Cruz

April 4, 2022

Cultural and Religious Dimensions of Encounter

In his essay titled “The Culture of Encounter and the Global Agenda: Political and Religious Dynamics,” Thomas Banchoff mentions humility, generosity, and patience as three core components of Francis’ understanding of the concept of the culture of encounter. More specifically, Banchoff posits that a humble, generous, and patient approach may prove viable in engaging differences while remaining true to one’s own values, particularly when it comes to political and ideological divides. Banchoff points to the reality of how fostering a culture of encounter is easier said than done by noting how “a turn towards mutual engagement, if it is seen as the jettisoning of cherished principles, will not be politically sustainable.”

To be sure, Pope Francis’ vision of the culture of encounter suggests a way of life. This short essay reflects on the question of what values may serve foundational roles in order to make encounter not only possible, feasible, and viable but also a way of life–persistent, consistent, and enduring praxis, in short, a “culture”–and, consequently, make it sustainable. More specifically, it reflects on empathy and, very briefly, on patience as essential values toward fostering the culture of encounter, particularly in the context of social injustice.

Put simply, empathy is the ability to perceive accurately what another person is feeling. It is both a trait and skill that is vital for a praxis-oriented culture of encounter because it motivates people to take action when they see others who are suffering. It is different from sympathy. Whereas sympathy relates more to feeling pity for someone’s pain or suffering, or the concern stimulated by the distress of another, empathy is more about looking for a common humanity. Empathy is the very fabric of Christian relationality. Emotional empathy, sometimes called compassion, is more intuitive and involves care and concern for others. Cognitive empathy, meanwhile, involves more effort and systematic thinking because it requires considering others and their perspectives and imagining what it is like to be them. Mature empathy entails reflective or active listening and the willingness or capacity to be confronted with negativity with the aim of understanding the other.

National Catholic Reporter columnist Michael Sean Winters speaks of encounter as grace and an adventure of discipleship insofar as it is about conforming ourselves to Christ through a fascinating admixture of openness and commitment, freedom and obedience. Working for the culture of encounter with an empathetic perspective and approach as Jesus did is, for Pope Francis, is about “not just seeing but looking; not just hearing but listening; not just passing people by but stopping with them; not just saying ‘what a shame, poor people!’ but allowing yourself to be moved with compassion; and then to draw near, to touch and to say: ‘Do not weep’ and to give at least a drop of life.” When someone relates to us with true empathy, and not simply pity, they offer us a space in which we can literally be, a space where we feel safe enough to be fully present and safe enough to be heard. Participants in a study of volunteers at an immigration detention center in the United States, for instance, reported that the act of visiting and allowing the detainee to lead, shape, and control the conversation affirmed the humanity of those being held. We are, first and foremost, relational beings. It is through relating, and within relationships, that we find meaning in our lives.

Patience as a core value of the culture of encounter provides a dose of realism. It recognizes the fact that fostering the culture of encounter is a lifelong task and that the culture of encounter itself is something that is built and nurtured over time at the individual and communal levels. It is not something that can be achieved overnight or with one or two meetings, treaties, or initiatives. It is more about a continuous effort rather than a fixed goal. It is, according to Francis, a constant conviction expressed in actions that, if I may add, are consistent and persistent. It is like water on stone. It is built through purposeful, sustained, and indomitable action, especially in the face of hard-core or deeply embedded political and ideological divides that have roots in the wounds of history.

Christian hope is understandably an indispensable resource for patience in such circumstances. It is hope grounded in what Sharon Welch describes as an ethic of risk as responsible action. While we cannot guarantee an end to racism nor the prevention of all war, Welch argues, we can prevent our own capitulation to structural evil. We can help create the conditions necessary for justice and peace, realizing that the choices of others can only be influenced and responded to, never controlled. We cannot make their choices, but we can provide a heritage of persistence, imagination, and solidarity.

Religion’s enduring role and power in the lives of human beings has often been attributed to the way it serves as the fire around which people gather. As a way of life Pope Francis’ vision of the culture of encounter can be morally enriching and politically empowering for fostering solidarity and effective as well as just forms of governance. It provides a subtle hermeneutical framework through which to interpret and address the perils and possibilities of contemporary life. It also enhances peoples’ capacity to live creatively, individually and as a community, in a complex world marred by grave global social challenges. To be sure, the bridges that the culture of encounter can create can make the present manageable, removing the sense that the present is overwhelming. At the same time, they are a locus of hope for a viable future insofar as they can serve as durable essential resources for people to maintain an attitude of persistent defiance in the face of possible repeated defeats, especially for those who embrace encounter as a way of responding to social injustice. The Book of Habakkuk conveys the importance of patience rooted in hope: “Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfilment, and will not disappoint. If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late” (Habakkuk 2:2-3).