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The Culture of Encounter: From Bergoglio to Francis

By: Maria Clara Bingemer

April 4, 2022

The Culture of Encounter and the Catholic Church

In the year 2007 the Fifth Conference of the Latin American bishops took place in Aparecida, São Paulo, Brazil. The conference and the document with its conclusions are known as the Document of Aparecida or simply “Aparecida.” The archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was a central figure at the conference; he chaired the committee that prepared the final document.

Examining the document and its conclusions, we shall see that the word “encounter” appears many times.

It is true that it appears more as an encounter with Jesus Christ, called “the founding event and life-giving encounter” (n. 13). The document even goes so far as to say that the encounter with Jesus Christ is a gift, and that we have no other treasure than this. There is no other priority for the Church and for Christians than to be instruments of the Spirit, "so that Jesus Christ may be encountered, followed, loved, adored, announced and communicated to all, despite all the difficulties and resistance" (n. 14).

This encounter is central to Christianity. In 2005 Pope Benedict XVI had already stated that "one does not begin to be a Christian through an ethical decision or a great idea, but through the encounter with an event, with a person, which gives a new horizon to life and with it a decisive orientation” – a theme Benedict invoked in his opening address at Aparecida.

The concluding document emphasizes that the encounter with Christ is the place to express the joy of being disciples of the Lord and to assume the mission of "bringing the joy of the good news of the Kingdom... to all those who lie at the roadside, asking for alms and compassion” (n. 28). This encounter with Jesus Christ generates other encounters, especially with those who are on the edge of the road, in need of material help and compassion. The encounter with Jesus will generate in the disciples and missionaries the joyful and confident desire to meet all of these.

Later, Aparecida specifies something more about those encounters that the disciples are called to make with “all these human sectors that demand the full recognition of their individual and collective rights… their values ​​and their particular identities” (n. 91). Going out to encounter these–the poor and sinners–was what Jesus did, and it is what his disciples should do. The missionary commitment of the entire ecclesial community must be to go “out to meet those who are far away, take an interest in their situation, in order to re-enchant them with the Church and invite them to return to it” (n. 168).

Encountering others is, therefore, imitating God in Jesus Christ, according to Aparecida. “In the encounter of faith with the unprecedented realism of His Incarnation, we have been able to hear, see with our eyes, contemplate, and feel with our hands the Word of life… We experience that God Himself goes after the lost sheep, the suffering humanity and lost…” The document goes on to note that this is not just a matter of words, but of the explanation of God’s own being and acting, implying the movement of kenosis that God himself made in Christ in his incarnation (n. 242).

Following Jesus and imitating God by encountering those who are on the edge of the road, the victims of our society, will bear the fruit of “solidarity as a permanent attitude of encounter…which must be manifested in options and visible gestures, mainly in the defense of life and the rights of the most vulnerable and excluded” (n. 394). Six years before he was elected pope, Bergoglio's influence was felt in Aparecida in what would later become one of the watchwords of his pontificate: the culture of encounter.

Bergoglio is a Jesuit, formed in the school of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. This Ignatian method guides the person to contemplate the encounters of Jesus with other people and to feel part of that encounter–“seeing people, listening to what they say, watching what they do.” It is necessary to not be a spectator, an outsider, oblivious to what is happening, but rather to be on the inside of relationships, participating in Jesus´ encounters and being transformed by them.

This is how Pope Francis wishes to transmit the message of the primordiality of the encounter. We encounter people “not only seeing but looking, not only hearing but listening, not only crossing paths with people but remaining with them, not only saying ‘What a pity! Poor people!’ but letting ourselves be carried away by compassion.”

The pope's intention is to fight the indifference that predominates in our throwaway culture, our culture of speed and superficiality, and to move us towards a true and profound encounter with others. But for that there are some necessary preconditions. “We need to be patient if we want to understand whoever is different from us,” Francis himself points out. “The person expresses himself fully not when he is simply tolerated, but when he perceives that he is truly welcomed. If we have a genuine desire to listen to others, then we will learn to look at the world with different eyes and to appreciate the human experience as it manifests itself in different cultures and traditions.”

The streets of the world are the place for this culture of encounter, the locus where people live, where they are effectively and affectively accessible. Christian witness, then, is not about bombarding with religious messages, but entails the will to give oneself to others, to be available, to respond patiently and with respect to their questions and doubts on the path of searching for truth and the meaning of human existence.

The evolution from Bergoglio to Francis is the full movement from experiencing the encounter–with Jesus Christ and with the other, my brother or sister–to the daring proposal to create a “culture of encounter.” Why does he do this? Because he knows that it is not enough to convert isolated individuals. To transform attitudes, values, customs, and traditions, one must create a culture.