Understanding Pope Francis – A ‘culture of encounter’ with the most needy

Even as sophisticated as Pope Francis is proving himself to be in church governance and theological thinking, there is a streak within him deeply attached to the “popular piety” of his homeland. This is of course as it should be, for the sensus fidelium, or sense of the faithful, which notably is not evidenced by a simple numeric majority opinion, is as infallible as is the pope speaking ex cathedra. (Though one is connected to the priesthood and prophetic office of all believers through baptism, and the other to the magisterial mandate given to the successors of the apostles to guard, interpret, and transmit the deposit of faith).
But Francis has repeatedly reminded theologians that we “must always listen to the faith as lived by the humble and little ones, to whom it has pleased the father to reveal what he has hidden from the learned and the wise.”
Pope Francis has a strong devotion to St. Cajetan, in Spanish San Cayetano, a popular figure in Argentina and the patron saint of the unemployed.
In speaking about him, Francis pointed out the need to foster what he calls a “culture of encounter,” which figures such as Cayetano, bring to mind. His comments can perhaps shape our approach to the Lenten commitments to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving in these next weeks:

“Sometimes, I ask people, ‘Do you give alms?’ They say, ‘Yes, Father.’ ‘And when you give alms, do you look into the eyes of people you are giving alms to?’ ‘Ah, I do not know, I don’t really think about it.’ Then you have not reached out to those people. You just tossed them some charity and went away. ‘When you give alms, do you touch their hands or just toss them the coins?’ ‘No, I toss them the coins.’ Then you have not touched them. And if you have not touched them, you have not reached out to them. What Jesus teaches us, first of all, is to reach out to each other, and in reaching out, to help one another.
“We must be able to reach out to each other. We must build, create, construct a culture of encounter. How many differences, family troubles, [we face] always! Trouble in the neighborhood, trouble at work, trouble everywhere. And these differences do not help. The culture of encounter – reaching out to encounter each other. And the [feast of San Cayetano’s] theme says, ‘Reaching out to those most in need,’ in short, with those who need me. With those who are going through a bad time, far worse than what I’m going through…”

We hear so often now “What are you taking up for Lent?” replacing the formerly universal “What are you giving up?” Perhaps we should heed the Holy Father’s words to cultivate a culture of encounter in some non-patronizing way – with the poor, forgotten, oppressed, marginalized, ill, alien, frightened. In a few weeks, I will be accompanying Professor Paul Murray and other members of Durham University, including students, to begin an academic prison ministry through their regional chaplaincy programs. Such a task, demanded of us by both the corporal works of mercy (“visitandis captivis“) and Christ himself (Mt 25:36), forces one to care for one’s neighbor at the expense of comfortable complacency and to further a culture of encounter, finding the Lord even in the seemingly unlikeliest of venues.

Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., of Collingswood, is a Research Associate at Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies in Northeast England.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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