The world is our family30 Dec 2020
Pope Francis speaks of fraternity in a variety of contexts. For him it is much richer in meaning than friendly relationships.
It refers to a deep attitude to people and to the world that shapes our lives. He is greatly influenced by St Francis of Assisi and by his vision of a love that made family of plants and animals, of his brother friars and religious sisters, of people who were poor and neglected, of all Christians and of the whole world. That included the Muslim world then being attacked by Christian crusaders. He saw that all beings in the world were bound together. Because God could be found in them, St Francis could address them as brother or sister. In the Pope’s vision to pray for human fraternity means far more than praying that people will be nice to one another. It means that we shall attend to our world and all its people in a way that sees them as family. We pray not to tolerate them but to love them.
The Pope also follows St Francis in focusing on our relationships to people who differ from us in their religious beliefs. Fellowship with his Muslim brothers and sisters led St Francis of Assisi to set out unarmed to visit the commander of the Muslim troops during the Crusade, somehow avoid being killed as he crossed their lines, and to be hospitably received by the Muslim leader. Fraternity for him was not about being polite but about being crazy brave.
From this perspective the full fellowship for which we are invited to pray is a large ask. The Full fellowship means that we see members of other denominations, other sects, other religions as friends and not as strangers, people whom we would invite to eat with us, share our home, about whom we would want to know more, whose children we would like to play with our children, whose sons we would be happy to see our daughters marry. This is what Pope Francis means by inviting us to be open to all when he calls on us in his prayer intention for January to pray for human fraternity and that ‘May the Lord give us the grace to live in full fellowship with our brothers and sisters of other religions, praying for one another’.
Of course we are unlikely to be given many opportunities to enter into this kind of friendship with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or members of other religions different from ours. Even so, the prayer leaves us with an examination of conscience and an invitation. Few of us will need to dig very far into our memories before we discover negative attitudes that we once took to people in other churches. We are even more likely to have had negative feelings about the beliefs and practices of other religious groups and about the people in them. If we have met generous and welcoming peoples who shared a different faith, we might also remember how surprised we were after that meeting. For all of us to arrive at the fellowship of which Pope Francis speaks is the end of a long journey We have a long way to go before we reach this kind of fellowship.
The realisation of our own prejudices, however, can be the spark that helps us to notice and be curious about people from other faiths, and to make opportunities to meet and chat with them. When we recognise others as people like ourselves and not as a class to which we do not belong, we take important steps along the road towards fraternity.