As Pope Francis set aglow the global community in 2013, he has a phrase that could ignite a new way of Christian engagement in 2014, especially with those with whom we disagree and those we tend to dislike and disregard.
What is it?

“Culture of encounter.”

Some two months after his election on March 13, 2013, Francis introduced at Mass the phrase “culture of encounter.”

The media leaped at his statement that the “Blood of Christ” redeemed all, including atheists, and missed the larger framing about all being created in the image of God with “a duty to do good” through encounter.

“If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good,” he said.

Addressing the Italian Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired on June 11, he urged the group to “spread a culture of encounter, solidarity and hospitality towards persons with disabilities, not just asking for the proper social services but also encouraging their active participation in society.”

On July 27 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Francis called for the elimination of elitism and the eradication of poverty in a divided nation, saying that dialogue was an alternative way “between selfish indifference and violent protest.”

“When leaders in various fields ask me for advice, my response is always the same: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue,” said the pope. “Today, either we stake all on dialogue, on the culture of encounter, or we all lose.” 

Meeting in September with Catholicos Paulose II, head of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, Francis spoke for reconciliation between the two churches and the cultivation of “the culture of encounter.”

In October, Francis granted an interview with the founder, a non-Christian, of La Repubblica, Italy’s largest daily newspaper.

“Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting, I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs,” said Pope Francis.

He added, “This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.”

Catholic leaders and thinkers are scrambling to interpret what is meant by the “culture of encounter.”

Noted Catholic journalist John L. Allen wrote that the term is “elastic enough to embrace a wide range of possible meanings, but in general Francis seems to intend the idea of reaching out, fostering dialogue and friendship even outside the usual circles, and making a special point of encountering people who are neglected and ignored by the wider world.”

It underscores “compassion,” instead of “judgment,” he suggested.

Louisville’s Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, focused on the listening and observing.

Kurtz said, “Pope Francis says, ‘Let’s not proclaim Church teaching in a way that creates division. Let’s touch hearts, and thus open people to the vision that Christ has given us.'”

Chicago’s Archbishop Francis George said, “He wants bishops to be part of this culture of encounter – encountering Christ and therefore encountering those that Christ loves. Once you have the relationship, then the ideas make sense. Otherwise, it’s a debating society. So you don’t start with the idea. You start with a person and relationship. The pope is reminding us of this.”

Greater understanding of what Francis means by his phrase will likely emerge on World Communications Day, Jan. 24, 2014. Francis chose “culture of encounter” as the theme for the celebration, and he will be delivering a message at the event.

On the American scene, we have a “culture of confrontation.” Even those who claim tolerance are among the most intolerant of those who do not share their values, ideology, worldview. Tolerance may mask disdain.

Whether tolerant or intolerant, discourse in the “culture of confrontation” gets quickly derailed with slash-and-burn charges of “isms” and “antis.” For example:

â—     Disagreeing with President Obama doesn’t make one a racist, a compulsive pattern on MSNBC.

â—     Objecting to Israel’s egregious treatment of Palestinians doesn’t make one an anti-Semitic.

â—     Refusing to embrace gay marriage or to support the ordination of gays to the ministry doesn’t make one anti-gay.

â—     Failing to receive a church building permit based on codes doesn’t mean the government is anti-Christian.

â—     Saying “happy holiday” instead of “merry Christmas” isn’t an anti-Christian statement.

â—     Supporting a progressive tax system and meeting the needs of the poor doesn’t make one an anti-capitalist (or a socialist).

The confrontation of “isms” and “antis” isn’t productive. It is evidence of self-righteous dishonesty. It suggests that we treasure the purity of our ideas more than other people.

Pope Francis appears to favor humanity over ideology.

Getting to know the other for the sake of knowing the other, rather than for the purpose of persuading the other they are wrong and need to change, is the more Christian way.

This is especially true if we seek to work with the other to do good. We start with the other as created in the image of God for the duty of doing justice and showing mercy.

If we share a common hammer, we are more likely to build a better society than if we bludgeon each other with disagreements over baptism, communion, worship styles, ordination, sacred texts, self-righteous ideologies or the assertion of rights over responsibilities for others.

We need a lot more conversation and engagement around the “culture of encounter.” Perhaps we need to make Pope Francis’ catchword our watchword for 2014.

Robert Parham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

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