Pope Francis paid Italian President Giorgio Napolitano an official visit this week at his residence on the Quirinal hill, one of Rome’s famous Seven Hills. In his address, he spoke of the political accords that unite Italy with the Vatican City State, and he spoke of his trips within Italy thus far in his pontificate. In between, he spoke words which reveal something of his understanding of the world and the Church’s mission.
“The primary task awaiting the Church is that of witnessing the mercy of God and of encouraging generous answers of solidarity to open to a future of hope because, where hope grows, energies and commitment are also multiplied for the construction of a social and civil order that is more human and just, and new potentialities emerge for a sustainable and healthy development.”
These short lines provide a grounding for human solidarity which compliments the thought of his two predecessors, and stem from a mind whose experience and bent are eminently practical and pastoral rather than theoretical.
Blessed John Paul II was a thinker and a philosopher of the human person. Even as a theologian, his primary theoretical efforts aim at reasoning toward the truth of the human person. For him, human solidarity is the moral expression of the truth that a person is not a closed being. Every person has an essential openness, an interpersonal dimension. We only develop as persons through interdependence, by contact with others and by building true communities (communions of persons) with each other.
“When interdependence becomes recognized in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a ‘virtue,’ is solidarity. This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 38)
The enemy of solidarity is selfishness, of not opening to the needs of others, and it is ultimately a lived-out denial of one’s true nature as a person.
For Pope Benedict, XVI, solidarity has a more theological foundation. In order to live out God’s image and likeness, we must embody his agape, his unselfish love.
“By contrast with an indeterminate, ‘searching’ love, this word [agape] expresses the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.” (Deus Caritas Est, 6.)
Here the enemy of solidarity is also selfishness, seen now as a failure to reflect the image of God as selfless love.
For Pope Francis, whose life has been less a life of study but one of pastoral care, this natural openness of the human person, this imperative of living God’s love has a concrete form: mercy.
Guess who the enemy is here? Yes, selfishness. But it is not theoretically closing yourself on yourself or failing to reflect trinitarian love. Selfishness is being the doofus in the Gospel who refuses to forgive his buddy’s tiny debt when the king just let him off the hook for a wopping sum. Pope Francis’ basis for solidarity, mercy, shows the link between “Thy will be done on earth….” and “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive” in a more immediate way.
I am not saying his thought contradicts that of his predecessors in any way. It is a shift of emphasis, but a beautiful one, like a theme repeating with different tonal qualities in a symphony. What we human beings have in common, for Francis, is not only the transcendence of our personhood that disposes us to act together and build communities. It is not only the love of God placed in us that unfolds in self-giving. It is the experience of having been forgiven. Of having been the object of God’s letting go of our wopping debt.
It is knowing that I deserve condemnation and yet have been pardoned. That experience, like a reformed addict working for the recovery of others, is the basis of a Christian society. In this context, evangelization is not a hand out from haves to have-nots. It is the joyful sharing between deserve-nots of where and how one can receive undeserved gifts.
It is enlightening to see how the last three popes have revealed these different facets of the face of Christ. John Paul II taught about Christ as the ultimate example of personhood and openness to others. Pope Benedict pointed toward Christ in his perfect living of love, in which we have the hope of being able to love in truth. And Pope Francis continually points toward Jesus and the incarnation of God’s mercy.
The four Evangelists themselves (symbolized by the beasts in Ezekiel and the Apocalypse) stressed different but complimentary aspects of Jesus in their Gospels. God has also used John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis to lead us, by converging pathways, towards Jesus, in Whom we find the fullness of truth about God and about ourselves.