Returning to Ordinary Time each January, after the Christmas season, can be a bit of a letdown. But January is actually full of exciting events: World Peace Day (Jan. 1), the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan. 18-25) and the annual March for Life (Jan. 18). World Youth Day is also taking place in Panama City this January (22-27).
Is there a common thread running through these events and causes, a single theme that might provide us with a positive orientation for this new year? Let’s see what Pope Francis says.
In his theme for World Peace Day, the Pope asserts that “there is no peace without mutual trust … When people’s rights are respected, then they will start to feel their own duty to respect the rights of others.” Peace is dependent on encouraging “dialogue among stakeholders in society, between generations and among cultures,” he said.
In his message for World Youth Day, Pope Francis tells young people that it is important to dialogue with and encounter others. “Never lose the enthusiasm of enjoying others’ company and friendship, as well as the pleasure of dreaming together, of walking together,” he told them. “Authentic Christians are not afraid to open themselves to others.”
I would like to suggest that the theme uniting this month’s events could be communion and dialogue — a “culture of encounter” — to borrow a favorite phrase of Pope Francis. And yet, in our hyper-polarized society, true dialogue seems more difficult than ever.
Young people — both college students and young professionals — have recently told me how hard it is to engage in dialogue or sincere debate on the issues that matter most to them. Even on Catholic campuses they are cautioned not to “trigger” others’ sensitivities, not to hurt others’ feelings or fail in political correctness.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis wrote that Christianity calls us to overcome suspicion, habitual mistrust and “all the defensive attitudes which today’s world imposes on us … The Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others … with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.”
“Today, when the networks and means of human communication have made unprecedented advances,” he asserts, “we sense the challenge of finding and sharing a ‘mystique’ of living together … of embracing and supporting one another, of stepping into this flood tide which, while chaotic, can become a genuine experience of fraternity, a caravan of solidarity, a sacred pilgrimage.”
Along with our Holy Father, the college students with whom I recently shared an evening noted that despite the exponential rise in possibilities for encounter achieved through technology, our human attempts at encounter and dialogue seem impoverished.
Greater possibilities for communication should “turn into greater possibilities for encounter and solidarity for everyone,” Francis says. “If we were able to take this route, it would be so good, so soothing, so liberating and hope-filled!”
“For me this word is very important. Encounter with others,” Francis writes. “Why? Because faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do what Jesus does: encounter others … we must create a ‘culture of encounter,’ a culture of friendship, a culture in which we find brothers and sisters, in which we can also speak with those who think differently, as well as those who hold other beliefs, who do not have the same faith. They all have something in common with us: they are images of God, they are children of God.”
Looking back on our congregation’s history in America these past 150 years, I have been amazed to see how generously our Little Sisters were embraced by Americans and fellow immigrants when they arrived here in 1868. I think the secret to this was their receptivity — they came with open hearts and minds, welcoming the elderly without judging them, without regard for race or religion, and accepting help from people from every walk of life with the same receptivity and gratitude.
Our Little Sisters had a clear vision of the equal dignity of each person created in the image and likeness of God, and of our solidarity as God’s children — brothers and sisters to one another on this earthly pilgrimage — despite our apparent differences. I thank God for their legacy and pledge to foster this spirit of solidarity today.
Will you join me on this hope-filled and liberating journey?
Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
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