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What Pope Francis Means By a Culture of Encounter

Fritz Eichenberg’s engraving depicts
Dorothy Day’s understanding
of Christ in the poor from
Matthew 25 in the Bible

In a homily given on his first Pentecost as our pontiff, Pope Francis suggested that the word “encounter” is central to the way he thinks of Christian relationships. In the homily he encourages the faithful to be fearless in the ways in which they look beyond their own needs and wants to those of others. He says that “in this ‘stepping out’ [of ourselves] it is important to be ready for encounter. For me this word is very important. Encounter with others… Because faith is an encounter with Jesus, and

we must do what Jesus does: encounter others.” With this line of thinking, Christians encounter other people in their imitation of Christ, but on top of that, the disciple encounters other people as a response to having an encounter with Christ in the first place. Francis on a regular basis has spoken of a Culture of Encounter as a goal for human society. A society that espouses a Culture of Encounter facilitates right relationship among humans and involves a spirituality that emphasizes a personal friendship with God who first encounters us in love.

The Meaning of Encounter

In Spanish, the pope’s first language, the word encuentro is often used in spiritual terms, and in this pontificate it is being translated into English as “encounter.” The term in Spanish, however, is packed with more meaning than a literal translation to the English cognate is able to convey. An encounter between God and one’s self begins first and foremost by acknowledging that we are being encountered by our Creator who loves us infinitely—an encounter requires a dynamic back and forth between two entities. In his pastoral exhortation Evangelii gaudium, Francis urges the faithful to “a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them” (3). Underscored here is an important point about the dynamism of an encounter. Christ is constantly reaching out to all persons, but the event of an encounter happens when that invitation is acknowledged and responded to by a human being. There is a divine vulnerability to reaching out, an eager waiting in hope of a response.

The philosopher Enrique Dussel, who hails from Argentina along with the pope, adds much to an understanding of encounter. In his book Introducción a la filosofía de la liberación (Introduction to the Philosophy of Liberation), Dussel explains that two people encountering one another involves action, a give and take. But even more importantly, it involves openness to mystery and relationship. To encounter another person is to realize that no matter the depths to which we may get to know each other, the well of mystery will never be exhausted, a strange fact that long-time married couples know well. Interpersonal encounter in the Christian sense is thus both active and relational—it occurs between two or more persons or between a person and God. An encounter between two people is a graced experience in which one realizes a strange paradox: the seemingly contradictory human situation of the utter connectedness within which we live in solidarity with each other and at the same time the wild otherness which makes us our own beings living in solitude.

Dussel, a Catholic, notes that only sentient beings may encounter one another. He explains that a person may look at an insect, even examine it under a microscope; the bug might, in turn look back, but the person and the bug do not have the experience of actively encountering each other because the action lacks a certain depth and mystery of which the insect is incapable. The mystery of an encounter occurs between persons. On top of that, the philosopher notes that there is an analogous quality to encountering the other. Certainly to encounter another person is to experience the grace of the living God. But in encountering “the other,” the event also mimics our encounter with the Divine Other. To put it another way: to encounter a living-breathing friend, to embrace a child, or to share a meal with a hungry person is to have an experience which is in essence the way which we encounter the intangible and invisible God.

The Culture of Encounter is simply then, the structuring of a society in which persons encounter each other and because of this are able to encounter the living God.

The Culture of Encounter Denounces Exclusion and Isolation

Any system or relationship that is not based off of human encounters which respect the dignity of both persons is an affront to both persons’ human dignity. The Culture of Encounter thus denounces such situations as well as any system that promotes structures in which the poor and marginalized. Thus any inter-human communication, law, exchange, conversation, or interaction whatsoever must respect the inherent dignity of both parties. In such a culture there are macro and interpersonal implications. In short, all interactions with other people must underscore the notion that that person is human. In Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis stresses this challenge by noting the daunting particulars of our current global situation. He writes, “today, when the networks and means of human communication have made unprecedented advances, we sense the challenge of finding and sharing a ‘mystique’ of living together, of mingling and encounter, 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” (87).

Francis points to how the possibility of encounter has risen massively of late, while our human attempts to encounter seem to have diminished. He notes in a recent address celebrating World Communications Day that “it is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply ‘con-nected’; connections need to grow into true encounters. We cannot live apart, closed in on ourselves…The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity; a network not of wires but of people.” The possibilities for true, human encounter are heightened by technology yet the reality is strikingly opposite—people are having fewer deep encounters than ever.

Pope Francis notes that global capitalism is one such system that inhibits a Culture of Encounter. Indeed one matter at which capitalism succeeds immensely is convincing the consumer that all economic endeavors are private. In capitalism, the consumer may purchase anything he or she can afford; the seller may vend anything that a consumer will pay for. The relationship between the consumer and the seller, however, falls far short of encounter because they are tacitly encouraged to see each other as a means to an end—a way of making a financial gain and a way of getting something one wants respectively. The relationship between bosses and labor is very often one of seeing each other as a means to an end as well; it is a relationship of fear and often coercion rather than one of human encounter between management and employees.

Even if an encounter event takes place between a person purchasing something and a person selling something, capitalism stealthily allows for this to be perceived as a very private matter between the two individuals present. The reality, however, is that in nearly every economic transaction, there are many more humans involved. To purchase a garment in a store never requires one to consider those who worked to grow and harvest the cotton or spin the fibers or the workers in factories who stitched the garment together who much too often work in deplorable labor conditions for paltry pay. To purchase an apple at a supermarket does not require one to encounter the farmer nor the migrant worker who picked the fruit. Capitalism stymies a Culture of Encounter by having us all believe that our economic transactions do not involve anyone but ourselves. The tragic consequences for such a falsehood is the shadowy background in which many persons are persecuted and at the same time the opportunities for genuine human encounter being stymied. The pope, in his animating a Culture of Encounter, denounces a capitalist system which stands in the way of genuine human to human encounter.

The Culture of Encounter Proclaims Relationship

While living in a society that may justly be critiqued using the Culture of Encounter as a lens, it must not be forgotten that along with denouncing injustice, the prophets of encounter also proclaim the goodness of human relationship. One such assertion is that the Culture of Encounter is first and foremost personalist. John Paul II in Love and Responsibility offers insight into how the philosophy of personalism aids us in thinking of each other as God sees us. He writes, “the term ‘person’ has been coined to signify that a man [or woman] cannot be wholly contained within the concept ‘individual member of the species,’ but that there is something more to him, a particular richness and perfection in the manner of his being, which can only be brought out by the use of the word ‘person.’” To encounter another person is to realize her inherent human dignity and the manner in which she—and only she—may direct us to the unique way in which God loves her. To see another person as a personalist does is to see that person as an unrepeatable individual whose mystery is limitless, an other who points toward the Divine Other in a way that only he can.

by Angel Valdez

The poor hold a privileged place in the Culture of Encounter. In the aforementioned Pentecost homily, Francis notes that in stepping out of ourselves, we will see that other people “have something in common with us: they are images of God, they are children of God. Going out to meet everyone, without losing sight of our own position. There is another important point: encountering the poor.” The pope is very critical of a system that would obsess over individual ticks in a stock market yet ignore even a single death of a homeless person. The personalist focuses on the person, not data or vacillations in a market. The poor are of particular importance because they are the most ignored and seen as the most dispensable. Yet in God’s eyes they are equal in dignity and importance to the rich and powerful person. Indeed to encounter the poor person is quite literally to encounter Christ. With this in mind, the Culture of Encounter proclaims the equal dignity imbued in each and every person who is the image and likeness of God.

The Culture of Encounter Is a Journey through Mystery

Lastly, the Culture of Encounter places value on mystery. To see the world through the lens of encounter is to realize the presence of God all around us and that we are connected to each other through ties both visible and invisible. God is mysteriously present in each and every person, and that unique person manifests God’s love in a way in which only he or she is able. The spirituality of encounter, while it denounces and proclaims certain aspects of society and human relationship, at its core is a realization of God’s immanent presence and an acknowledgement that we experience the love of God in relationship with other people. The Culture of Encounter moves us to walk the journey of our lives tenderly holding each other’s hands knowing all the while that it is Christ who is our veiled and shining companion.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, June-August 2015.