In this monthly series, Father Jack Wall offers a unique perspective on Catholicism in America.
Today our country is deeply fractured along political lines. A 2017 Pew study reports that 86 percent of Americans describe our country as “more politically divided today than in the past.” This is the highest percentage since the survey question was first asked in 2004 and nearly double the 46 percent who responded this way in 2009.
While there are real differences of opinion on issues such as health care, tax reform, engagement in foreign affairs and trade, what seems to be changing is the tone of public discourse and people’s disinterest in hearing other viewpoints. There is more of an “us vs. them” mentality, a lack of trust toward those who are different and a harsh polarization among Americans simply over political leanings. We are focusing on what divides us and not on what binds us together.
By contrast, Pope Francis talks about reaching out to others in a “culture of encounter.” He believes we should meet people, engage in dialogue and create friendships. He especially wants us to engage with people who are different from us, listen to them, respect them and build bridges with them.
Pope Francis said recently that in a culture of encounter “we anticipate and meet the needs of our brothers and sisters and combat the exaggerated individualism, indifference and injustice that hold us back from living as one human family.”
The pope places special importance on encounters with the poor. In meeting the poor, he believes, we not only become more empathetic to their suffering and their struggles but we also encounter Christ, who is present in them. Through these encounters we become what we are called to be because we cannot really be Catholic without becoming a blessing to others.
At Catholic Extension we forge encounters and build bonds of solidarity between Catholics from very different backgrounds who would not otherwise connect with each other. We not only encourage wealthier Catholics in one part of this country to support emerging, poor immigrant Catholic communities in another, but we also help each other to come together as one community of mercy and love.
We recently helped to construct a new church in rural southern Georgia, which brought together three struggling, small mission churches and several ethnically diverse communities. We also honored the pastor, Colombian-born Father Fredy Angel, with our annual Lumen Christi Award for his efforts to unify these groups into one multicultural parish. St. Anthony of Padua Church outside of Ray City is now home to an energetic, bustling community that includes Latinos, African-Americans, Anglos and Asians. While ethnically distinct, parishioners are devoted to the same values and to their common faith in Jesus Christ, and this unity transcends their differences.
As parishioner Ana Beltrán said, “The Latinos hang out more with the Latinos, and the Anglos with the Anglos, and the African-Americans with the African-Americans, but once we come through that church door, we are one, we are family, just one Catholic community.”
The rite of our weekly Mass brings us Catholics together in unity, and the Eucharist is for us the “source and summit” of the faith that binds us together in union with Christ and each other.
In this time of great divisiveness in our country, perhaps we also need to recommit ourselves to the rituals that remind us Americans of our common ground. The national anthem is played at sporting events, holidays and festivals, and we pledge our allegiance to “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Maybe we Americans should reflect more often on what brought us together in the first place and celebrate that as a nation we are indeed “e pluribus unum”—out of many, one.
The person of Jesus reveals to us how to look beyond our own needs to the needs of others. He calls us to put the common good above our individual differences, and he invites us to discover the power of encountering others in meaningful relationships.
We need to shore up the fractured relationships in this country and adopt a culture of encounter, to extend to others, to learn from them and to be enriched — not repelled — by their perspectives. We have so much to gain as a society and as a Church when we lift each other up, rather than tear each other down.
A couple years ago at World Youth Day in Brazil, Pope Francis said, “The Church is never uniformity, but diversities harmonized in unity.”
That truth applies to America as well. Let us cool down the rancor and treasure that we are all Americans. We are so fortunate to call this place home.
Happy Fourth of July!