I am enjoying my study of “Fratelli Tutti,” the brand-new encyclical by Pope Francis, given as a gift to explore social friendship in this world. One verb leaps from the page with fresh insight. It is the use of the verb “become” rather than “be” in referring to my neighbor.
It was Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, who in asking “Am I my brother’s keeper,” raised the question that echoes throughout the Old Testament – Who is my neighbor? In “Fratelli Tutti,” Our Holy Father’s re-telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan makes use of the word “become.” The Samaritan, the one excluded by others for generations, that day “became” the neighbor to the injured Jewish man who fell among thieves. “… the Samaritan became a neighbor to the wounded Judean.” (FT 81)
As I reflect on the use of the verb “becoming,” I am aware that my neighbor is not simply someone who lives next door but someone whom I encounter. The way in which I meet this person permits me to call that person my neighbor.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have mistakenly spoken of “social” distancing. While it is true that we must physically distance ourselves for safety’s sake and the common good, we are social beings. Perhaps because of the artificial way in which physical distancing has been required, more than ever we can see in stark relief the difference between a spectator and a participant.
Years ago, I heard a pundit speak of Sunday afternoon NFL games as “12 people desperately in need of rest and 100,000 people desperately in need of exercise!” While COVID-19 has reduced the size of the crowds, it has not erased the temptation to be a spectator when it comes to my neighbor. As Pope Francis tells us, “Life is not simply time that passes; life is a time for interactions.” (FT 66)
Recently I ordained two seminarians to the Order of the Diaconate. A few days earlier, I was privileged to join with two bishops from the newly ordained men’s homeland in Vietnam, Bishop Paul of the Diocese of Ha Tinh and Bishop Alfonse of the Diocese of Vinh. About eight years ago, we entered into an agreement or more accurately a covenant, which has resulted very concretely in two fine priests ordained for the Archdiocese and now two deacons. (There is an article in this week’s edition of The Record that addresses this covenant in more detail.) Here we find a concrete example of becoming a neighbor.
During the virtual meeting, Bishop Paul said that he was motivated to enter into this covenant, which continues to expand, by the common responsibility of each of us to the universal mission of the Church. I was struck by his words and realized that my trip to Vietnam four years ago to meet him personally and to visit the seminary in the diocese of Vinh was actually part of the process of him and me becoming neighbors to one another. What has resulted is a close union that fully can be explained only by the grace of Jesus Christ. By our mutual care for one another, we have become neighbors to one another.
Another example of becoming a neighbor is the simple act of generosity to one in need. In my last column, I spoke of fulfilling my Advent budget to give to those in need. Identifying a charity to support moves me from being a simple spectator, watching good things happening in the world and in the Church, to becoming an active participant. Through the miracle of a gift given, an encounter with my neighbor begins and through prayer and dialogue, it is sustained.
We have two valuable weeks left before we gather to celebrate once again the gift of the birth of Jesus at Christmas. May His grace cut through the divisions of our lives. May we become aware that while physical distance is still a reality because of COVID-19, it may lead us to become even more grateful for the social connectedness — that process of becoming a neighbor to one another — that is central to the life of a follower of Jesus Christ. We will draw close to the manger scene once again and through the glow of the Christ child in our hearts, the light will reveal who is our neighbor and give us the grace to live up to that privileged relationship.