Pope Francis and the Culture of the Encounter
The logo of Pope Francis’s upcoming trip to Egypt shows a Muslim half-moon and a cross displaced over the pyramid and Nile River, while a dove anticipating the Pope’s blessing flies over them. The theme of the visit is also meaningful: the Pope of peace in Egypt of peace. Certainly, the presence of the cross and the half-moon next to each other symbolizes that culture of the encounter which Pope Francis has always promoted.
For Pope Francis, the culture of the encounter is the antidote to any extremism. Rather than analyzing the deep roots of a crisis, Francis prefers to meet with people and thus to show concretely that a path together is possible. Any difference – even substantial –is put aside on this path, as well as every problematic issue.
This approach is the direct outcome of the Pope’s notion that realities are greater than ideas, one of the four “cardinal points” of the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium. For Pope Francis, dialogue is done in the walking, without premises. The Pope applies this principle to everything, from the ecumenical path to interreligious dialogue. As far as the latter is concerned, a special focus is given to the dialogue with Islam, a strong issue for this Pope.
The upcoming trip to Egypt will thus represent an important test. The trip’s program has not yet been published, though it can be outlined already based on what can be understood from the organizing committee.
Pope Francis received four invitations to go to Egypt: from the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al Sisi, whom he received in the Vatican in November 2014; from Tawadros II, the Coptic Orthodox patriarch who visited Pope Francis for one week in 2013 and whom Pope Francis telephoned on December 12 to express his grief after the attack against St. Mark’s Cathedral; from the Egyptian Bishops’ Conference which met with the Pope on February 6 during its ad limina visit; and from the al-Azhar University, whose Grand Imam Ahmad al Tayyb was received by the Pope last May 21.
The trip to Egypt is characterized by three aspects: it is a pastoral trip, an ecumenical trip, and an interreligious trip. This latter is probably the most important to Pope Francis, for the mere fact that he will be present, and not because of any foreseeable declaration.
In fact, already when he received the Grand Imam al Tayyb, Pope Francis underscored that “our encounter is the message.” And the meeting did not last long, as the meeting at al-Azhar in Cairo will not.
Here is how Pope Francis’s two intense days in Egypt will go. On the first day, April 28, the Pope will meet with President al Sisi, will lead an ecumenical prayer with Patriarch Tawadros and will visit the al-Azhar University. Both the ecumenical prayer and the al-Azhar meeting are supposed to last not more than 20 minutes. The meeting with Patriarch Tawadros will take place in the al-Botrossia Church, attacked on December 11 by a 25 year-old man, a suicide attack in an area designated for women and children, causing 23 dead and 49 injured.
The second day – a Saturday – the Pope will celebrate Mass in a big hall in a stadium fit for 20,000 people. Lunch is not set yet: it could be in the nunciature with the President, or with disadvantaged people. It is certain that the Pope will meet with religious brothers and sisters in the Coptic seminary of Maadi.
According to Botros Daniel of the organizing committee, Catholic bishops will always be with him during the trip, and ecumenical relations with Coptic Orthodox are very good, especially ever since Tawadros is in charge. Botros Daniel also stressed that Church-State relations are good, and that the State is more open to giving permissions to build new churches.
Certainly, there are many issues at stake. Pope Francis, however, wants especially to emphasize the role of the encounter. The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has worked on this track, and has maintained constant relations with al-Azhar since relations were recently restored after having been “frozen” since 2010.
Opening the Sunni Islam front, Pope Francis aims at being a privileged interlocutor with all Islamic components. Observers including Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, SJ, an expert on the issue, note how the Middle Eastern conflict, especially the ISIS upsurge, is fundamentally a conflict between Sunni and Shia. Papal diplomacy seeks to dialogue with both. The trip to Egypt will make this dialogue visible.
Certainly, Pope Francis will not take any strong stances. His speeches will not tackle the concrete issues, such as the recent establishment in Egypt of a governmental commission designed to legalize the status of Christian churches and places of worship built before the approval of the August 30, 2016 law that regulates the building of new churches. The commission is mandated to evaluate questions of regularization of Christian buildings built in the last years. This theme is something to be left to the Secretariat of State, and will not be dealt with in the Pope’s speeches.
The Pope will instead focus a lot on the ecumenism of blood, because the Egyptian Church is a Church of martyrs – as recounted by Fr. Paolo Asolan in an interview given after a trip he made to Egypt following the beheading of 21 Coptic Orthodox men from Egypt on a Libyan beach in February 2016.
All of these choices show that Pope Francis wants a Church that accompanies people. Accompaniment, in the end, does not just apply to young people or to difficult situations (e.g., the post-Synod discussion on divorced and remarried). Accompaniment also deals with belief. Rather than preaching the Gospel, Pope Francis wants to evangelize through example, by showing an open and inclusive faith.
One might object that by proceeding in this way, the direct proclamation of the Gospel and of Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation is lacking. Also missing is reasoning over the deep causes of the crisis of faith that has led to radicalism. Lacking, too, is the concept of a religion based on reason. But for Pope Francis, religion is above all popular piety, and he wants to exploit this popular piety in order to deliver the culture of the encounter.
Perhaps Pope Francis’s final aim is that of developing the concept of popular piety. Convinced that people cannot make mistakes – he often says this – Pope Francis wants to demonstrate the existence of a common path, so that everyone can take something from this encounter. The encounter is the message: that is the sense of his words.
For this reason, Pope Francis will meet Wednesday with five English imams before his general audience. The half hour before his general audiences has become a period for him to have short meetings on interreligious dialogue, and this is the reason that delegations from various faith traditions are greeted during that moment in his schedule.
With the five imams, Pope Francis will talk of his pain over the recent London attack, reiterating the importance of a peaceful role for religions. The meeting with the imams is not news: after the Charlie Hebdo magazine attacks, Pope Francis met with a group of French imams for the same purpose.
This is how the Pope is developing a culture of the encounter, while leaving the rest to the Holy See’s diplomatic initiatives. Holy See diplomacy works to unite religions in a unanimous condemnation of terrorism. Diplomacy of truth is thus carried forward by means of interventions, conferences and declarations, as happened with the two declarations issued in 2014 and 2015 by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue which condemned the caliphate and stressed the need for increased dialogue with Islam.