Paul Elie’s recent Commonweal piece on the meaning of “encounter” is timely for many reasons. As he notes, Pope Francis recommends a “culture of encounter” repeatedly in Laudato si’ and elsewhere. And the idea’s intersection with the theme of synodality is immediately obvious, if also clearly undeveloped.
What are some of the related themes—for lack of a better word—that either anticipate or at least contribute to the clarification of “encounter”? One might think of Chicago’s 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in conjunction with the World’s Fair, which Thomas Albert Howard pointed out in his comprehensive essay “Enough Bromides” [Commonweal, May 2021]. Then, from an inner-Church perspective, one might think of the basic concept of collegiality at Vatican II and the various communitarian models of the Church that developed subsequently. We remember the watchwords that hierarchical leadership conceived as exercised “sub et cum Petro”: shared responsibility, mutual respect and exchange, a participatory community not only in liturgy but in doctrine and governance—but which unfortunately also often turned into debating points as much as into inspirational ideas.
Of great (and all but revolutionary) importance, of course, was the Council’s “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” Nostra aetate, which clearly endorses interreligious dialogue. There followed a series of significant and productive interreligious dialogues organized by the Catholic Church and its sister churches, as the Council spoke of them. With first-rate scholarship in an ecumenical spirit, they produced major documents on liturgy, doctrine, and social questions. Here “dialogue” was not only a concept, but a practice. It was a structured encounter with varying practices and procedures but with the expectation of finding common—and new—agreements (or at least mutually respected understandings).
The pastoral letters of the American Bishops in the 1980s were examples also of dialogue, with the drafting committees holding hearing sessions that seriously influenced the bishops’ final documents. Bishops, theologians, and laity “met together” to talk over issues of war and peace and the economy. It was clearly not a scholastic exercise but a practical encounter of different perspectives within the Church in the United States. The “dialogue” was structured for experiment, discovery, and mutual encouragement. And it took time. All elements, I think, of what a significant “culture of encounter” requires today.
Then there are the lessons that faith-based community organizing can have for the synodal process, as Michael N. Okińczyc-Cruz discussed in his Commonweal piece in July 2022: making an intentional commitment to building relationships, recognizing people’s vision and aspirations, and devising an effective strategy for achieving goals. An emphasis on building relationships brings about a radical shift for people active in faith-rooted organizing—a full understanding that one can’t accomplish anything meaningful in a community if one “goes at it alone.” Okińczyc-Cruz believes such organizing can make vital contributions to the synodal process. “There are no shortcuts when it comes to building a Church that reflects the liberating spirit of Jesus,” he writes “Building relationships with one another will help in forging a robust and ambitious moral and spiritual path for our Church, so that we can advance justice and equality and realize a greater approximation of God’s kingdom.” This is again an inner-Church perspective, but one with strong resonances with anything that can realistically be called a “culture of encounter.”
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