The term “culture of encounter” is used seven times in the English translation of Pope Francis’s 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti—and the word “encounter” and its cognates appear another forty times. Eighteen months after the encyclical’s publication, however, “culture of encounter” is still one of the more elusive concepts of Francis’s pontificate: less familiar than “mercy” and “mercy-ing,” less vivid than the image of the Church as a “field hospital,” less practical-seeming than “care for our common home.”
But a conference held in Rome in late May set out to change that, and the three dozen of us participants were left with a robust sense of the meaning of “culture of encounter”—as well as the sense that we ourselves had been able to instantiate a culture of encounter through our three days of informal meetings, panel discussions, meals, and conversations.
The conference was organized by Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs (where I am a senior fellow) and La Civiltà Cattolica, the Jesuit journal; it was held at the Villa Malta, where the journal is based, and hosted by its editor, Antonio Spadaro, SJ, who made opening remarks. Three Vatican dicasteries served as co-sponsors: the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. Georgetown’s president, John J. DeGioia, welcomed conference participants with a reception at the Villa Malta.
The Rome conference extended efforts of intellectual and cultural conversation that have taken place since last year among several dozen scholars, clergy, faith leaders, and activists from six continents—Zoom meetings, videos, blog posts, and the like. And it featured keynote addresses by Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See’s Under-Secretary for Relations with States, and Arturo Sosa, SJ, superior general of the Society of Jesus. The whole undertaking has been funded with a grant from the GHR Foundation, whose CEO and chair, Amy R. Goldman, will receive Commonweal’s Catholic in the Public Square award in October.
So what is the “culture of encounter”? Pope Francis, quoting Fratelli tutti in an address to the Association of Saints Peter and Paul in January, put it this way:
There is always movement in an encounter. If we all stand still, we will never meet. “Life, for all its confrontations, is the art of encounter” (Fratelli tutti, 215). That is what life is: the art of encounter. Encounter is, as it were, the oxygen of life. And this is why we need a culture of encounter, because “we, the people, should be passionate about meeting others, seeking points of contact, building bridges, planning a project that includes everyone” (216).
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