Encountering Your Neighbor: A Catholic Social Teaching Perspective
Yohan Garcia, Catholic Social Teaching Education Coordinator
“The existence of each and every individual is deeply tied to that of others: life is not simply time that passes; life is a time for interactions.” (Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, no. 66)
Loving others can be difficult in a broken world, let alone recognizing God in each other. Pope Francis claims that “We are more alone than ever in an increasingly massified world that promotes individual interests and weakens the communitarian dimension of life” (Fratelli Tutti, no. 12). While it is easy to lose hope in this “throwaway culture,” the Holy Father encourages us to become agents of hope to unite, heal, and transform our world. As governments and societies push those considered a threat or insignificant to the margins, Jesus embraces those that have been alienated or seen as “other.”
God’s love for humanity is best illustrated through personal encounters. The Scriptures are full of stories of encounters between God and His people. To better understand the meaning of those encounters, I invite you to reflect on three biblical passages in which those who encountered Jesus were transformed by His words and actions, using the See-Judge-Act methodology. The See-Judge-Act theological reflection method, developed by the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), has its roots in Saint Thomas Aquinas’ intellectual approach to prudence and ethical virtue. This methodology allows us to discern “the signs of the times” and to recognize each person’s dignity and experience. It also allows us to create an authentic dialogue that moves us towards social action and establishing a sense of belonging for all people.
A Time to See: From Encounter to Redemption
Today, many people have trouble recognizing the dignity of those whom they do not know or who are different than them. We often see this in individuals’ and communities’ lack of welcome towards immigrants and refugees. This stems from a fear that their traditions, norms, and practices will be stripped away by new cultural values and practices. Such attitudes and feelings are due to a misplaced fear and can lead to oppression, segregation, and marginalization.
The Acts of the Apostles 9:1-9 describes the personal encounter between Jesus and Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. Saul had gained a reputation as a persecutor of Christians and a zealous proponent of Christianity’s extinction. Saul opposed the beliefs and practices of Christians. Saul was convinced that it was honorable for him to save Judaism and his beloved Jerusalem from this fast-growing movement. When Saul went after Christians living in Damascus, “a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ He said, ‘Who are you, Sir?’ The reply came, I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.” When Saul got up from the ground and opened his eyes, he could not see anything. Saul is later able to see when a disciple sent by God lays his hands on him.
Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus is very profound. In effect, it is through personal encounters that we can create new relationships. Catholic social teaching invites us to the “Damascus Road experience” to be transformed and reconciled to the Father who sent Jesus to break down the wall of enmity that separates peoples and to bring us into the light. Pastors can promulgate the Catholic social teaching of the Church and build commitment towards communion by inviting the laity to an experience of conversion in word and witness.
A Time to Discern (Judge): From Encounter to Healing
“The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. This belief is the foundation of all principles of our social teaching… We believe that every person is precious, that people are more important than things, and that the measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.” (Life and Dignity of the Human Person, Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching, USCCB)
The losses inflicted and the disparities revealed by the Covid-19 pandemic will continue to have detrimental effects on our society. The immeasurable toll of human suffering, loss of life, and careless consideration for our essential workers is immoral, unjust, and shameful. Additionally, the murder of George Floyd, which troubled the entire world, further revealed our society’s brokenness. It prompts us to ask, how much do we value other’s people lives and dignity?
Scripture gives a very concrete answer to the previous question in the Gospel of Luke 7:1-17, which recounts the story of Jesus healing the servant of a faithful centurion. It is an incredible and powerful story of faith and encounter. There are three critical elements to this story:
- The centurion highly valued the servant who was ill at the point of death.
- Even though the centurion did not know Jesus personally and was a Gentile, he believed in Jesus’ words and deeds. Luke tells us that the centurion sent elders of the Jews to ask Jesus to “come and save the life of his slave.”
- The faith of the centurion impresses Jesus, and it leads to a miracle.
Luke describes that when Jesus was a short distance from the house of the centurion, the commander sent messengers to tell Him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof. Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed.”
Hearing this, Jesus is amazed at the centurion’s faith. Surprisingly, Jesus encounters such deep faith in the outer parts of Jerusalem in a Gentile who believed that His Word was enough to heal his servant. Through his words and actions, the centurion acknowledges Jesus’ authority, and the sacredness of human life. This encounter urges us to ask ourselves, how do we approach Jesus? Do we come to Jesus with a sense of worthiness and humility? Do we approach others in the same way we approach Jesus?
Let us ask the Lord to help us develop a character of compassion that values all human life, respects workers' rights, and empowers us to serve the hurt, the poor, and the marginalized. Let us also remember that the economy ought to serve the people and that the end does not justify the means. “Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation.” (The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers, Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching, USCCB)
A Time to Act: From Encounter to Salvation
Pope Francis expressed his profound commitment to the marginalized at the unveiling of the statue dedicated to the “Angels Unawares.” Hebrews 13:2 reminds us “not to neglect hospitality,” but to become good neighbors “for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” The Holy Father stated that “as Christians, we cannot be indifferent to the tragedy of old and new forms of poverty, to the bleak isolation, contempt and discrimination experienced by those who do not belong to 'our group.'” (Holy Mass on the Occasion of World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Homily of Pope Francis, September 29, 2019, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2019/documents/papa-francesco_20190929_omelia-migranti.html)
Many migrants and refugees live invisibly without any sense of belonging or security. However, when people cross borders without the proper documentation, most are simply trying to find work to feed their families and attain more dignified lives. The Catholic social teaching principle of solidarity states that we are one human family regardless of our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. Therefore, we ought to pay serious attention to the needs of the poor and combat racism, oppression, and unjust laws. The preferential option for the poor and vulnerable also encourages us to base our societal decisions on the needs of the least amongst us. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves.
The Gospel of John 4:4-42 portrays Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Even though there are many significant elements to this encounter, I will focus on only three. The first is the Samaritan woman who represents the lowest of the low: a female in a society in which women had very little say, from a religious group despised by the Jews. The second key element from this story is how Jesus turned things around for this woman and her community. What is Jesus’ approach with the Samaritan woman? Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” Surprised and confused, the Samaritan woman replied, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” Jesus answered, “if you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” What is Jesus’ behavior with her? Instead of judging her, he provides a sense of belonging and security. Jesus sees and acknowledges her. When the woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Anointed; when he comes, he will tell us everything.” And Jesus says to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking with you.” The third key element of this story is how these words were enough for her to believe and moved her to run and proclaim the Good News. Indeed, it is incredible how she receives eternal salvation through this holy encounter and how her testimony leads others to believe and encounter Jesus for themselves.
Jesus accepts all. May we see our neighbors as a gift from God. May our actions recognize the dignity and experience of those living on the margins. We exist for one another and become more fully the people we were created to be by entering into a deeper relationship with God and our neighbors.
Additional questions for reflection:
Do I limit my relationship with others? Do I recognize the person in front of me? What God do I talk about in my ministry: a distant, cold, threatening God, or a God who is our kind and merciful Father? Am I going out to the peripheries to meet those living on the margins?
For more information on Catholic Social Teaching formation resources, please visit: https://www.usccb.org/offices/justice-peace-human-development/catholic-social-teaching
Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC.
Excerpts from Pope Francis’s Encyclical Letter, Fratelli Tutti, Copyright © 2020 Dicastero per la Comunicazione - Libreria Editrice Vaticana