There is a paradox at the heart of Pope Francis’s astonishing new book – for it is not really about dreaming but about waking up to reality. Unlike most papal documents, you won’t find much discussion of doctrine or the finer points of church teaching – no, there is an urgency and directness about of this work, for time is short.

This is a time of crisis – the pandemic has challenged everything, and for Francis this means we all have to make a choice – we are being tested – do we continue in our old ways and turn in on ourselves in self-protection, or do we reach out to others in whatever way we can? He contrasts the health workers with those who seek to profit financially from Covid. Our true orientation, the direction of our heart, will be shown up in stark terms by the virus.

Yet Covid is only one of the crises facing us. There are wars scattered across the globe; billions spent on the arms trade; refugees fleeing poverty; millions dying of hunger; and, of course, the spectre of climate change and the destruction of the natural world. What is our personal reaction to this? Do we let ourselves be touched by all this pain and sorrow, or do we shrug our shoulders and say the problems are just too big to face? And yet, the Pope insists, there is always a way out of these crises. It is in this sense that we need to dream, and dream big – to rethink our priorities – what we value, what we seek – and to commit to act out in our daily life what we have dreamed. “God asks that we create something new. We cannot return to the false securities of the political and economic systems we had before the crisis…we need a politics that can dialogue with the poor, the excluded and the vulnerable, that gives people a say in the decisions that impact their lives”. We, each one of us, must reimagine our world.

We need to stand against individualism and embrace a global fraternity, to have responsibility for others and work for the common good. For Francis, “the world looks clearer from the margins”. When He chose to regenerate creation, God Himself chose a place of misery, exclusion and suffering. It is on the periphery that we encounter the true reality of our world, it is from here that true change must emerge. “What the Lord is asking now is a culture of service, not a throwaway culture. But we can’t serve others unless we let their reality speak to us”. He speaks of three evils in particular we need to avoid: narcissism (always seeking what is good for you personally; discouragement (constantly complaining and lamenting the situation); and pessimism and indifference. These paralyze you and choke off any fruitful action. Yes, there is no need for pessimism because God has promised that he is always with us, and that he can overcome every barrier.

Francis speaks of internal and external ecology: caring for each other with kindness, justice and respect and caring for our common home are two sides of the same coin and both are essential. The pandemic can and should be a time or renewal, when we can all deeply reflect on our lives and bring about radical changes. On a national scale this must not manifest itself as a tinkering around the edges. No, “we must redesign the economy so that it can offer every person access to a dignified existence while protecting and regenerating the natural world.”

We must reject populism, fundamentalism and post-truth narratives, which always in fact conceal the truth and offer false solutions. Francis, in line with his Jesuit training and using extraordinarily creative methods, outlines ways of discernment by opening ourselves up to the whole of reality.  Courageously avoiding easy and false “certainties” and opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit, we must be led by the “kindly light” as advocated by John Henry Newman. “Tradition is not a museum, true religion is not a freezer, and doctrine is not static but grows and develops…” You can see the eyebrows of some of the more orthodox members of the Curia rising in astonishment. He quotes Gustav Mahler: Tradition is not the repository of ashes but the preservation of fire”.

He speaks of reading the signs of the times, a crucial one of which is the role of women. He notes that the countries with women as leaders have on the whole reacted better than others, making swift decisions and communicating them with empathy. He also points to the strength of women in the gospels. What is the spirit saying to us? Surely He is prompting us to recognize, value and integrate the fresh thinking that women are bringing to this moment. Francis cites a number of female economists and thinkers who, rather than stressing solely the importance of increasing Gross Domestic Product, focus on matters such as removing deprivation and inequality and protecting the natural world. Women should have equal access to leadership. This of course has much wider implications for the role of women in the Church, though Francis does not discuss in detail the issue of women deacons or priests.

He speaks of his desire to rekindle the practice of synodality in the church, whereby people come together in respect and trust to resolve disputed matters and reach harmony. Such a model could be useful to society in general, to reduce the threat of war and increase international good will.

He speaks of the success and fruitfulness of the three synods during his Pontificate: the family, young people and Amazonia. He hints that the next synod will be about the increased development of synods and how these might better ensure that all the different voices and perspectives in the church might be represented in order to discern God’s will.

The Covid crisis, says Francis, can serve to awaken us to the fact that we have ceased to be a people who share common responsibilities and have become a culture of complacent individualism and well-being. We are now presented with a unique opportunity to act and to move towards a common destiny. A glimpse of this was given when men and women from very different backgrounds united to demonstrate following the murder by the police of George Floyd. “A people is a living reality that is the fruit of a shared integrating principle”. If we can act as a single people, life and society will change for the better. Ultimately this can only come from God, inspiring us to become conscious of our dignity, leading us to care for the poor and build strong institutions. It is the responsibility of the Christian to remind the people to respect the common good in service, fraternity and solidarity, and to reject a culture of wealth accumulation… “In the post-Covid world, neither technocratic managerialism nor populism will suffice. Only a politics rooted in the people, open to the people’s own organization, will be able to change our future.

Human trafficking, the refugee and migrant crises, the arms and drugs trades, homelessness, wildlife poaching, the death penalty, abortion – all the major issues affecting human dignity and safety are met head-on in this document.  “It is unacceptable to deter immigration by letting hundreds of migrants die in perilous sea crossings…The Lord will ask us to account for each one of these deaths”. “If the Church disowns the poor, she ceases to be the Church of Jesus.” He speaks of his support for Popular Movements which pursue social and economic action locally, working for families, neighborhoods and the common good. Jesus walked with the poor, the outcasts and the marginalized, and so should we. He movingly recounts his experiences as Archbishop of Buenos Aires when he worked incognito with the poor and destitute. “By opening up to the margins, to the people’s organisations, we unleash change”.

In concluding, the Holy Father makes specific recommendations with regard to Land, Lodging (homes and habitat), and Labour, drawn largely from the encyclicals Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti. He includes a recommendation that consideration be given to the Universal Basic Income and reducing working hours to guarantee the dignity of those in poverty – “to guarantee a world where dignity is valued and respected through concrete actions is not just a dream but a path to a better future”.

What must we do? he asks. He sets out two key concepts –


Don’t get bogged down in the same patterns of thinking and acting – Don’t centre on yourself. Be like a pilgrim, who opens herself to new horizons so that when she comes home she is no longer the same. At the moment, we are in a labyrinth with a myriad of possible pathways. One, perhaps reflecting our egotism, is the hope that after Covid things will go back exactly as they were, forgetting that they weren’t so fine before.

Decenter and Transcend But Francis says we have been given a ball of thread to follow to the exit and that thread is our creativity and the Spirit calling us out of ourselves. To get out of the labyrinth we must leave behind the “selfie” culture and, by looking to the needs of others, truly find ourselves.

We discover that we are part of a people with a shared destiny – we belong to each other in mutual relationship. Let yourself be shaken up and challenged says the Pope, perhaps by people who need visiting (or phoning), by an ecological project, or someone in your family who needs you.

When you feel the pull of that challenge, stop, pray.  If you are a Christian read the Gospels. Open yourself, decentre, transcend.

And then act.

Socius Novus

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