The Art of Living: Pope Francis and the Culture of Encuentro

Pope Francis is sometimes interpreted as giving specific policy advice to world leaders. But at the heart of his message on diverse matters such as globalization, immigration, poverty, and abortion is a personal call to conversion not just for politicians, but for everyone, to live less for self and more in solidarity with the human family.

The Holy Father is not as interested in economic and political theory as he is in offering a practical message that challenges all of us to examine how we live. How well do we fulfill our responsibilities toward others, whether it be the people close to us in our families, friendships, workplaces, and parishes or those who need our care in our local communities and the world?

In his 2014 World Day of Peace address, Pope Francis laments the ways the modern world leads us to focus on self and not on the people God has placed in our lives. “New ideologies, characterized by rampant individualism, egocentrism, and materialistic consumerism, weaken social bonds,” he said. Indeed, it’s as if our modern world trains people to pursue their own interests—to seek what is beneficial, advantageous, enjoyable or pleasant for them more than finding their fulfillment in seeking what is best for others.

With this focus on self-interest, our daily relationships tend to be pragmatic and selfish. Christ called us to a sacrificial love that seeks out what is best for others. But instead of living out His new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you,” many of our relationships are characterized by a utilitarian attitude that says, “I’ll give you this so that you give me that” and “I’ll do this for you so that you do this for me.” And this self-centered spirit of our age gets us to shun our responsibilities toward others— whether they be in our family, community, the Church, or the poor.

Our Role in the “Culture of Exclusion”

In Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis expresses this crisis of communal commitment perhaps best when commenting on our indifference toward the needs of the poor.

To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own” (no. 54, emphasis added).

Here, Francis is not addressing the problem of poverty itself. His concerns run much deeper.

The root problem is a lack of solidarity with our brethren in the human family who are in need. So caught up in our own lives, we neglect our responsibility to care for others and in some cases are not even aware of their existence as human persons or their needs. Often we are so busy, for example, pursuing our own careers, wealth, possessions, and dreams of financial security, we don’t even seem to notice that many people around us are barely surviving day-to-day. The Pope asks, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” (no. 53). Similarly, we are eager for the release of the latest movie, the latest gadget, the latest sale, but we are not even aware of the destitute living in or near our own communities. “The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us” (no. 54).

This pervasive indifference contributes to what Pope Francis calls the “culture of exclusion.” Countless human beings among us are not even taken into consideration as a part of society. They are completely overlooked. “It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression. . . . those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised—they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the ‘exploited’ but the outcast, the ‘leftovers.’” (no. 53).

To overcome the “culture of exclusion” Pope Francis calls us to build a “culture of encounter”—a culture in which we get out of ourselves and have a personal encounter with the people around us. We must really look at them, listen to them and treat them as true brothers and sisters. He illustrated this vision of encounter poignantly in a 2013 address to pilgrims in Buenos Aires in which he challenges us to give something much more valuable than money to the poor: ourselves.

I sometimes ask people: “Do you give alms?” They say to me: “Yes, Father”. “And when you give alms, do you look the person you are giving them to in the eye?” “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t really notice.” “Then you have not really encountered him. You tossed him the alms and walked off. When you give alms, do you touch the person’s hand or do you throw the coin?” “No, I throw the coin.” “So you did not touch him. And if you don’t touch him you don’t meet him.”1

These words from Pope Francis challenge us not just to meet the poor, but also to have a true “encounter”—encuentro in Spanish— with the people who are part of our daily lives. Do I know what is going on in the lives of the people in my office? Do I take time to truly share life with my children? Do I know what is weighing on my spouse’s heart? As relational beings, all persons long for someone to walk beside them, to share the joys and sorrows, dreams and fears, triumphs and hardships that make up life.

But today, there is a “profound poverty of relationships,” Pope Francis says (Message for World Day of Peace 2014, no. 5). We are too busy pursuing our own projects and entertaining ourselves on screens to see the real face of the people in our lives. Instead of experiencing a personal encounter—a true sharing of life together—most of our interactions are reduced to getting the information we need from a coworker, updating our boss on our projects, successfully getting the kids to pick up their toys and texting our spouse about what to buy at the store. There is much communication between people in this flurry of activity, but little communio, few opportunities to encounter each other personally.

A Deeper Poverty

This is why Mother Teresa said that some of the greatest poverty in the world is found in the prosperous West. It is not a material poverty, but a deeper one—a poverty of friendship, love, and care. Her Missionary of Charity sisters often describe how it is much harder to serve the poor in the United States, for example, than the poor in India. One Sister in Calcutta told me, “With the poor here in India, we can help satisfy their hunger. We can give them food. But many people in the United States have a hunger that is not as easy to fill: they hunger for love—the love of their parents, their brother or sister, their spouse.”

Mother Teresa once described this kind of poverty of relationships when she visited a nursing home where children send their elderly parents.

I saw in that home they had everything, beautiful things, but everybody was looking towards the door. And I did not see a single one with [a] smile on their face. And I turned to the Sister and I asked: How is that? How is it that [the people] have everything here, why are they all looking towards the door, why are they not smiling? . . . And she said: “This is nearly every day, they are expecting, they are hoping that a son or daughter will come to visit them. They are hurt because they are forgotten.”2

As she reminded us, we don’t have to turn far to encounter the poor: “Maybe in our own family we have somebody who is feeling lonely, who is feeling sick, who is feeling worried, and these are difficult days for everybody. Are we there, are we there to receive them?”

Mother Teresa often said, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.” Pope Francis makes a similar point: “What Jesus teaches us first of all is to meet each other, and in meeting to offer each other help. We must know how to meet each other. We must build, create, construct a culture of encounter. How many differences, how many problems in the family there always are! Problems in the neighborhood, problems at work, problems everywhere,” he said. We need to build “the culture of encounter [by] going out to meet each other.”3


1 Pope Francis’ video message to the faithful of Buenos Aires on the occasion of the feast of St. Cajetan, August 7, 2013.

2 Bl. Mother Teresa, Nobel Prize acceptance address, 1979.

3 Pope Francis’ video message to the faithful of Buenos Aires.