Pope Francis signs a new encyclical on human fraternity titled 'Fratelli tutti' after celebrating Mass at the tomb of St. Francis in Assisi on Oct. 3. (Photo: Vatican Media/AFP)
Years from now, when the book is written on the Covid-19 pandemic, we will be able to see with clarity what has been hidden while we've been in the thick of it. We'll know more about the disease and how it infects the body. We will know whether a successful vaccine was developed and administered, and what its effects were. We will know how the economy fared and how parishes, schools and other institutions within the church thrived or succumbed. And we will be able to assess the greater global response: Did we work together as one community, one people under God, or did we focus only on ourselves, as nations and as individuals?
The pandemic, Pope Francis wrote, "erupted" during the writing of Fratelli tutti, his latest encyclical, and it exposed the "false securities" of our world. "Aside from the different ways that various countries responded to the crisis, their inability to work together became quite evident," he wrote. "For all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all. Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality."
The "false securities" that have been exposed, the pope is saying, show us that we're doing it all wrong. This includes our priorities, our economy, our politics, our tendency to isolate ourselves from one another and most of all our stubborn, misguided and categorically false refusal to treat every human being with the innate dignity owed to him or her as a child of God.
In Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis offers a road map for helping us get through the pandemic not only on the right side of history but with our focus on heaven rather than on the things of this world. He reminds us that all is not lost -- in this time of pandemic and beyond -- if we acknowledge what needs to change and take appropriate steps. In the broadest sense, this means loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
"A worldwide tragedy like the Covid-19 pandemic momentarily revived the sense that we are a global community, all in the same boat, where one person's problems are the problems of all," Pope Francis wrote. "Once more we realized that no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together."
But what does it mean, in our current climate, in a more narrow sense? By now, eight months into the pandemic, we have made our choices. We have ranked our priorities, and we have structured our lives, our precautions and our actions accordingly. But have we done it correctly? Have we centered our lives around charity, or have we centered them around convenience, material wealth, fear or other self-centered tendencies? Have we allowed our decisions to be steered by politics or economics, or by faith? Have we taken every opportunity to treat one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, or have we turned our backs on one another at the worst possible time?
"We're on the brink," said Cardinal Michael Czerny, undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugees section of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, in a recent panel hosted by Georgetown University's Initiative on Social Thought and Public Life. "We need to pull back in a very human, in a very worldwide and in a very local way."
In Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis offers us an opportunity to re-evaluate our priorities, decisions and overall way of life. He offers us a way to step back from the precipice and to see one another as children of God in need of one another rather than individuals marching through life with the goal of "egotistic self-preservation." This is the silver lining of this global crisis. Is it an opportunity to remember that we are better together — indeed, that we have been created to be in relationship with one another, to love one another, no matter our differences. It is an opportunity to remember that we are brothers and sisters all, with the one loving God as our Father.
How we respond to this opportunity will prove whether or not the coronavirus pandemic will be a moment of change for the better or, as Pope Francis wrote, "just another tragedy of history from which we learned nothing."