The Virtue of Closeness

The Virtue of Closeness

One of the current themes which characterise Pope Francis’s magisterium is surely the life concept of closeness. I am purposely opting to call closeness and qualify it as a life concept. Faith has to do with real life otherwise it becomes extinct.

In order to support this point and explain what it means I want to pinpoint what Pope Francis spoke about in his Angelus address of Sunday 22 October 2023. The subject matter of that Angelus reflection was to give to Caesar the things that are his and the things of God to God. He said:

The Gospel of today’s Liturgy tells us about some pharisees who join with the Herodians to set a trap for Jesus. They were always trying to set traps for Him. They go to Him and ask: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Mt 22:17). It is a ruse: if Jesus legitimizes the tax, He places Himself on the side of a political power that is ill-supported by the people, whereas if He says not to pay it, He can be accused of rebellion against the empire. A veritable trap. However, He escapes this snare. He asks them to show Him a coin, which bears the image of Caesar, and says to them: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 21). What does this mean?

These words of Jesus have become commonplace, but at times they have been used incorrectly – or at least reductively – to talk about the relations between Church and State, Christians and politics; often they are interpreted as though Jesus wanted to separate “Caesar” from “God”, that is, earthly from spiritual reality. At times we too think in this way: faith with its practices is one thing, and daily life is another. And this will not do. No. This is a form of “schizophrenia”, as if faith had nothing to do with real life, with the challenges of society, with social justice, with politics and so forth.

In view of this essential point we can now evaluate more what the Holy Father means when he talks about closeness in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti. First of all, let us remember that Fratelli Tutti speaks about fraternity and social friendship. Hence, closeness has to be seen in this fundamental perspective. 

In his encyclical, where he mentions the concept of closeness some nine times, Pope Francis starts by telling us that without closeness we isolate and devalue the human person in all his and her dimensions being as a person who has full rights to exist and live, a new born baby, an adult, a patient and as well as in his and her old age. Pope Bergoglio tells us:

A decline in the birthrate, which leads to the aging of the population, together with the relegation of the elderly to a sad and lonely existence, is a subtle way of stating that it is all about us, that our individual concerns are the only thing that matters. In this way, “what is thrown away are not only food and dispensable objects, but often human beings themselves”. We have seen what happened with the elderly in certain places in our world as a result of the coronavirus. They did not have to die that way. Yet something similar had long been occurring during heat waves and in other situations: older people found themselves cruelly abandoned. We fail to realize that, by isolating the elderly and leaving them in the care of others without the closeness and concern of family members, we disfigure and impoverish the family itself. We also end up depriving young people of a necessary connection to their roots and a wisdom that the young cannot achieve on their own (no.19).

It is through closeness that real hope is really restored and renewal is effectively generated in our shattered world. Pope Francis hammers this reality in a powerful way in paragraph 30 when he states: In today’s world, the sense of belonging to a single human family is fading, and the dream of working together for justice and peace seems an outdated utopia. What reigns instead is a cool, comfortable and globalized indifference, born of deep disillusionment concealed behind a deceptive illusion: thinking that we are all-powerful, while failing to realize that we are all in the same boat. This illusion, unmindful of the great fraternal values, leads to “a sort of cynicism. For that is the temptation we face if we go down the road of disenchantment and disappointment… Isolation and withdrawal into one’s own interests are never the way to restore hope and bring about renewal. Rather, it is closeness; it is the culture of encounter. Isolation, no; closeness, yes. Culture clash, no; culture of encounter, yes” (no.30).

For Pope Francis, closeness is the privileged springboard for caring for the needs of all people, much on the same lines as the Good Samaritan cared for his brother in dire need. Pope Francis teaches us: The Samaritan who stopped along the way departed without expecting any recognition or gratitude. His effort to assist another person gave him great satisfaction in life and before his God, and thus became a duty. All of us have a responsibility for the wounded, those of our own people and all the peoples of the earth. Let us care for the needs of every man and woman, young and old, with the same fraternal spirit of care and closeness that marked the Good Samaritan (no. 79).

Another aspect of closeness is that it is a life-giving constancy and solidity which supports others when they are struggling in their own fragility and vulnerability. It tends to create a golden bridge between those who serve and those who need to be served. Hence, closeness augurs well for the building of a solid fraternal future for humanity. Pope Francis affirms: At a time when everything seems to disintegrate and lose consistency, it is good for us to appeal to the “solidity”born of the consciousness that we are responsible for the fragility of others as we strive to build a common future. Solidarity finds concrete expression in service, which can take a variety of forms in an effort to care for others. And service in great part means “caring for vulnerability, for the vulnerable members of our families, our society, our people”. In offering such service, individuals learn to “set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power, before the concrete gaze of those who are most vulnerable… Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness and even, in some cases, ‘suffers’ that closeness and tries to help them. Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people” (no. 115).

In Francis’ understanding, closeness is intimately related to the neighbourhood. In paragraph 152 the Argentinian Pope says: In some areas of our cities, there is still a lively sense of neighbourhood. Each person quite spontaneously perceives a duty to accompany and help his or her neighbour. In places where these community values are maintained, people experience a closeness marked by gratitude, solidarity and reciprocity. The neighbourhood gives them a sense of shared identity. Would that neighbouring countries were able to encourage a similar neighbourly spirit between their peoples! (no.152).

When closeness is inserted in the media world we can experience networks of solidarity and encounter which, in turn, help us to live our human dignity and assist us in promoting the others’ human dignity, especially if they are suffering, in a singular way. Pope Francis elaborates on this point when he strongly says: 

In today’s globalized world, “the media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which in turn can inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all… The media can help us greatly in this, especially nowadays, when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances. The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God”. We need constantly to ensure that present-day forms of communication are in fact guiding us to generous encounter with others, to honest pursuit of the whole truth, to service, to closeness to the underprivileged and to the promotion of the common good. As the Bishops of Australia have pointed out, we cannot accept “a digital world designed to exploit our weaknesses and bring out the worst in people” (no.205).

Finally, closeness is to be championed because it helps us be one with the poor and advance their just aspirations. Pope Francis says: Often, the more vulnerable members of society are the victims of unfair generalizations. If at times the poor and the dispossessed react with attitudes that appear antisocial, we should realize that in many cases those reactions are born of a history of scorn and social exclusion. The Latin American Bishops have observed that “only the closeness that makes us friends can enable us to appreciate deeply the values of the poor today, their legitimate desires, and their own manner of living the faith. The option for the poor should lead us to friendship with the poor”(no. 234).

Let us pray with Pope Francis for the gift of being close to those who need our loving and attentive loving care:

Lord Jesus, help us to see in your Cross all the crosses of the world: the cross of people hungry for bread and for love; the cross of people alone and abandoned even by their children and kin; the cross of people thirsty for justice and for peace; the cross of people who lack the comfort of faith; the cross of the elderly who struggle under the weight of years and of loneliness; the cross of migrants who find doors closed in fear and hearts armored by political calculations; the cross of little ones, wounded in their innocence and their purity; the cross of humanity that wanders in the darkness of uncertainty and in the obscurity of temporary culture; the cross of families split by betrayal, by the seductions of the evil one or by homicidal levity and selfishness; the cross of consecrated people who tirelessly seek to bring your light into the world and feel rejected, derided and humiliated; the cross of consecrated people who, along the way, have forgotten their first love; the cross of your children who, while believing in you and seeking to live according to your word, find themselves marginalized and rejected even by their families and their peers; the cross of our weaknesses, of our hypocrisy, of our betrayals, of our sins and of our many broken promises; the cross of your Church that, faithful to your Gospel, struggles to spread your love even among the baptized themselves; the cross of the Church, your Bride, that feels constantly assailed from within and without; the cross of our common home that is gravely withering before our selfish eyes, blinded by greed and by power. 

Lord Jesus, revive in us the hope of resurrection and of your definitive victory over all evil and all death.

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Written by
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap