The culture of encounter is a theme that runs throughout the encyclical letter Fratelli tutti and it is a theme dear to Pope Francis, as it contrasts the “throw away” culture that characterises our global age. We are talking about a complex situation, which the Pope describes as follows:
In today’s world, many forms of injustice persist, fed by reductive anthropological visions and by a profit-based economic model that does not hesitate to exploit, discard and even kill human beings. While one part of humanity lives in opulence, another part sees its own dignity denied, scorned or trampled upon, and its fundamental rights discarded or violated”. (FT 22)
Thus – insists the encyclical – an ever larger portion of humanity seems to be expendable, people are no longer seen as a primary value to be respected and protected, and a convenient indifference prevails, the temptation to turn away from the suffering and the cry of the poor and the Earth. A tangible sign of this spirit of our times are the many walls, both physical and socio-cultural, that are being built all over the world, cementing a closure within oneself and one’s own interests. Thus waste takes on concrete forms such as unemployment, racism, xenophobia and new forms of slavery, and it is a structural dimension of the consumerist system. The object of waste is not only food, natural resources and superfluous goods, but often human beings themselves.
The culture of encounter, on the other hand, creates new relationships and leads one to experience fraternity and a universal communion that transcends differences. The theme of the culture of encounter emerges frequently in the teaching of Pope Francis, and in Fratelli tutti it is treated at length and in depth. It is a bundle of attitudes, values and practices that inform a way of life marked by openness to others, which is an essential dynamic for integral human development, for being fruitful as persons and as peoples. Without such openness, it is not possible to give life to a fraternal world, as communicated by the image of the polyhedron, which has many faces and different sides, but all together compose a unity rich in nuances, in which differences coexist integrating, enriching and enlightening each other (FT 215).
There are many elements of the culture of encounter highlighted in the encyclical. They revolve around three points of reference: hospitality, dialogue and commitment. These have an important effect on those who exercise them, but they are not primarily motivated by convenience, rather by gratuitousness.
Hospitality is an attitude and a practice of listening, it is the gesture of “sitting down to listen to the other person”. It consists in the encounter with humanity beyond one’s own group, and it is characterised by gentleness, which works “a liberation from the cruelty that sometimes penetrates human relationships, from the anxiety that does not let us think about others” (FT 224). On this point, the encyclical offers a touching reflection when it states: “a kind person appears and is willing to set everything else aside in order to show interest, to give the gift of a smile, to speak a word of encouragement, to listen amid general indifference”.
Dialogue is built above all on respect for the other’s point of view, for otherness and the identity of others, accepting the possibility that it may contain legitimate convictions or interests, in the knowledge that everyone has something important to give. Dialogue – explains Pope Francis – means “approaching, speaking, listening, looking at, coming to know and understand one another, and to find common ground” (FT 198), even though there may be aspects that one cannot take on as one’s own conviction (FT 203). However, confrontation with different perspectives and with those who are different is fundamental to a complete and clear knowledge of oneself. Looking at oneself from the other’s point of view, one can better recognise the particularities of one’s own person and culture, the riches, possibilities and limitations (FT 147). Moreover, dialogue, as a culture of encounter, also involves the bodily dimension, being present to the other in one’s humanity, through physical gestures, facial expressions, moments of silence, body language and even smell, trembling hands, blushes, and perspiration (FT 43). The importance of non-verbal communication cannot be overestimated, as well as of languages such as music and dance, visual arts, and other cultural expressions such as cooking.
In the culture of encounter, commitment calls for attitudes such as tenderness, defined as “love that draws near and becomes real” (FT 194), social inclusion and solidarity that is expressed concretely as service, which is largely caring for vulnerability. Solidarity is thinking and acting in terms of community, prioritising the life of all over the appropriation of goods by some. But it is also fighting against the structural causes of poverty, inequality, unemployment and denial of rights; it is facing up to the destructive effects of the empire of money and caring for our common home (FT 116).
Malankeba! A Transformative Encounter
The encyclical Fratelli tutti highlights how the existence of each of us is linked to that of others, so that “life is not simply time that passes; life is a time for interactions” (FT 66). And the stories of migrants in our time are paradigmatic stories of encounters between people and cultures (FT 133). I was lucky enough to experience all this thanks to the Malankeba! intiative, a space for sharing and intercultural dialogue that brings together groups of young Italians and young asylum seekers, mainly from Africa. It started in the wake of a summer camp in a shelter for asylum seekers in August 2016. The initiative started with the young people who took part in that camp and who then wanted to carry it on, involving more and more people and still continuing today in Padua, with the support of the Comboni Missionaries and of Associazione Popoli Insieme.
At the heart of the programme there are monthly thematic encounters, which include a welcoming reception, presentation games and mutual knowledge activities, sharing on a topical issue using participatory methods, a shared dinner, music and dance. Between two meetings, there are also other initiatives, such as training and in-depth study sessions, especially on intercultural dynamics; or even self-organised outings by participants, in mixed small groups. In the third edition of the programme, other activities were also introduced, such as “Malankeba football”, which involves young people in intercultural sharing through sport, and choreographic exchange, events in which participants share with each other dances from different cultures.
In this experience, young people meet in a group context, feeling well received and listened to. That creates the conditions for establishing horizontal, symmetrical relationships in a space free of commonplaces, predefined roles and prejudices, which allows for respectful dialogue open to cross cultural interactions.
Through appropriate activities and dynamics, the way of relating to each other is transformed. Young people grow in critical awareness of their own point of view and in welcoming that of others. They also develop the ability and determination to take action and interact with the territory for the reception and inclusion of migrants.
At the heart of Malankeba! lies the agency of young people, which is nurtured through their involvement and leadership in the educational team. The role of the team is to facilitate encounters through informal and flexible spaces, with the possibility of different levels of involvement that accommodate different needs of participants; the attention to group dynamics, and the provision of opportunities for sharing and freedom of expression. Another important element is the care of expressed and unexpressed needs and the use of meaningful languages, such as music, dance, play, the body and creative expression.
Gradually, growth unfolds thanks to the combination of experiential moments, deep sharing and reflection on the experience; as well as the exercise of creativity and the acquisition of intercultural skills, without forgetting moments of spirituality based on experience.
The Architecture of Encounter
From this and many other experiences over the last 20 years, I have come to realise that there is an architecture of encounter, that is, the invisible structures that underpin the dynamics of encounter and lead to transformative group and community experiences. By observing recurring patterns, I noticed 5 interdependent dynamics that generate encounter experiences that bond people together, create friendship and build conviviality and shared visions. Such dynamics are: evoking humanity, facilitating participation, transcending differences, listening deeply and taking care.
Simply welcoming and recognising people evokes in them a response from the depths of their humanity. People tend to be generative, it is as if a gratuitousness of giving is activated in them. This generosity can find expression, for example, when they are offered opportunities to talk about themselves, or to share in a personal way, or to narrate those transformative experiences that have made a difference in their lives. In a process of encounter, evoking people’s humanity must be an ongoing process, not something to be done just at the beginning. It ushers in a predisposition to see their shared humanity, rather than activating ideological oppositions.
Participation is a key element to trigger involvement and releases energy and creativity in people. That is why it is important to facilitate everyone’s participation. Participatory methods help to develop horizontal relationships, reciprocity, spontaneous collaboration and empathy, as well as opportunities to express oneself and feeling welcomed.
Every authentic encounter, however, brings out differences, which can be as much an asset as a source of conflict or division. Indeed, to arrive at communion, one must necessarily cross the troubled waters of differences and conflicts. This is where the third indispensable dynamic comes into play: that of transcending differences, without obliterating them. That means finding unity beyond what divides, or finding a shared place where each person feels at home while remaining themselves, and affirming their own truth.
It is therefore essential to listen in depth, combined with a contemplative gaze to perceive what is beyond the surface and sharpen discernment. It is a question of listening to the life that emerges in the encounter and in the experience of people, as well as their expressed and unexpressed needs, and of contemplating the presence and action of God in the situation.
Finally, it is important to take care of, or accompany the journey. The encounter remains a gift, but then what makes the difference – at community and social level – is the follow-up, the design of processes that promote peace and fraternity by animating, encouraging, supporting and promoting life and communion.
I have experienced these five dynamics as a sort of framework on which an encounter of humanity comes to life. Those who make them concrete by initiating processes and developing good practices are nothing less than artisans of fraternity.