Returning to the source

NOEL COLFORD offers a reflection on the spirit of the Gospel at the heart of Pope Francis’s encyclical.

Pope Francis declared in his prayer intention for January, ‘We believers must return to our sources …. for us Christians the wellspring of human dignity and fraternity is the Gospel of Jesus.’ 

This is precisely what he himself has done in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti and he has succeeded in capturing the true spirit of the Gospel. Fratelli Tutti is built on the premise that ‘God created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and called them to live together as brothers and sisters, to fill the earth and make known the values of goodness, love and peace’. 

Pope Francis says that faith has untold power to inspire and sustain our respect for others, for believers come to know that God loves every man and woman with infinite love and ‘thereby confers infinite dignity’ on all humanity.  He expresses very beautifully what it means to love when he says that kindness is an attitude that is gentle, pleasant and supportive; it speaks words of comfort, strength, consolation and encouragement and it entails esteem and respect for others.  He stresses that love values others, and so is open to dialogue and cooperation. 

These ideas may not be expressed explicitly in the Gospels but they are implied in the two great parables of St. Luke’s Gospel, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.  It is only when we don’t understand these parables that we can fully understand them, and we can only appreciate what is said when we notice what is not said. 

The parable of the Good Samaritan is told to answer the question, who is the neighbour I am called to love?  But the story is about who gives love rather than who receives love.  Why is that? The answer lies in the word that is not said, but should be said. 

The lawyer is asked to choose between the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan.  He should obviously answer ‘the Samaritan’, but he doesn’t. The Samaritans were traditional enemies of the Jews, hated and despised. The lawyer cannot bring himself to say that the Samaritan was a better person than a Jewish priest.  His prejudice chokes him.  Jesus is not just saying that the neighbour we are called to love is every human person, whatever their race, religion or background – he is teaching what it means to love.  It is not simply to have compassion and care for others, it is to respect them.  The Samaritan, the despised foreigner, is the good person, worthy of respect and admiration. 

Pope Francis insists that real love involves respect and esteem for others.  Compassion without respect becomes pity, and patronising pity arouses anger rather than gratitude. When we come to the parable of the Prodigal Son the question that arises is, ‘Why does Jesus not finish the story? Why doesn’t he tell us how the elder son responds to his father’s appeal?’ 

The answer is surely that Jesus cannot finish the story – only his listeners can.  They are the elder son. They are complaining like the elder son that Jesus welcomes sinners.  Jesus is appealing to them.  How will they respond?  When the elder son refers to the younger not as his brother but ‘this son of yours’, he is not only rejecting his brother but his father as well.  His self righteous indignation masks a deep resentment against both of them. 

The father forgives the prodigal because he loves him.  He rejoices at his repentance.  The elder son has no real love either for his brother or his father; yet his father loves him too.  He goes out humbly to plead with him.  He addresses him tenderly as his child.  He assures him of his position. The father treats both his sinful sons, the repentant and the unrepentant, with extraordinary respect. He actually honours the prodigal for his courage and humility and he commends the faithful service of the elder son. 

Jesus is teaching that God is our Father who loves all of us as his children.  Even when we fail him and turn against him, he still cares for us and longs for our repentance.  In his love he is ready and anxious to forgive.  If we appreciate the beauty of his love for us, we will not only trust in his love and forgiveness, but see his other children as our brothers and sisters and be eager to love and forgive as we are loved and forgiven. 

Jesus himself is reaching out in love to his arrogant opponents.  Perhaps they will see themselves in the elder son. Perhaps their own hard hearts will be touched by the beauty of the father’s love and the respect Jesus is showing them.  His most beautiful parables are told to his enemies with respect and without accusation. They too can see and change.  

Pope Francis insists that our love must extend to the wayward and the wrongdoer, both repentant and unrepentant. His teaching that we should see all people as our brothers and sisters, children of the one loving Father, needing our care, respect and forgiveness, expresses the heart of the Gospel. At the beginning of the encyclical he declares, ‘It is my desire, in this time, by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we can contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity. Fraternity is in all men and women.’ 

His appeal is addressed to all people. Christians and non-Christians alike can see the beauty and feel the power of his message.

Noel Colford is parish priest of Holy Cross, Arran.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.