Chapter Two of the encyclical is titled “A Stranger On The Road.” It comprises paragraphs 56-86. I am suggesting that the rest of the document is an unpacking of the implications of this chapter, a meditation on the parable of the Good Samaritan.
For style and approach, no one should be surprised at Pope Francis’ use of the parable. His technique for understanding is straight out of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola: that is, to spend extended times of meditation on various events or parables of the life of Jesus, placing oneself “in the picture.” Are we mostly the poor victim, or those who passed by on the other side of the road, or perhaps the innkeeper, or the Samaritan, or the robbers (or even the donkey!)? The Holy Father suggests (#69) that at various times we’ve been each one of them…
What is critical for Francis is establishing the context (##57-62, 80) for the story: one of Jewish disregard for Samaritans as less than worthy of the respect of their dignity. Yet it should not be that way: he gathers a large number of passages from Torah that speak of the respect and care that should be offered to “strangers/aliens” (#61). And of course the “punchline” is that the question is always “To whom can I act as a neighbor?” Especially, the Samaritan gave the injured man something precious: his time (#63). He saw, he chose to engage, he made himself a neighbor.
From this, Pope Francis asks the hard question: who are the ones in our society that we or our society as a whole regard as those to be avoided, or denied recognition of their dignity? He insists, “…we were created for a fulfillment that can only be found in love. We cannot be indifferent to suffering; we cannot allow anyone to go through life as an outcast….there are only two kinds of people: those who care…and those who pass by…” (##68, 70). As individuals and as nations, which do we wish to be?
The Pope’s veering into “politics” perhaps is witnessed best by his insight that for all the good the Samaritan wanted to do for the injured man, he needed the presence of the inn and the innkeeper to complete his care. And it is with us, too—social structures need to be in place so that our acts of love can have greater impact—we need to be people and societies that work together for the good of those who are suffering (#78). Even though #87 is part of Chapter Three, I want to end this with a quote from that section, one that, I think, sums up the import of the parable in a beautiful way: Human beings are so made that they cannot live, develop and find fulfillment except “in the sincere gift of self to others.” Nor can they fully know themselves apart from an encounter with other persons: “I communicate effectively with myself only insofar as I communicate with others.” No one can experience the true beauty of life without relating to others, without having real faces to love. This is part of the mystery of authentic human experience. “Life exists where there is bonding, communion, fraternity; and life is stronger than death when it is built on true relationships and bonds of fidelity. On the contrary, there is no life when we claim to be self-sufficient and live as islands: in these attitudes, death prevails.” For this chapter alone the encyclical is worthwhile!