See the good in everyone; seek the good together – Pope Francis

Pope Francis has an unmatched gift to speak to millions of people as if heart-to-heart. He speaks of Christian faith in a way that is fresh and appealing: God loves each one, without exception, intensely and personally.

In a homily at Mass in May 2013, Francis insisted that God had redeemed “all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!” Even the atheists, he reiterated. “The Lord created us in God’s image and likeness, and … all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil.” God expects us to treat each other as living images of God, with care and respect. Francis said, “We must meet one another doing good.”

Francis is appealing to all people of good will, who are concerned about social justice and human wellbeing, that we must join together in advancing the good of humanity and the planet, especially to eradicate hunger and the worst forms of poverty, and to redress global warming.

Nothing emphasises more clearly the need for united action than the emerging threats from climate change, not just to the lives of hundreds of millions of people, but to the very planetary systems on which all life depends.

Moreover, “Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labour is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: it is a commandment”, Francis said in Bolivia in mid-2015. He urges people not to be discouraged by new challenges, since “the Lord is active in the work of the world.”

Since he became pope, Francis has constantly reiterated his message in his talks and writings, in addresses in various countries, and to major gatherings of world leaders, including the US Congress and the United Nations General Assembly. He insists that concern for peace, development and social justice springs from the very heart of the gospel.

He believes that while we may have different understandings of the final good in various religious and philosophical traditions, we need to dialogue about the practical good we can achieve, insightfully respect the consciences of others in their perceptions of the good, and work together as much as possible. He says that in God’s eyes, what matters for all of us, whatever our beliefs, is that we care for the marginalised and struggling: “when did we see you hungry, thirsty, in prison …”?

Speaking to 2200 representatives at the 10-yearly conference of the Italian Church in November 2015, Francis said, “We are not in an era of change, but a change of era”. He favoured a church “that is unsettled, always closer to the abandoned, the forgotten, the imperfect. Wherever you are, never build walls or borders, but meeting squares and field hospitals.”

Nature as God’s precious gift to us

The reason people of different beliefs can seek the good together stems from the fact that God has created all that is. “The root of this possibility of doing good – that we all have – is creation.”

In his encyclical Laudato Si: on care for our common home, the pope uses the famous song from St Francis of Assisi in praise of creation to recall us to a sense of the presence of God in the entire universe, sustaining and loving every part of it, all the creatures included, and especially of course us human beings who are entrusted with care of this common home. Many of us in our crowded, busy cities have lost this religious sensitivity to the natural world, though we may try to connect with it again in our gardens, in the bushland or countryside, in art or music.

Yet this sensibility to nature resonates powerfully through Aboriginal spirituality for instance, with its sense of the sacredness of the land and of places, of ritual and symbols. Indeed, all indigenous peoples have this sense, and the pope is urging us to recover this feel for the beauty and fragility of nature, as a precious gift of the Creator that we must urgently protect and nurture, not destroy.

Human wellbeing as God’s concern

Pope Francis insists that we all need to listen closely to people’s experience, in their struggles, tears and disappointment. He repeats a puzzling phrase, that “realities are more important than ideas”, meaning that moral conscience develops and matures by processes of discernment about life experience, about what truly enhances our human wellbeing. Such a process of reflection occurs through careful listening to others, dialogue and prayer, personally and on a wider social scale.

The pope favours an approach that is clearly pastoral rather than doctrinal. He is of course not against doctrine, but is inviting a conversation about how well church guidelines and policies meet the needs of people today, especially those in difficult circumstances.

He recognises that church thinking has developed in response to particular needs and must continue to adapt to changing circumstances. “Christian doctrine is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, interrogatives – but is alive, knows being unsettled, enlivened…. it has a body that moves and grows, it has a soft flesh: it is called Jesus Christ”, he said to the Italian Church conference.

Francis draws from the gospels many stories about the concern of Jesus for people in trouble or distress, and how his death and Resurrection dramatise God’s solidarity with our human predicaments and God’s commitment to human wellbeing. That is what salvation and liberation fully mean, not just in the next life; our commitment to the wellbeing of others prepares our way to the next life.

For Francis, discernment must lead to appropriate action, not just by governments and global institutions, but by everyone according to their circumstances. He urges us to take responsibility where we can, whether young or old: listening and making our voices heard, organising in local groups, taking action to challenge unjust practices, adopting a modest lifestyle, and conserving resources.

“Let us together say from the heart: no family without lodging…, no individual without dignity, no child without childhood, no young person without a future, no elderly person without a venerable old age.”