By Cardinal Blase Cupich
The Lakota phrase mitakuye oyasin is often used at the end of a speech by an elder. It simply means, “we are all related, we are all relatives.” It expresses an understanding of human existence as belonging to a people who share a common heritage and destiny. And, in stark contrast to radical individualism, it reminds tribal members that they discover who they are, their purpose and dignity, through their relationships with one another.
This Native American expression came to mind as I read the Holy Father’s new encyclical, Fratelli tutti. Its title is the phrase St. Francis of Assisi used when he “addressed his brothers and sisters and proposed to them a way of life marked by the flavor of the Gospel.” Pope Francis now addresses all of humanity as one tribe, one race, the human race, to speak “to us of an essential and often forgotten aspect of our common humanity: we were created for a fulfilment that can only be found in love.” His aim is to spark a fresh way of living, by reminding us that only through our relationships as brothers and sisters to one another do we “gradually come to know ourselves.”
Rethinking how we live together on this cosmic speck of dust we call earth is even more imperative today, the pope writes. “The pain, uncertainty and fear, and the realization of our own limitations, brought on by the pandemic have only made it all the more urgent that we rethink our styles of life, our relationships, the organization of our societies and, above all, the meaning of our existence.”
Yet we must not be naive about the formidable obstacles facing the task of recovering our concern for all human beings: “Ancient conflicts thought long buried are breaking out anew, while instances of a myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism are on the rise. In some countries, a concept of popular and national unity influenced by various ideologies is creating new forms of selfishness and a loss of the social sense under the guise of defending national interests.”
With regard to the first, he tells us that despite the challenges we face, “God continues to sow abundant seeds of goodness in our human family. The recent pandemic enabled us to recognize and appreciate once more all those around us who, in the midst of fear, responded by putting their lives on the line. We began to realize that our lives are interwoven with and sustained by ordinary people valiantly shaping the decisive events of our shared history: doctors, nurses, pharmacists, storekeepers and supermarket workers, cleaning personnel, caretakers, transport workers, men and women working to provide essential services and public safety, volunteers, priests and religious… They understood that no one is saved alone.”
The centrepiece of the encyclical is the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which puts us in touch with the interior struggle that each of us experiences as we encounter those who suffer: “Each day we have to decide whether to be Good Samaritans or indifferent bystanders. And if we extend our gaze to the history of our own lives and that of the entire world, all of us are, or have been, like each of the characters in the parable. All of us have in ourselves something of the wounded man, something of the robber, something of the passers-by, and something of the Good Samaritan.” He asks: “Which of these characters do you resemble? We need to acknowledge that we are constantly tempted to ignore others, especially the weak. Let us admit that…we have become accustomed to looking the other way, passing by, ignoring situations until they affect us directly.”
This surely is not a new teaching of our faith. As the Holy Father reminds us, Christia ns from the earliest times understood that “if one person lacks what is necessary to live with dignity, it is because another person is detaining it. Saint John Chrysostom summarizes it in this way: ‘Not to share our wealth with the poor is to rob them and take away their livelihood. The riches we possess are not our own, but theirs as well.’ In the words of Saint Gregory the Great, ‘When we provide the needy with their basic needs, we are giving them what belongs to them, not to us.'”
While this parable challenges each of us to make a decision about how we include or exclude suffering humanity, those lying in the ditch along the roadside, it “can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project.” The starting point for us individually and as a human community is to cultivate “a fraternal openness that allows us to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives.”
The invitation of the Holy Father in this letter is quite simple and straightforward. “Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travellers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all.”
In other words, mitakuye oyasin.
This article was published in The Chicago Catholic and is republished with permission.