Pope Francis opened new horizons for the Catholic Churches in Asia with a groundbreaking talk to 70 bishops from 36 countries of this vast continent, on August 17, in which he encouraged them to engage in a dialogue that is based not only on identity but which also has to be done with “empathy.”
Near the end of his talk, he told the bishops that he earnestly hopes that those countries of Asia “with whom the Holy See does not yet enjoy a full relationship, may not hesitate to further a dialogue for the benefit of all.”
Six Asian countries do not have diplomatic relations with the Holy See today: China, North Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Brunei. Francis explained that he wished to dialogue with them, and made clear that “I am not only talking here of a political dialogue, but of a fraternal one,” in other words a dialogue with a brother.
He opened new horizons in the approach to dialogue and extended the hand of friendship to those countries when he spoke to his “brother bishops” in the crypt chapel of the shrine of martyrs at Haemi, about 80 miles south of Seoul. Afterwards he had lunch with the bishops, and later that day celebrated the closing mass for the Asian Youth Day.
He began his talk to the bishops by telling them that in Asia, with its great variety of cultures, “the Church is called to be versatile and creative in her witness to the Gospel through dialogue and openness to all.”
He reaffirmed the conclusion of the Asian synod in 1998 that “dialogue is an essential part of the mission of the Church in Asia.”
His immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, had firmly insisted that the point of departure, the fundamental point of reference, for Catholics who engage in dialogue with individuals and cultures must be their own identity as Christians.
In his talk today, which he delivered in Italian because it enabled him to make many significant unscripted additions and comments, Pope Francis too, like his predecessors, insisted on the crucial importance of identity: “We cannot engage in real dialogue unless we are conscious of our own identity.” But he significantly added, “Nor can there be authentic dialogue unless we are capable of opening our minds and hearts, in empathy and sincere receptivity, to those with whom we speak.”
By putting emphasis on empathy and not only on identity Pope Francis is bringing in a whole new dimension to the understanding of dialogue with other cultures and other religions. It is a dimension that has been given little—if any—emphasis in recent decades in pontifical and Vatican documents, where the focus has been centered so much on identity that it seemed as if the church too had bought into “the politics of identity.”
Explaining this dual emphasis to the very attentive and receptive Asian bishops, Francis told them: “A clear sense of one’s own identity and a capacity for empathy are thus the point of departure for all dialogue. If we are to speak freely, openly and fruitfully with others, we must be clear about who we are, what God has done for us, and what it is that he asks of us. And if our communication is not to be a monologue, there has to be openness of heart and mind to accepting individuals and cultures.”
He acknowledged that “the task of appropriating and expressing our identity does not always prove easy, since—being sinners—we will always be tempted by the spirit of the world.” And he put them on their guard against three “temptations” that threaten “the solidity of our Christian identity.”
The first is “relativism,” by which he meant “that everyday practical relativism which almost imperceptibly saps our sense of identity.” The second is “superficiality,” that is, “a tendency to toy with the latest fads, gadgets and distractions, rather than attending to the things that really matter.”
He identified the third temptation as that of “the apparent security to be found in hiding behind easy answers, ready formulas, rules and regulations, and silent accord on being in disaccord.” Referring to this last temptation, he recalled that Jesus had fought a lot against it and labeled as “hypocrites” those who operated in that way.
Well aware that there is a tendency to associate or link Christian identity to one or other aspect of Christian ethics or life, the Jesuit pope told the Asian bishops, “Our deepest identity as Christians is our living faith in Christ.” This is the starting point of dialogue, he stated. And it is this that Christians “are asked to share, sincerely, honestly and without pretense, in the dialogue of everyday life, in the dialogue of charity, and in those more formal opportunities that present themselves.”
“Because Christ is our life,” Pope Francis said they should speak “from him and of him” readily and without hesitation or fear. They should do so through “the simplicity” of their lives, their communication, and their works of loving service to our brothers and sisters.”
“Authentic dialogue” requires not only “a clear sense of our Christian identity” but also “a capacity for empathy,” the pope stated.
He explained that empathy in dialogue “challenges us to listen not only to the words which others speak, but to the unspoken communication of their experiences, their hopes and aspirations, their struggles and their deepest concerns.
This kind of empathy, he said, “must be the fruit of our spiritual insight and personal experience, which lead us to see others as brothers and sisters, and to ‘hear,’ in and beyond their words and actions, what their hearts wish to communicate.”
Dialogue understood in this way, he said, “demands of us a truly contemplative spirit of openness and receptivity to the other.” Indeed, the capacity for empathy “enables a true human dialogue in which words, ideas and questions arise from an experience of fraternity and shared humanity. It leads to a genuine encounter in which heart speaks to heart.”
By conducting dialogue with empathy, Francis said “We are enriched by the wisdom of the other and become open to travelling together the path to greater understanding, friendship and solidarity.
Pope Francis concluded by recalling that the theological rationale for engaging in dialogue in this way is found in the Incarnation, because “in Jesus, God himself became one of us, shared in our life and spoke to us in our own language."
Several Asian bishops told me afterwards that they were “overjoyed” by what the pope had said.