A few weeks back I wrote a piece on why certain labels like conservative or liberal religious community are unhelpful. My argument was mainly that these labels bring a foreign concept – politics – into religion. However, as I thought about it, I realize a lot more places where we tend to label people. I want to compare our tendency to label people with the culture of encounter Pope Francis has called for.
Labels can be helpful: knowing I’m a “person with high blood pressure” helps me be more cautious about extra weight. But labels can also limit a person or reduce them: if you reduce me to my high blood pressure, you lose a lot of who I am as that is only the most minor aspect of me.
Labels can come in all forms. An older person can use the label “millennial” to disparage young people while the younger person can use the label “old fogey” to disparage old people. It isn’t just age: status, races, creeds, personalities, interests, or medical conditions can also be used to label and diminish others.
The problem with labels is that they make the person less, they inhibit our ability to see the other in their full humanity. On the other hand, Pope Francis has repeatedly emphasized seeing people in their full humanity.
Francis expresses the need to see the other fully in his use of the term “encounter.” This has been a great theme of his pontificate – “encounter” appears 34 times in Evangelii Gaudium. Those 34 times include: “places of encounter,” “encounter with others,” “a face-to-face encounter with others,” “encounter others with the right attitude,” “fraternal and missionary encounter,” “genuine spiritual encounter,” “dialogue as a form of encounter,” “encounter another person in love,” and culminating with “culture of encounter.”
What he is getting at with “encounter” is a deep personal one-to-one relationship with the fullness of the humanity of the other. It is accepting the person in who they fully are.
“Encounter” might seem a little odd to us but it’s important to remember the Pope speaks in Spanish. Encuentro – the Spanish word for encounter – has a similar meaning but is also spiritual. Some authors put the encounter with God or the experience of God is the primary meaning of the word.
Looking at what Francis means by encounter, I ran across this beautiful unpacking by Thomas Eggleston:
Two people encountering one another involves action, a give and take. But even more importantly, it involves openness to mystery and relationship. To encounter another person is to realize that no matter the depths to which we may get to know each other, the well of mystery will never be exhausted, a strange fact that long-time married couples know well. Interpersonal encounter in the Christian sense is thus both active and relational—it occurs between two or more persons or between a person and God. An encounter between two people is a graced experience in which one realizes a strange paradox: the seemingly contradictory human situation of the utter connectedness within which we live in solidarity with each other and at the same time the wild otherness which makes us our own beings living in solitude.
Pope Francis proposes “encounter” as both a way of interpersonal relationships and a way of ministry. Both require us not to reduce others to labels but see their full humanity, including their spiritual mystery. The spiritual part doesn’t live in any box; instead, it is what makes that person unique.
This is particularly true in ministry. We need to see a person as individual specially created by God. This is where I think Regnum Christi’s methodology of person-to-person corresponds closely to Francis’s culture of encounter. If we talk 1-on-1 to a dozen people in a row but give the same advice to all, that seems to miss both the point of person-to-person and fails to be an encounter with each.
Many of the greatest moments I’ve seen from Regnum Christi members is when they step past a label they might be tempted to use in order to see a person for who they are. This can happen on a foreign mission or a project to help the homeless.
I admit sometimes I write people off with labels but as I reflect on it in light of our person-to-person methodology and Francis’ culture of encounter, I find I need to change. Let’s all try to reach out to one person we might otherwise miss because of a label.