July 11, 2021

Dreaming as a single family: A reflection on the Pope’s Encyclical


By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

My father, a lovely and loving man, died unexpectedly in June 2020. My mother and six of us children were left heartbroken. Then, in March, on my father’s birthday, my beloved mother also died unexpectedly. I am still unable to absorb it all; it feels like living in a novel whose plot I do not believe.

The force of grief shakes and disorients; foundations you once thought solid become porous, ideas once held firmly begin to slip through your fingers. Grief brings, too, a ravenous and wretched hunger for answers, for assurance, for comfort. This hunger is almost never sated. I read Pope Francis’ Encyclical Fratelli Tutti in this state of emotional upheaval. It felt like a gift which, until I received it, I did not know I needed. How rare to encounter a vision of the world that is both inspirational and accessible; guided by his reflection, it seems suddenly possible to reach the better angels of our nature.

He is practical in his understanding that there is an unfinished quality to the work that must be done to achieve his vision when he writes that “Goodness, together with love, justice and solidarity, are not achieved once and for all; they have to be realized each day.” He shows how alert he is to the universal nuances of longing and belonging when he writes that “there is no worse form of alienation than to feel uprooted.” He acknowledges important psychological realities in these words “destroying self-esteem is an easy way to dominate others,” which apply not only to the political arena of colonization but to the intimate spaces of abusive relationships. He refreshingly rejects the easy platitudes often used when addressing questions of political injustice in these words: “It is moving to see forgiveness shown by those who are able to leave behind the harm they suffered, but it is also humanly understandable in the case of those who cannot.” 

Above all else, and perhaps because grief is a daily struggle against a defensive, nihilistic ‘me versus the world’ individualism, I felt inordinately moved by the exhortation to “dream, then, as a single human family.” But this beautiful sentence brought darker questions about the church itself, because of my own personal experience. Does the Catholic Church, especially the Nigerian Church, see itself as a single family? For it must first see itself as a single family before it is able to dream as one.

I was raised Catholic, on the campus of the University of Nigeria; we attended a love-filled church run by the Spiritan congregation. As a teenager, I wore my Catholic identity like a favorite dress, joyfully and reverently. I was a self-styled Catholic apologist, arguing passionately with the Protestant children in defense of such subjects as the Blessed Virgin Mary, tradition, and transubstantiation. Years later, something changed. My pious passion withered.

I remember my first moment of recoil from the church, when a gentle and devout couple was banned from communion because their daughter had married an Anglican. It felt to me not only uncharitable, but unnecessarily so, as did other subsequent incidents, such as poor people who were refused burials because they owed money to the church. These happened in my ancestral hometown, in a provincial parish far from the university campus where I grew up. But after the Spiritans left, an uncharitable chill also descended on my university church. On Sundays, women of all ages were often harassed, men barring their entry into the church unless they wrapped themselves in shawls to hide their shoulders and arms (which apparently would cause men in the church to sin.) Entire homilies were dedicated to the wiles and evils of women. How unsettling to sit through Mass feeling as though one, simply by being born female, had become inherently guilty of a crime. My alienation deepened; I had become a person in a place that my spirit had outgrown.

 Even if I still attended Mass from time to time, it brought me no meaning, and I have since come to believe that meaning is what makes life worthwhile. Fratelli Tutti has provided the possible language for this phenomenon: social friendship. Perhaps it was a lack of social friendship that lay at the root of my withdrawal.

But what of social friendship within the church hierarchy? When Pope Francis writes of “a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words,” I was reminded of the words of the former archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital: “I arrive in Cologne as the Archbishop of Abuja, and I want to meet the Archbishop of Cologne.

The question I ask myself is, ‘Am I going to meet a brother archbishop?’ Theoretically, theologically, of course I am. We are both successors of the apostles, we are both in charge of a whole group of Christ’s faithful. But when I arrive in Cologne, I have to pass through the whole bureaucracy of the archdiocese before I can get an appointment to see the archbishop, if you are lucky enough to get one.”

We see in these words evidence of an equality that is not truly equal. It is common now to tiptoe around certain words such as racism, even when it is the only word that most accurately describes a situation. Pope Francis writes that “instances of racism continue to shame us, for they show that our supposed social progress is not as real or definitive as we think.” Black clergy and religious cannot possibly share the surprise implied in this statement because they know, from experience, that social progress is far from complete.

 They have experienced racism in the church, often not the familiar vile and vulgar manifestation which is easy to recognize and to condemn, but the subtler version, which kills the spirit and lingers poisonously in the mind. This kind of racism shields from direct view the superficiality of a social friendship that is still on the level of words. In this example, both Bishops may well be successors of the apostles but the one who is seen as coming from a lesser place is accorded a lesser dignity.

True social friendship is impossible in the absence of dignity, both among the church’s leaders, and between them and the faithful. My family’s experiences during my parents’ funerals served to reaffirm, if not renew, my reservations about the Nigerian church. So much could have been handled with compassion for the grieving but was not. So many opportunities to show dignity were left unused. Our communication with the local church was more of an exercise in priestly power than anything else; we begged and negotiated for a suitable funeral date, with an exaggerated but insincere deference shown to the priest lest he change his mind and not agree to the funeral. 

At the Thanksgiving Mass – a strange concept, as giving thanks was the last thing I felt like doing a day after the funeral – my siblings and I were seated in the front pews, all wearing purple, my mother’s favorite color, all still in shocked disbelief to have buried her so soon after my father. 

I was immersed in sadness and did not realize right away when the parish priest began to criticize me about a press interview I had given a few months before. In that interview, I spoke of the Nigerian church’s focus on money. The Nigerian church, I said, had become too much about money. I have seen church doors locked to prevent people from leaving during fundraisings. I have watched a priest announce his account details to a funeral congregation and then prance about the altar, phone in hand, waiting for alerts from the bank to appear on his phone screen. It is unbecoming.

I do not advocate for a poor church, for despite traditional Christianity’s extolling of poverty, a poor church could not possibly carry out its works of mercy. Pope Francis in his nuanced criticism of modern capitalism seems to seek not a dismantling but a reimagining of capital. I advocate instead for a church in which giving does not feel backed by an oblique threat or by the fear of embarrassment, as is often the case in the Nigerian church. A church in which the faithful give voluntarily, preparedly rather than in ambush, and always out of love. 

After the interview, there was both criticism and support of my views, as one would expect, but I had not given that interview any thought in months. And so I was shocked by the parish priest standing at the altar and issuing a rejoinder, during my mother’s funeral, in terms so petty and so ill-timed as to trivialize the crushing enormity of her death.

One might expect that I, in light of this, would retreat even more firmly from the church. On the contrary, I have begun again to regularly attend Sunday Mass, driven by grief’s hunger. I do not consider myself a Catholic, but rather a person who is slowly finding solace in Catholic rituals. The distinction is important, because identity assumes responsibility. To be Roman Catholic is to be expected to account for all its positions, which I, in all honesty, cannot. But this slow return, as it were, has come as a result of conversations with Nigerian clergy – a priest and a Bishop – who demonstrate these words of Pope Francis: “Yet even then, we can choose to cultivate kindness. Those who do so become stars shining in the midst of darkness.”

And so there is of course charity practiced in the Nigerian church. There is of course social friendship in thousands of parishes. It is never a simple story. But can we have a diminished darkness, which would mean an increased number of shining stars? The presence even of one parish, darkly devoid of social friendship, taints all the others because the church is a unified body and all drink from its central spring.

 The church is powerful – the church would not be the church without its power – but what if that power were worn more lightly? This is where the imagination matters.

 That, starting with the knowledge of how things are, we can use the human imagination to create a vision of how things can be, and that vision becomes a propelling force, an icon of possibility. I am struck by an overriding theme in Fratelli Tutti, which is the centrality of the human imagination. Pope Francis suggests that we must re-think and re-imagine and re-envision, and that this work of the imagination must be courageous and step outside of the established norm.

What if the provincial church in my ancestral hometown were re-imagined as a place of ‘genuine encounter,’ a place of real dialogue which Pope Francis distinguishes from the shallower and more feverish ‘parallel monologues?’ I imagine a change in the church’s relentless prioritizing of law over love. I imagine a church filled with respect for clergy but free of that ever-present cowering air. I imagine a church where the warden is not mean-faced and does not bang joylessly on the pews, where children are not treated harshly, where the priest does not smack a Mass server at the altar during Mass. A place that might be described with these words, which Pope Francis uses in reference to people who care in concrete ways about others: “How marvellously human!” In the practice of the spiritual, the human is essential. Something deeply human in us awakens, and thrives, in the face of love and kindness, and that humanness is the route to the spiritual.

Nigeria society is deeply religious, easily superstitious and full of economic uncertainty. Because of these conditions, people will attend Mass from habit and from fear, but it is genuine social friendship that will bring those who attend simply from love. And it is those who will, finally, be able to dream as a single human family.