Moving Toward a Culture of Encounter on Inauguration Day

Sister Simone Campbell, SSS
February 4, 2021

Two weeks ago, our nation’s 46th President Joe Biden woke up and, with our first woman Vice President Kamala Harris, brought our nation’s Congressional leadership – men and women of both parties, of various religious backgrounds – to a morning Catholic mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. From that private, socially distanced mass, President Biden went on to take the oath of office on the balcony of the Capitol in a ceremony imbued with themes of Catholic Social Justice.

With so many challenges facing our nation, I cannot think of a more important time for Catholic Social Justice to take center stage, inviting people of all faiths or secular backgrounds to come together in this critical work of rebuilding our nation and guiding our way forward together. For too many years, racism, sexism, and growing economic inequality have been promoted by White House policy. In Congress, we’ve maintained the status quo with harmful repercussions for Black people, Native Americans, Latinx and AAPI communities, women, families and individuals on the economic margins, and all those with intersecting identities.

On Inauguration Day, the whole country witnessed speech after speech testifying to the value of caring for one another, especially those members of our community facing the most difficult circumstances. We also heard about the critical importance of caring for our planet, being active participants in our communities – what Pope Francis calls “meddling in politics,” and more. These values, inspired by principles of Catholic Social Justice, call us to put the common good above the benefit of any individual or small group. This is what is needed in our nation right now.

Putting the Focus on Listening

In his inaugural address, President Biden said, “Let us listen to one another. Hear one another. See one another.” In his own words, President Biden called us to what Pope Francis has been promoting for years – a culture of encounter. This is the culture fostered by Nuns on the Bus, traveling to different cities and states, meeting people and families and just listening to their stories. I invite you to listen to these stories, which we’ve shared over the years.

In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis writes, “The ability to sit down and listen to others, typical of interpersonal encounters, is paradigmatic of the welcoming attitude shown by those who transcend narcissism and accept others, caring for them and welcoming them into their lives. Yet today’s world is largely a deaf world…” As we move forward we must do whatever we can to change from being a world closed off from listening and meeting one another. We are called by our faith and patriotism to create something new. We are challenged to create a culture of encounter out of a culture of indifference. As President Biden said, “We must end this uncivil war…  We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”

However, it was quickly evident that for us Catholics the “uncivil war” does not just refer to the insurrection in the Capitol on January 6, 2021. It was also evident in the attack by Archbishop Gomez, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, on President Biden before he was inaugurated and then on Inauguration day itself. Archbishop Gomez’s actions were not endorsed by the Bishops’ conference and, in fact, have been criticized by many of its members. Pope Francis recently affirmed the Archbishop’s work on immigration reform. With the specific reference, it seems to me that there is an implicit critique of his attack on our new president.

In order to end this “uncivil war,” I believe that we at NETWORK need to continue our effort at encounter and listening. I know from listening to women across the country that the focus of some of our leadership on the criminalization of abortion does nothing to respond to many of their real needs. Let’s begin working to end the uncivil war by lifting up women’s stories and their real needs.

Building Anew Together

In her powerful inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb,” Amanda Gorman, our nation’s youngest inaugural poet and a young Black Catholic woman, declared, “We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.”

Now, we must come together to face our history and build anew. In the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, economic crisis, and acting out of white supremacists, the time to boldly respond to the needs of the common good is now. We must ensure that all have access to health care. All people need to be able to feed, clothe, and house their families. We must dismantle structural racism and end white supremacy. This is the building anew that is called for.

We need a new imagination to create a way forward in these unprecedented times. What is old is not working and something new needs to emerge. But I have hope that we can meet this challenge. As Ms. Gorman concluded, “There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”