For those following the rhetoric of Pope Francis’ pontificate closely, consistent patterns tend to emerge. One of those patterns is a repeated focus upon consideration of the wider human family. In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, he spoke about the need for a ‘rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity’; that is, to recognise on a universal scale ‘the dignity of each human person’ (§8).

In his message for this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees (26 September), Francis develops this theme with specific attention to the plight of those displaced and without a home. He selected the theme "Towards An Ever Wider 'We'", urging for a more inclusive world.

One of the questions we might ask, though, is what this idea of ‘universal fraternity’ actually means. When Pope Francis talks about developing ‘an ever wider “we”’, what is he talking about? Is he just being vague? Is this simply the dewy-eyed idealism of a hippie?

There is much to talk about here, but suffice it to say, when Pope Francis talks about ‘universal fraternity’ and ‘an ever wider “we”’, he is using concepts that are thoroughly grounded in the Catholic theological tradition.

The “We” of Solidarity

One of the interesting things he does in this year’s message is bring out a theological idea of ancient lineage; it is a common feature of many of the Fathers of the Church and provides the basis for the pope’s usage of the word ‘we’. The modern person of democratic persuasion might balk at the consistent language of ‘we’ in Pope Francis, associating it only with the ‘we’ of governments that try to subsume the individual into a faceless collective. Some might say that we need more individualism, lest the rights of individuals be trodden underfoot.

On this point, deference could be given to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the man who suffered for years in both a German concentration camp and a Soviet gulag. His famous three volume series, The Gulag Archipelago, was vital in revealing to the world the truth of the gulag system.

Towards the beginning, he recounts the experience of solidarity when imprisoned with other people. He writes about encountering people with whom he could use ‘the joyous word “we”’:

Yes, that word which you may have despised out in freedom, when they used it as a substitute for your own individuality … is now revealed to you as something sweet: you are not alone in the world! Wise, spiritual beings – human beings – still exist. (90-91)

There is something sweet and joyful in the word ‘we’ when it is an expression of deep solidarity and association when it is an expression of common humanity. This is the meaning of ‘we’ that Pope Francis is trying to bring out. Against forms of ‘radical individualism’ and ‘myopic nationalism’, he says, we need to rescue the ‘we’ of our common humanity.

Salvation history itself, he goes on, is not a matter of simple individualism:

God created us in his image, in the image of his own triune being, a communion in diversity … Salvation history thus has a “we” at its beginning and a “we” at its end, and at its center the mystery of Christ, who died and rose so “that they may all be one” (John 17:21).

Salvation occurs in and through a ‘we’, the communion of Divine Love brought together in the Church, the mystical Body of Christ. When Pope Francis talks about ‘an ever wider “we”’, he is not talking about a faceless and colourless ‘we’ that erases human individuality; it is actually the individual human person, reaching out to encounter those previously seen as ‘other’ and possessing no common humanity, that creates this ‘we’. The totalitarian ‘we’ that subsumes the individual is an artificial construct of ideas: it does not deal with reality, but imposes itself upon reality and so does violence to it.

Hence, we will hear Pope Francis write again and again, ‘Realities are greater than ideas’ (Evangelii Gaudium §233).

Hosios Loukas nave north west conch Gregory of Nyssa detail
St Gregory of Nyssa

The Imago Dei

The French Jesuit Henri de Lubac is one of the most important twentieth century figures when it comes to understanding the world of the Church Fathers. Through his translation of so many early texts we are able to see their thought with greater clarity and truly achieve a ressourcement, a ‘back to the sources’ movement in our faith. In particular, his book Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man paints a clear picture of the way in which from the earliest times the Church saw humanity as, in some sense, a unified whole. Sin was believed to be a great scattering, a rupturing of the human unity, but it did not succeed in rupturing it entirely.

Even as early as St Justin Martyr (AD 100-165) we see this: ‘The seed of the Word [Jesus] is innate in the whole human race’ (Second Apology, c.8). In fact, there is even the idea that the Divine Image of God in which humans are created is not simply an individual thing, either. The image of God isn’t simply a "property" we possess as individuals but is something seen in the whole human race in its entirety.

This idea radiates through the work of St Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335-395). In his treatise On the Making of Man, he says this: ‘Our whole nature, then, extending from the first to the last, is, so to say, one image of Him Who is’ (§16). Humanity does not constitute a plurality of images. There is one image of God that humanity, in its entirety, was created to reflect.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi, praised the work of de Lubac in this regard and affirmed this idea. Not even Christian hope is individualistic. It is only when we break out of the prison of ourselves, in union with a ‘we’, that our gaze can ‘open out to the source of joy, to love itself – to God’ (§14). This involves the ability to suffer alongside a ‘we’: ‘to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves – these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself’ (§39).


Pope Francis’ understanding of ‘fraternity’ and the ‘we’ is always one that is born out of mutual suffering; out of compassion that moves the person to suffer alongside those who do. This is the thrust of Fratelli Tutti: we should come out of our ‘comfortable isolation’ and be changed by our contact with human suffering (§68). It is only through this solidarity that love can exist. It is, therefore, only through this love that a more human world can exist.

This is, moreover, the basis of any authentic evangelisation. If Christ is present in those who suffer the hardship of rejection and displacement and war, as Pope Francis has consistently reminded us, then the only truly Christian response is to meet Christ there and let his presence be known. Without this encounter between people, evangelisation cannot possibly exist.

Main image by Marko Vombergar/ALETEIA