PRELUDE

Pope Francis released last year his third encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (2020), a document that speaks of the critical necessity of people to make the world smaller by realizing that we are all brothers and sisters of a single parent – God. Early in his encyclical the Pope writes: “Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all.” (Par. 8)

The Pontiff’s call is the exact opposite to the social condition of ‘estrangement’ – a situation defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the deliberate process of being cast off from a particular community – or a withholding of affection from a person, or persons. Too often people can become ‘estranged’ from a community for a variety of reasons, some of which can be based on: racial, religious, cultural, physical and mental disability, gender or age factors.

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In Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis calls for a breadth and deepening of spirit – the breakdown of petty differences or strong prejudice.

A significant theme of Pope Francis’ work is the Parable of the Good Samaritan as told in The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke. In this Parable, the Good Samaritan actively challenges ‘estrangement’, by his actions. His example is not only powerful in the Age in which Christ told the Parable in the time of first century Palestine, but in fact more so today, when peoples from across the entire globe meet one another on an incomparably far greater scale.  ATK

In January of 1999, I left Perth, Western Australia, on a 40C day, and arrived twenty four hours later at my destination in Sweden. I was greeted at Arlanda Airport in Stockholm, by a contact at the University of Uppsala. I was enrolled to study in the  Doctorate of Theology programme. I was also greeted by a -15C day, which over the next few weeks sunk to -40C at night. One could easily pick out that I was a freshly arrived student from the other side of the world, as I had a dark suntan – deliberately having spent my last few days in Australia at Cottesloe Beach, not knowing when I would next get the warmth of the sun on my face.

I had grown up in a home of mixed culture. My father was Ukrainian through his patrilineal line, but my father’s mother was Polish – so on my father’s side, as I travelled abroad, I knew some Ukrainian and Polish. During my childhood I had followed my father when he was active in migrant groups and also when he was a choreographer for a Ukrainian Dancing troupe in Western Australia. These experiences opened my eyes to a bigger world. Aside from my Ukrainian people, I mingled with the Croatian, Hungarian, Polish, and German communities.  On my mother’s side – I inherited a strong English/Scottish and Irish cultural background. Over the decades, I attended many Irish folk music festivals, as well as St. Andrews’ Balls with the Scots. I had also studied some German at university level. Cultural diversity was a thing that I naturally appropriated from my parents, as well as loved.

However when I arrived in Stockholm, to begin what would be a two and a half year stay; I knew no one, other than having been in contact by email, with people at the university. I spoke no Swedish – other than what the Berlitz tape had taught me. The closest family that I had previously met in Europe were in Canterbury, Edinburgh and Skye; aside from those relatives that I knew lived in Gdynia and Szezcin, but whom I had never personally communicated with in my life. Living somewhere in Norway was the rumour of ten children of my father’s second cousin, a second cousin whom he had last spoken with before the outbreak of World War II.  I never sought the latter out. Where could I start? So in terms of Scandinavia – I was very much alone; personally and culturally.

Spiritually though, being Catholic, one can always find a home in a local Parish. This I sought to do on my arrival. Loneliness, alienation and estrangement can kill. Human beings are social creatures, and although we come from diverse backgrounds – we seek out to make connections. Once you make connections you can then build a ‘home’, from which to grow. Everyone needs a home. A social network is in the truest sense of the word, a critical compass, by which one orientates a life.

Flying from Australia to Sweden was a cultural experience as well as a geographic one. Up until 1999, I had never seen snow. So like a child, when I saw my first glimpse of snow, as it appeared through the plane window, I was transfixed.

There were many vivid differences in culture that I recognized immediately. Whereas Australians are renowned as being quite an open people; Swedes have a tendency to be reserved – and private. An initial journey to the local supermarkets brought this home to me on my first day. Walking up to the cashier, I attempted to begin a friendly conversation by saying: “Hello! How is your day going?” A sombre, sharp reply came back: “Good!” I tried to push the conversation one question further: “Has it been a long day?” To which came the reply: “That will be Twenty Kronor.” When I raised this ‘conversation’ to one of the other Doctoral students, who was Swedish, they pointed out my mistake: “Andrew – you are asking personal questions, from strangers! It is extremely odd to do so in Sweden” As Australians we ask these questions to be social, to break down barriers. After nearly three years in Sweden – this was one of the cultural differences I found very difficult to deal with. Swedish culture was one where strangers required a context before one would speak with them. Even standing out in a long queue – Swedes didn’t speak to the person next to them, if they did not know them. If you were queued at a bus stop; you never asked the person beside you at what time the bus was expected to arrive. Swedish decorum was that you had to walk to the timetable at the bus stop and read it for oneself. A Swedish friend explained to me the local manner saying: “Americans are like a peach soft on the outside, but hard on the inside; Swedes are like a Coconut, hard on the outside, but soft on the inside.”

Soon after I arrived I went to the local Catholic parish in the University city. As there was no singing at the English Mass I offered to help by standing in as a Cantor. I met an Italian graduate student from Molfetta, Francesco, who introduced himself as an organist. The two of us would lead the music each Sunday evening. Francesco introduced me then to one of his friends, Gianni, another Italian Graduate student – from Bari.

At the conclusion of one Sunday evening English Mass an announcement was made by the leader of the Catholic Student Group, a young Swedish undergraduate, inviting all students to an Orientation meeting in the evening during the week. It was a general invitation. Francesco, Gianni, and two female Graduate students from Spain, Begona and Iris, attended this meeting with me.

That evening we gathered in the lower floor of the Parish Hall. The meeting was going very well until we were asked for our contact details, which consisted of mobile numbers, email address, and ID number. In Sweden every citizen and foreign student is assigned an Identity Card, which has a personal ID number printed on it with a photograph. The actual ID number consists of your birthdate – and four numbers added on at the end, which if you are a male, ends in an odd number, and if female, an even number. Twenty years later, I still know my ID number by memory. When purchases were made with a credit card, or debit card, more often than not you were also asked by the cashier to present your card, or give your ID number, for the Swedes were particularly concerned as to Card theft. At the Catholic Student Group meeting – I was asked for my number and gave it: “661122 – XXXX”. The young twenty-something student leader, wrote the number slowly. I saw her give a sideways look to her friend. In turn, she asked the two Italian men, and then the Spanish Graduate students. Each time she wrote the ID number down she glanced at the two other Student Group members. All of the Graduate students had given a birth year commencing in ‘6’. Remember, this event occurred in 1999. Having taken down our ID numbers we were offered coffee and tea. The five Graduate students chatted cheerfully, while the three Student Group leaders, all women in their early twenties, spoke on the other side of the room with the Chaplain, a young German priest. Five minutes later – I was approached by the Chaplain to have a private conversation. The Chaplain informed me that the Leaders and he had come to the decision that the Graduate students were not welcome, as we were too old; and that prospective members of the Student Group would be turned off from joining the Student Club, because of our age. I asked the Chaplain what did he want me to do; they were settled and were enjoying the evening. He replied – “Take them away somewhere else.” “Where to?”, I quizzed. “Anywhere”, he curtly responded. I looked sharply across the room to see the student leaders cutting cake – and smiling with the Graduate students. I was so angry with the sheer hypocrisy of it all. I had heard in the words of my new Italian and Spanish friends – the pain and loneliness that they were experiencing; their deep personal struggles, with the language and cultural differences – let alone the distance away from family and loved ones. What echoed through my head immediately after my conversation with the Chaplain were the words from Scripture: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19: 33 – 34, NRSV)

My blood boiled because of the injustice that was being perpetrated. The Graduate students, unknowingly, as they were eating cake and sipping coffee, were now being shown hospitality – all the way out the door – by people who lived comfortably in their homes within this city, in their homeland, surrounded by family and friends. This was to me a despicable act; an outrage, even as I now reflect over this incident, two decades later. I looked at the four Graduate students – and my heart was very heavy. I loved them for the personal stories that they had openly shared with me. I felt one – with them; even though I had never set foot in Italy or Spain. I was trying to think of a way to take my friends out – without them thinking less of the Church – because the Church was their only grip on ‘home’. I was both ashamed of what I was going to ask them, and trembling with anger. In hindsight perhaps what I should have done was expose the situation by going over and publicly announcing: “Fr. X. has an announcement he wishes to make on behalf of the leadership of the Student Group.” If I had done this I would have ostracized the Graduate Students from the Church; no common rudeness was worth this.  What happened was that I walked over and asked the four whether they wanted to come with me to a cafe. The two Italian men, knew that something had happened, so did Iris, but Begona refused to leave, saying: “I am enjoying myself here – I would like to stay!” I recall this vividly. I just replied to her that I thought we could have a better time elsewhere. With great ‘courtesy’ the young Chaplain – and the three leaders of the Student Group showed us to the door. We took our jackets, scarves and beanies – but Begona still was voicing to me her strong disapproval. She was a very strong woman – something that was to become very useful, as will be seen later. The door to the freezing evening outside was opened to us. It was around 8.45 p.m. The Chaplain held the door open, and then closed the door on me. The four Graduate students followed me into the dark street; while I could see the Student Group through the glass walls of the Church foyer, walking down the stairs to recommence their gathering.

There is a famous quote that comes out from Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird. In Chapter Three the hero-character of the novel, Atticus Finch, remarks to his daughter, Scout: “First of all, he said, If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”. (Lee, 2015, p. 33). As I walked down the street, I was now coming to understand the powerful reality and poignant meaning of Finch’s words and purpose. It was the first time in my adult life I had experienced ‘estrangement’.

From a spiritual viewpoint I was also soon to understand the truth of what Pope Francis writes in Fratelli Tutti: (Chapter Two: A Stranger on the Road): “love does not care if a brother or sister in need comes from one place or another. For “love shatters the chains that keep us isolated and separate; in their place, it builds bridges. Love enables us to create one great family , where all of us can feel at home … Love exudes compassion and dignity.” (Par. 62) … Now there are only two kinds of people: those who care for someone who is hurting and those who pass by; those who bend down to help and those who look the other way and hurry off. Here, all our distinctions, labels and masks fall away: it is the moment of truth. Will we bend down to touch and heal the wounds of others? Will we bend down and help another to get up?” (Par. 70) All five of us were now strangers forced on to the road.

There was also another moment of poignant reality that struck me as I searched for a cafe to take the four Graduate students that night – from out of the cold. As Pope Francis notes about the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Fratelli Tutti: “One detail about the passers-by does stand out: they were religious, devoted to the worship of God: a priest and a Levite. This detail should not be overlooked.” (Par 74.)

The Student Group had meted out treatment to the most vulnerable of students, from a vantage position of power. It doesn’t take too much to build a person up, or break them down.

I needed to find a warm, and central place to talk to the Graduate Students. I felt very low – but as God would have it; within a week, a very great, and powerful miracle would occur.

 

 

By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper

 

 

This post is also available in: Ukrainian