Risk practising fraternity - Seminar in France

Seminar held by CERAS, 2012

Last February, CERAS (Centre for research and social action) devoted its annual seminar to the theme "Risk practising fraternity". This theme linked up very well with the process of reflection on "Diaconia" (service) being carried out by the Church in France. 

The basis for this seminar was provided by many testimonies from persons or organisations involved in civil society. Further enlightenment was given by contributions of a theological, philosophical, historical and political nature. Thus, the participants were able to explore more deeply the notion of fellowship under its different aspects and with the different meanings it has received over the last few decades. The speakers also tried to venture into the political and social fields by looking for ways of expressing it in our present-day society. 
 
Three of us, Maguy Durand, Bernadette de la Devèze and Ghislaine Binauld, Little Sisters of the Assumption, were able to join with 144 other persons in studying this theme and we are very happy to share with you some points that challenged us. 
 
After the presentation of four groups in action on the ground (the Diaconia of the Var region, the Christian Network for Immigrants, the "Marche" committee and the Neighbours’ Festival), we met in workshops to continue the morning’s discussion. One of us was with the Christian Network for Immigrants in which the persons shared their experience in the field. On Tuesday morning we were able to visit various places where fraternity is practiced. One of us chose the DCC (a Catholic NGO that enables young volunteers to commit themselves to serve in a country for a specific need, through an inter-cultural encounter: "the world to be shared". 
 
Through the sociological and theological review of these visits, E. Grieu and B. Cassaigne emphasised the fact of counting on the human person, trusting them, and the need to believe in the other. Fraternity does not come about immediately, it has to be achieved … There is more and more talk about fragility, psychology awakens us to this, but we are not just that … make oneself open to the other. The economic system generates exclusion, hence the need for islets of fraternity. 
 
There are philosophers who see fraternity as an illusion; for them it would be a setting for violence, rivalry, war… The Bible also shows many examples of failures with Cain and Abel, Joseph and many others. It appears above all as a setting where there are wounds and requires a long apprenticeship. Within the people of Israel, fraternity is born of the experience of the Exodus, within the framework of a covenant that proclaims an "elsewhere": "remember that you were a foreigner". Our common condition as limited beings is the basis for fraternity, which is found within the framework of a shared fragility. It presupposes that we accept this fallible humanity and this goes against the trend of today’s culture in which independence, self-sufficiency and autonomy are regarded as sacred. 
 
Fraternity cannot be imposed, it is not a simple response to a generous movement of the heart but seeks to express itself in daily life, in interpersonal relations, through very simple practical gestures. 
 
It presupposes reciprocity even when there is sometimes dissymmetry. These two notions are not in opposition. In the Covenant as described in the Bible, isn’t there tremendous dissymmetry!!! This requires a great amount of dialogue and accepting to move forward along a path where we receive from one another. Each needs to be recognised in their capacity to bring something to the Common Good. The logic of fraternity is that each one can give something. The "Arche" communities show that this is possible! 
 
In a world that is hard, where people have to appear to be strong, we need to feel that we are accepted as limited beings while at the same time being loved and called to grow. Fragility opens us up to relations with others; on the other hand, if we present ourselves as "faultless", we are "smooth", and that does not open up to fraternity. 
 
Some history: 
 
Over the decades new expressions appear that express relations between persons. A quick glance at history enabled us to clarify these notions and to pick out some points concerning the content of these words that are used very frequently. 
 
Justice is linked to law, it is situated at a collective level. It seeks a compromise, an equivalence, and there is no rule of reciprocity. 
 
Love, for its part, is in the interpersonal domain. It can ignore law. It seeks "superabundance". 
 
Solidarity emerged in the 19th century when charity did not see the existing inequalities and injustices. There was a whole trend in society: the mutual benefit insurance system, people’s banks, trades unions etc. The word disappeared for a time but reappeared in 1945 with the nationalisation of the means of production, negotiations etc. Solidarity is part of the social teaching of the Church. 
 
The "caring" society comes with the solicitude that is established in relations between those who help and those who are helped. It takes the whole person into account. The dependency of the aged or those who are handicapped, palliative care – these call for this type of ongoing and empathic relation. These relations are lived out within the family framework or that of the neighbourhood, but they also enter into social structures. 
 
"Recognition" is what is request by many persons who are looking, not for care, but for the recognition by another of the moral qualities lived out by individuals or groups: the legal recognition, the social esteem that enables persons, each one, to situate themselves with their specific abilities. 
 
"Conviviality" is a modern interpretation of solidarity in the face of the crisis. 
 
All the secular virtues that we have just evoked bear traces of the Charity that is founded on God–Love. Charity is the source and exists in everyday life only in the form of justice. Once there are two or three of us, charity takes the form of solidarity and is shown by justice. 
 
How is this expressed in the political field ? 
 
These experiences of true encounters based on the awareness of our limits need to have established means, structures, commitments in society. The need is reciprocal: just as fraternity needs frameworks in order to express itself, so the frameworks need fraternity in order to avoid being emptied of meaning. If fraternity cannot enter into the legislative framework, solidarity, for its part, can. It is up to the people involved to make fraternity visible there where they are active. 
In this sense, the notion of "care" is life giving to the extent that it takes all the dimensions of the person into account. Those who intervene say, each in his own way: "You are precious in my eyes". 
 
Since 2010, 50% of humanity is living in an urban setting. Soon, this will be the case for 75%. In this context, where can we find the places of fraternity? 
 
Leisure brings a new form of living, the happiness of being together
Public services 
The spaces of information; there is a continuous flow of information to be humanised so that it does not give rise to a feeling of helplessness. 
Educational practices: What attention is given to the human person? 
Hospitality: migrants, the sick 
The solidarity economy is trying out different approaches: distribution with different criteria, non-competitiveness. 
Organisations … 
 
Today, voluntary work has a large place in society. Its organisation is close to that of the working world: the management of 13 million people, the production of services, propagation and defence of the organisation’s or association’s project. 
Often the work is outside the framework of the law, actions that have been forbidden or which are outside the organised plan of action. Voluntary work looks to war imagery: they are militants, they fight, resist etc. 
This voluntary sector represents a real force that is contributing to the birth of a new culture. 
 
On the final day of the seminar, at a round table, E. Pinte (a French parliamentarian), F. Soulage (President of Secours Catholique [Caritas France]) et D. Balmary (President of a union of health and social organisations) tried to respond to the question: "In a time of crisis, how can fraternity emerge from the compassionate mode?" 
One point that was noted: present policies are failing. What forms of solidarity should be put into action? Is it possible to legislate for fraternity? The other has something to give me. The other does not keep me from living. It is not them "and" us but them "with" us. … "The more we recognise that we are fragile, the more we are brothers and sisters." 
 
In the encyclical "Caritatis in Veritate", no. 6, Benedict XVI tells us that charity goes beyond justice. 
In conclusion, fraternity, even before being a duty, is our common origin. It is "already there and is still to come ". It is a treasure that we have to bring to life. 
 
Sisters Ghislaine and Bernadette
07/08/2012
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