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Tenderness
in the digital age

· A key to speaking to mankind today ·

In the digital age of social communications many wonder if, in fact, this new virtual environment does not distance people from each other; if it is not easier to click on “like” than to express a word of understanding and to be close to those who are suffering in body and spirit, and to take them by the hand. Moreover, we wonder whether screen obsession makes us indifferent to our closest neighbour and if loneliness is not greater than ever in the communications era.

Humanity is challenged to develop in a more complex world, with completely different cultural axes, struggling to create a synthesis between values to pass on and new realities to incorporate. This is a culture that offers us two related spheres that influence each other. On the one hand is that of physicality, presumably understood and accepted (nature, the body, physical presence, encounter); on the other is that of virtuality, new and to be discovered and acquired (virtual reality, devices, mediated presence, information). In the first case, closeness means (or should mean) precisely being beside, close, looking one in the eye, listening directly, touching, speaking face-to-face, hearing. In the second, virtual presence means “mediated presence”, that is, presence expressed through written or recorded words, music, video or photographs, emojis, gifs.... Between these two theoretically well delineated extremes are infinite shades of grey that blur the existential reality of mankind....

Yet, even if “mediated”, it is always a matter of “presence”, because digital, virtual reality is not abstract; it is not artificial: it is real, another form of mankind’s reality and this, for the younger generations, is not a mere tool, as a hammer or household appliance can be, but “a place” one inhabits and in which one relates to other people. There, people, especially young people, get to know one another, ask questions and respond to each other, dialogue, argue, buy, sell and share information, sentiments, values, life experiences and significant events. More than half of all human beings can be found there today; there, the younger generations live like “digital natives”, with a “digital language” in what is their “digital continent”.

It is in this context of direct presence and mediated presence that Pope Francis’ teaching on tenderness finds particular significance and importance, because the person is at the centre — despite the fact that cultural conditions are continually evolving and constantly being challenged — and it is man, the human person, who creates history.

Pope Francis’ teaching on tenderness

The biblical roots

Pope Francis evokes various biblical images that reveal divine tenderness, because “his power is the tenderness, the caresses which are born from his heart, his very good heart which has given life to us”.1 God does not act like the powerful of the earth. He humbles himself to welcome human frailty, as Jesus showed us (cf. Mt 20:25). It is the attitude of one who, being infinitely perfect and powerful, is moved with visceral love before the smallness of his creature, and embraces it and holds it close to himself in order to heal its wounds.

The Word of God is the source of inspiration of Pope Francis’ teaching and action. The texts recalled by the Pope lead us by hand to the encounter with God who has chosen to love. The biblical images Francis presents to us derive from universal human experiences — that of the family and that of the rural world — with a clear and compelling objective: to lead us to know and experience God. God who decides to be close to us like a loving father, a caring mother, a shepherd who loves his sheep, a good man, merciful to a stranger.

We see several references that serve as a foundation: there are four specific biblical images that Francis uses in his teaching: Father, Mother, Shepherd, Samaritan. Let us look at a few quotations.

Father: “How beautiful it is to contemplate God’s tenderness! When we want to think only of the great God, but forget the mystery of the Incarnation, God’s acquiescence to come among us, to encounter us: the God who is not only father but is dad”.2

Mother3: “In short, the mercy of God is not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality with which he reveals his love as that of a father or a mother, moved to the very depths out of love for their child”.4

Shepherd: “... the Lord himself will guide his people.... With the solicitude and tenderness of a shepherd who takes care of his flock.... Today there is need for people to be witnesses to the mercy and tenderness of God, who spurs the resigned, enlivens the disheartened”.5

Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25): “Faced with so many lacerations in the world and too many wounds in the flesh of mankind, ... emulate Jesus, ... by making his kingdom present with gestures of tenderness, understanding and mercy”.6

The characteristics of tenderness

Pope Francis does not offer academic definitions: his teaching is that of a pastor. Thus let us try to briefly identify the characteristics that shape the concept of tenderness in his Magisterium, by looking at how it is used in his words and in the expression of his gestures that caress mankind.

It is not a “saccharine” sentiment.

It is customary to understand the term tenderness as associated with “saccharine” gestures and words that end in the sphere of sentiments alone. This “sentimentalism”, moreover, is associated with an attitude that seeks to hide or mask the seriousness and pain of existence. But for the Pope it is not a mere sentiment; much less is it an escape from suffering or from human limitations. “Tenderness, then, far from being reduced to sentimentalism, is the first step to overcome the withdrawal into oneself, to leave behind the self-centredness that disfigures human freedom”.7 This virtue begins to be understood as a condition proper to an adult awareness of reality with all its consequences, and as that Christian maturity that must permeate a person’s manner of being and acting in every circumstance.

But it is the Virtue of the strong.

Tenderness is thus a virtue of the strong, not of the weak; it is this virtue that induces one to bow to the weakness of others in order to serve and heal them, rather than take advantage of their frailties to oppress them. The Pope points to this as the very virtue of the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph: “Whenever we look to Mary, we come to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness. In her we see that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong who need not treat others poorly in order to feel important themselves.... This interplay of justice and tenderness, of contemplation and concern for others, is what makes the ecclesial community look to Mary as a model of evangelization”.8

It is a close and tangible love.

In the words that the Pope recorded for TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) on 25 April 2017,9 we find a key hermeneutic to understand the concept: “The third message I would like to share today is, indeed, about revolution: the revolution of tenderness. What is tenderness? It is the love that comes close and becomes real”.10 Thus, it is a matter of the closeness and tangibility of a love that acts, that heals, that helps in an effective way and is not limited to just looking: all that is expressed in tenderness. It is an attitude that starts from God and comes to each one of us through the presence of another, someone who approaches us with respect and understanding, with appropriate assistance in dark and difficult moments.

With a humble and simple approach.

This interplay of tenderness calls for simplicity and humility. The simplicity of one who expresses this compassion, in order to avoid approaching the other impertinently; the humility of the one who receives it, in order to accept the fact that he or she is in need. Francis states that “Tenderness is the language of the young children, of those who need the other. A child’s love for mom and dad grows through their touch, their gaze, their voice, their tenderness”.11 These words are meant to be put into practice in the daily mission, where communication and pastoral ministry converge in an approach of mutual respect that enables one to grow when one finds oneself in a moment of difficulty.

With an operative dynamic.

For the Pope tenderness is dynamic. “It is a movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands”, and that “means to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need”.12 Thus, the link between the concept of Mercy and that of tenderness emerges in the thought of Pope Francis. They are sentiments and actions that appear in the Bible as expressions of the loving heart of God for each one of us and for all of humanity. They accompany us on life’s journey with a presence that walks with us, that encourages us to go forward, that helps us to face the successive stages in overcoming difficulties.

He made reference to this in Misericordiae Vultus (2015): “the mercy of God is not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality with which he reveals his love.... It gushes forth from the depths naturally, full of tenderness and compassion, indulgence and mercy”.13

So one is humbled to the other’s level.

Closeness is rooted in the fact that God, being great and infinite, became small for us. “This is tenderness: being on the same level as the other. God himself descended into Jesus to be on our level. This is the same path the Good Samaritan took. This is the path that Jesus himself took. He lowered himself, he lived his entire human existence practicing the real, concrete language of love”.14 Jesus’ loving self-abasement (kenosis) responds precisely to God’s relational manner with mankind, the model of this form of accomplishing the mission that becomes a pastoral practice in which work is service, not control. Tenderness welcomes the reality of the needy and assumes it as far as possible by placing itself on the same level so that there may be a dialogue between people with equal dignity, even if one of them has particular limitations.

And manifested in concrete actions.

Tenderness does not remain alone in the field of sentiments. It allows for the harmonization of what the Pope himself identifies as “the three languages”.15 The first is the rational language; followed by the language of the heart, which involves the entire emotional sphere of the person; lastly is that of the hands, or the concrete, practical gesture of tenderness. In this way there is coherence between the discourse and what is thought, felt and carried out. It is a term in which the Human and the Supernatural converge, which together lead to the discovery of reality and action.

Pope Francis also created an image entirely his own, a source of inspiration for millions of people: the metaphor of the field hospital: “I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol.... You have to heal his wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up”.16

Which creates empathy for those who are loved.

God precedes us in love. He loved us first! He empathizes with us. “Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other, to listen to the children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future. To listen also to the silent cry of our common home, of our sick and polluted earth”.17 Thus, tenderness begins with seeking to understand, then welcoming and lastly serving the other. It is a profoundly human vehicle that reaches a person’s intimate depths and creates a bond. The reciprocal gaze, when affection is authentic and sincere, even becomes the key to personal self-awareness. It makes us aware that we are “someone” particularly when there is one who looks at us in this way: with respect, with true friendship, with understanding, accepting us for who we are.

Looking one in the eye builds a relationship, in depth and intimacy. Neuroscience confirms this universal experience,18 and the Pope emphasizes it as an indispensable approach for effective interpersonal communication.

And has well defined recipients.

All this richness plays out, in the Pope’s teaching, at the “territorial and existential peripheries”, a constant concept since the beginning of his Pontificate, referring to all those people and human communities that are suffering the consequences of the “throw-away culture” and remain unjustly at the margins of social development, of culture, of opportunities, of the distribution of material goods. The Pope seeks to include them every day in his public discourse.

He mentioned this many times in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, encouraging an evangelization that proclaims the closeness of God who is Love.19 In Salvation History an approach of tenderness and Mercy is constant on God’s part. This is why the Holy Father applies it in his Magisterium and in his ministry as gestis verbisque, which has become pedagogy for missionary disciples sent to evangelize.

Tenderness in the age of social networks

It was the Internet itself along with its protagonists which attributed a positive sign to the power and role of tenderness as a key to communication. The list of comments is enormous, but let us quote just two examples to respond to the objectives of this article. The first comes from the words of Mark Zuckerberg on the occasion of his visit to the Holy Father: “Priscilla and I had the honor of meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican. We told him how much we admire his message of mercy and tenderness, and how he’s found new ways to communicate with people of every faith around the world”.20

The second comes from comments published on the Internet on the YouTube21 and TED Talks22 websites in response to the 2017 video:

“What a historic moment.... I am agnostic and I am left deeply touched by this. What a powerful message”. (Maria Loehle)

“Being a hard core Protestant I had my mind blown twice watching this.... Wow. the truth so well put”. (Paul Kumar)

Comments on the @Franciscus Instagram profile with regard to welcoming and the effects that the signs of tenderness have on those who follow his channels are countless and thus cannot be listed in this article.

On the communicative level authentic tenderness is a sought-after value. The words and images of the Holy Father are shared instantaneously as he embraces the sick, caresses the elderly and children, washes the feet of inmates, especially when there are events that move humanity. That is, in his Ministry he carries out what he teaches in his Magisterium, and this is perceived and appreciated.

There is nothing surprising then, about Francis having become a relevant person on social networks and platforms of international discussion. By now it is usual to find him on the comprehensive lists of the currently most influential people. For example, according to information from Twiplomacy (an organization that measures the influence of world leaders through their use of social networks): on Twitter, with 47 million followers in 2018, he was third among the 50 most influential leaders, second among the most followed leaders, and had the fourth highest number of interactions. On Instagram, with five million followers in 2018, he was fifth among the most influential leaders, and had the seventh highest number of interactions.

This communicative power flows from the way in which Pope Francis approaches reality and expresses the relational dynamic of tenderness, which is an essential feature of his Pontifical Magisterium and is transformed in pastoral praxis.

Gestures and words laden with tenderness not only reach the weakness of the little ones and of the suffering, but appeal to the rationality of the powerful, awakening their intelligence through a journey of the heart. The Pope seeks to motivate people to undertake concrete actions and to change course on a local and global scale. Tenderness lived in this way becomes not just an element to be communicated, but also the very channel of communication, that is, the vehicle by which messages are transmitted to an interlocutor who manages to open his intellect and allow his heart to be touched.

Conclusion

“The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness”.23 Such a revolution24 overturns the logic of the government leaders of today’s society, characterized by oppression of the weak by those more powerful (cf. Lk 1:51-53). The revolution proposed by Pope Francis does not call for a violent upheaval in order to destroy the social system. Its evangelical and subversive novelty consists precisely in rejecting violence: its efficacy rests solely on the love received from God and shared with our neighbour, thus renewing the face of the ground (Ps 104:30).

If we begin from the fact that digital environments are that new space where contemporary man lives, then for a Church that necessarily “goes forth” it becomes an urgent challenge to be present so that, as a Church, we are not creating new “existential peripheries”.

Thus, the challenge of presence in the new culture — following the lights emerging from Pope Francis’ teaching on tenderness — has very precise indications. We must be: bridges, so the various realities of mankind do not remain disconnected from each other, and the message of hope can reach the new culture; prophets, so that the message of truth and the disclosure of injustice not be lacking in the new continent; missionaries, in order to go where human persons are and to discover them in their reality, bearing the message of Mercy; pastors, in order to seek, find and take upon our shoulders the sheep who are lost, lonely and discarded; Good Samaritans, in order to give time, to be able to listen, to take care of the other, to heal wounds.

For this reason, being in the new culture is not optional for the Church, because where mankind is so the Church must be. Since the start of the Internet age, Popes Saint John Paul ii, then Benedict xvi and now Francis have entered and invited all of us to enter into a fruitful dialogue with this part of society that inhabits it and that shows itself, in various ways, to be thirsting for God.25

For Pope Francis tenderness is a form of existence, a way to live life, an approach to reality and a means to relate to ourselves, to others, to reality and to God. It is here that tenderness also becomes a communicative channel, that is, an efficient vehicle to reach people’s hearts, because it inspires the other to trust. Thus, tenderness provides the possibility, on the one hand, to effectively convey truth, facilitating its acceptance, and on the other hand, it offers the opportunity to open our eyes in order to discover the reality of the other and to become active in service. Lastly, it is the best language for a personal and intimate encounter with Jesus Christ.

“Today more than ever we need a revolution of tenderness. This will save us”.26

Lucio Adrián Ruiz

------------------------

1 Francis, Homily for daily Mass in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, 6 December 2016.

2 Francis, Homily for daily Mass in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, 14 December 2017.

3 Francis, Angelus, 2 March 2014.

4 Francis, Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy Misericordiae Vultus, 11 April 2015, n. 6.

5 Francis, Angelus, 7 December 2014.

6 Francis, Angelus, 22 November 2015.

7 Francis, Address to Participants at the Conference on the theme “The Theology of Tenderness of Pope Francis”, 13 September 2018.

8 Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, n. 288.

9 Francis, TED Talk: “The Future You”, 25 April 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36zrJfAFcuc.

10 Idem.

11 Idem.

12 Idem.

13 Francis, Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy Misericordiae Vultus, 11 April 2015, n. 6.

14 Francis, TED Talk: “The Future You”, 25 April 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36zrJfAFcuc.

15 Francis, Responses to questions at pre-synodal conference with young people at the International Pontifical College “Maria Mater Ecclesia”, 19 March 2018: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/it/speeche...

16 Spadaro, Antonio, Interview with Pope Francis, La Civiltà Cattolica 164 (2013), p. 461.

17 Francis, TED Talk: “The Future You”, 25 April 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36zrJfAFcuc.

18 “Recurrent interaction through eye contact activates the limbic mirror system, (…) critical for self-awareness”. T. Koike et al.: “What Makes Eye Contact Special? Neural Substrates of On-Line Mutual Eye-Gaze: A Hyperscanning fmri Study”. eNeuro 25 February 2019, 6 (1) eneuro.0284-18.2019; doi: https://doi.org/10.1523/eneuro.0284-18.2019.

19 Cf. R. Manes and C. Rocchetta, La tenerezza grembo di Dio amore, Saggio di Teologia Biblica, edb, Bologna, 2016, p. 14.

20 Post on Facebook by founder Mark Zuckerberg following meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican, 29 August 2106: https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/1010306618718...

21 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36zrJfAFcuc, posted on 25 April 2017.

22 https://www.ted.com/talks/pope_francis_why_the_on... (3,268,535 views, 32 languages).

23 Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, n. 88.

24 “Bergoglio had already adopted the expression ‘revolution of tenderness’ in the Homily for the Te Deum of 25 May 1999. That discourse is interesting for two reasons: in fact, in essence, it contains themes that will then be developed in Evangelii Gaudium, including the ‘four principles related to constant tensions present in every social reality’ which, drawing them from the great postulates of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Francis articulates and explains in nn. 222-237 of the Apostolic Exhortation” (translation ours). M. Semeraro, “Verso una Chiesa della tenerezza”, in M. Musolino (ed.), La virtù della tenerezza. Il “vangelo” di Papa Francesco, Porziuncola, Assisi 2019, 99-122).

25 Benedict xvi, Message for the 43rd World Communications Day, New Technologies, New Relationships. Promoting a Culture of Respect, Dialogue and Friendship, 24 May 2009: “The proclamation of Christ in the world of new technologies requires a profound knowledge of this world if the technologies are to serve our mission adequately”.

26 Francis, Address to participants at the Conference on the theme “The Theology of Pope Francis”, 13 September 2018.

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