Not long into these reflections on the lessons of a traumatic year, Pope Francis offers a line from his favourite poet, Friedrich Hölderlin: “Where the danger is, grows the saving power.” At moments of personal trial throughout his life, Francis writes, these words have helped him navigate the crisis. Though moments of reckoning will strip us bare, absolute vulnerability leaves us open to moments of grace and revelation.
Short enough to read in a single sitting, Let Us Dream is written in the spirit of that insight and throws down a spiritual gauntlet to the reader. The distillation of summer discussions with the English Catholic commentator and author Austen Ivereigh, the book is recognisably a product of that strange, surreal first phase of the coronavirus pandemic. As patients fought for breath in overwhelmed intensive care wards, our streets fell silent and lockdown brought the world to a shuddering halt. Calamities such as this, says Francis, can be a “threshold” experience, dividing one era from another. “This is a moment to dream big,” he writes, “to rethink our priorities – what we value, what we want, what we seek – and commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of.”
The Covid crisis, argues the pope, has given the lie to a “myth of self-sufficiency” that sanctions rampant inequalities and frays the ties that bind societies together. Pitilessly, the virus has demonstrated our mutual dependency and common vulnerability. We have collectively relied on the state as never before. The doorstep applause for the nurses and doctors risking their lives, and the key workers who kept essential services going, was a collective lightbulb moment: “They are the saints next door, who have awoken something important in our hearts … the antibodies to the virus of indifference. They remind us that our lives are a gift and we grow by giving of ourselves: not preserving ourselves, but losing ourselves in service. What a sign of contradiction to the individualism and self-obsession and lack of solidarity that so dominate our wealthier societies!”
If we see this eruption of what Francis calls “fraternity” for what it is – for what it reveals about the human condition – might it become the launchpad for a new politics of the common good? Locked down like the rest of us, the pope spied the glimmerings of a new empathy, born out of our sudden isolation. Making the case anew for the forgotten, the excluded and the grievously mistreated, Francis ranges over the plight of the Rohingya and the Uighur Muslims, the struggles of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the ongoing “‘pandemics’ of hunger and violence and climate change”. If we are truly to emerge from the ordeal of Covid less selfish than we went in, he writes, “we have to let ourselves be touched by others’ pain”.
The Bible is mined for examples of analogous turning points – “personal Covids” –that reset the dial of individual lives. St Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus turns his priorities and sense of self upside down. King David, for all the splendour of his reign, finds true wisdom and humility only at his lowest ebb, stoned, cursed and betrayed as he flees Jerusalem. From his own past, Francis recalls his humiliating exile in 1990 to the provincial Argentinian city of Cordoba. Sent there by his own religious order to reflect on his flawed and overbearing leadership style, Francis writes that he hardly left his house: “It was a kind of self-isolating, as so many of us have done lately, and it did me good.” Crises such as this dethrone the sovereign self and begin a process of purification and clarification. “Sometimes an uprooting can be a healing or radical makeover.”
There is a spiritual urgency and warmth to Let Us Dream that will appeal to lay readers as well as the faithful. But these thoughts of a pope in lockdown already feel a little as if they belong to another time. The stark strangeness of spring and summer has gone, along with the Thursday night applause and that sense of shocking novelty and a shared predicament. Familiar tensions and resentments have resurfaced, as the pandemic hits those with least hardest and deepens social divisions. In Britain, Nigel Farage has formed a new political movement, which is always a sign of fractious, polarised debates to come. A public sector pay freeze and the reduction of the overseas aid budget do not suggest a new idealism at work in the Treasury. Can the fraternal intimations of the first wave survive the divisions of the second?
But this book should be read as a work of prophecy and hope rather than analysis. In the final section, Francis writes that Covid has taught us “no one is saved alone”. That knowledge demands a new politics of inclusion, he believes. It equips us to avoid both excessive individualism and the aggressive populism that thrives on identifying enemies at home and abroad. “Fraternity,” the pope insists, “is the new frontier”, capable of knitting together the often competing demands of liberty and equality.
Let Us Dream thus joins a growing body of Covid-era literature calling for a communitarian reset of liberal values and institutions. In recent months, The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel, The Upswing by Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, and Morality by the late Jonathan Sacks have all traversed similar territory. The collective pronoun is back in fashion. “Without the ‘we’ of a people,” Francis writes, “of a family, of institutions, of a society that transcends the ‘I’ of individual interests”, we are left with “a battle for supremacy between factions and interests”.
That was the polarised state in which we entered the Covid pandemic; it should not be how we eventually leave it behind. “We cannot let the current clarifying moment pass us by,” concludes the pope. Having begun with Hölderlin, he could have ended with the famous injunction of Rainer Maria Rilke, another great German-language poet: “You must change your life.”
• Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future by Pope Francis is published by Simon & Schuster (£10.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply