As our Church prepares to wrap up its observance of the Year of Faith, I offer these observations on Pope Francis’ encyclical on faith called, “Lumen Fidei”, “The Light of Faith.” Though the encyclical was largely completed by Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis, without hesitation, made it his own and issued it under his own name.
In a sense, we can hear the voices of two pontiffs in one encyclical! For reasons of length I have divided my reflections into a four-part series, exploring each of the encyclical’s four chapters.
Lumen Fidei is about 80 pages in length. It is the encyclical many thought that Pope Benedict would issue at the outset of his papacy, not at its conclusion. After all, Pope Benedict was known as a great teacher and defender of the Faith. Instead, Pope Benedict began with “Deus Caritas Est” – “God Is Love” –and then proceeded with an encyclical on hope, “Spe Salvi” – “Saved by Hope” –and now, in this Year of Faith comes an encyclical on faith that was largely his work, an encyclical characteristic of Pope Benedict’s deep scholarship and serenity. Perhaps we can say that Pope Benedict wanted us to see that charity opens the door to both hope and faith, that often people begin to believe and hope because they have encountered love.
This letter, in a most general sense, treats two things: first, the faith of the Church, what the Church herself believes and teaches; and second, the gift of faith – the capacity to believe, which we receive in Baptism through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit: faith, in other words, as a theological virtue.
The main concern of the encyclical letter is the New Evangelization. For all of its beauty and insight, the document is not an abstract treatise on faith; it does not seek to treat obscure philosophical or theological problems, still less does it purport to be a textbook on the meaning of faith. Rather, it seeks to show faith engages us and our experience and, at the same time, how faith engages our humanity in all its aspects, the culture of which we are a part, and lights the way as history unfolds.
The introduction begins with the question of whether the light of faith is real – or whether it is an illusion, as much of the world thinks. The encyclical will maintain that the light of faith is indeed real and that it sheds its light on the whole of human history, on the Church’s mission, on the journey of each person, and on every aspect of human existence – personal and communal, including the common good, the role of the family, and questions of social justice.
Yet in our times, faith is not thought of as light but darkness. In fact, many feel that faith is an actual hindrance in the quest for knowledge. Faith has been thought of not as a friend and companion to reason but rather as unreasonable, as anti-rational. Thus, in the not-too-distant-past, modernity put its trust in reason liberated from faith. Over time, however, it became clear such trust was misplaced. Many became skeptics, abandoning the search for the bigger picture- the attempt to make sense out of human existence and history- and instead employed reason as dimmer light that helps us find our way only moment by moment, trend by trend. Abandoning its search for truth, a lot of confusion ensued: confusion about human dignity, right and wrong, about the meaning of life itself.
Lumen Fidei urges us once again to see faith as a light, not just as one light among many lights but as the one light capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence.
The title of the first chapter, “We Have Believed in Love”, is instructive. In this chapter, the encyclical offers us a summary of salvation history in which the God of love creates the world, creates man in His image and likeness, and reveals Himself to humanity:
- beginning with Abraham, our father in faith,
- sustaining and deepening that revelation of His love in His people, Israel,
- fulfilling the faith of Israel by sending His Eternal Son into the world, and
- continuing that mission of salvific love in and through the Church
until the end of time.
The proof of the utter reliability of Christ’s love can be found in His dying for us. In dying for us ‘while we were yet sinners’ – as St. Paul said –in giving up His life not only for friends but for sinners and enemies, Jesus not only proved the truthfulness, the steadfastness of His love but also its power to change and transform hearts.
Yet this gift of love went beyond dying. The utter reliability and power of God’s love is seen in the Resurrection, a love “stronger than sin and more powerful than death”, as Blessed John Paul II often said.
But, the encyclical reminds us, there is another side to faith. Faith means gazing at Jesus who, in revealing the Father’s love, reveals us to ourselves. The Pope charmingly says that we need experts in various aspects of our lives. For example, we need pharmacists to provide us with medicine, lawyers to defend us in court. When it comes to God we need someone who is trustworthy. That person is the Father’s only Son who “made His dwelling among us, and we saw His glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth,” (John 1:14).
Once we begin to see as Jesus sees, the life of faith begins to take root in us. We live a new life, we are a new creation. In accepting the gift of faith, we become God’s children. We abandon the effort to save ourselves by our own goodness and works but rather to be open “to something prior to ourselves,” God’s love.
Through faith we can begin to see as Jesus sees but also through faith we can begin to love as Jesus loves, with the result that the Father can see and love in us what He sees and loves in Christ. In this way our minds are opened to a truth greater than ourselves, our hearts to a love greater than ourselves … and thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit our lives take on a whole new breadth, an openness to God but also an openness to others that makes us fit to become members of Christ’s Body, the Church, that prepares us to be a part of the Church’s communion of faith.