Lumen Fidei, The Light of Faith
Not infrequently, it is a disservice to summarize an encyclical before it has had a reasonable chance to make its own direct impact on readers around the world. I think this is very much the case with Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), dated June 29th and released today. For some encyclicals, such reticence might not be justified, but everyone should be encouraged to read for himself this relatively short and tightly-structured reflection on Faith.
I recall in passing that Pope Benedict’s large social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, was a horse of a different color, affording a good argument for extensive commentary. That encyclical incorporated a number of different themes, and it relied heavily on the whole body of prior social teaching. Few would read it in its entirety; it would be the subject of endless claims by those desiring to score points in contemporary social, political and economic debates, and many people would need at least some help to make sense out of it—to extract what was new and to identify the thematic trajectory within the many topics addressed.
Lumen Fidei, however, demands a different sort of response. Here we have a work of some sixty paragraphs devoted to the fundamental religious question of our age: How are we to understand faith in a world which dismisses it as mere sentiment and, moreover, does not even understand the concept of universal truth. Indeed, the introduction to the encyclical traces briefly the history of man’s response to faith to the present moment, faith which now starts at a disadvantage in comparison with the other claims on a busy life.
The proper thing to do, then, is to whet the appetite for reading the encyclical, hopefully slowly and prayerfully, on our own. Lumen Fidei is divided into four chapters, each drawn from a passage in Scripture:
- We have believed in love. (1 Jn 4:16)
- Unless you believe, you will not understand. (Is 7:9)
- I delivered to you what I also received. (1 Cor 15:3)
- God prepares a city for them. (Heb 11:16)
In the first chapter, Pope Francis—who has deliberately drawn on the previous preparations for this encyclical by his predecessor—explores the rootedness of faith in the absolute fidelity of God, Who is completely trustworthy. Thus faith opens up an understanding of God’s plan and God’s promise, which gives us a deeper understanding of reality, and enables us to know how to live in response to the seemingly more immediate vagaries of life in the world. This faith is relational. God enters human history and invites each person to participate in His plan of love. Thus faith reaches its fullness in the community of the Church, where the love of God is manifested in the one body of Christ. St. Augustine captured the bond created by faith when he explained: “Man is faithful when he believes in God and his promises; God is faithful when he grants to man what he has promised.” And God is fidelity incarnate.
In the second chapter, the Pope explores the intrinsic connections between faith and truth, in that faith enables us to see reality more deeply, to know the good, and—secure in this knowledge—to stand firm in the course of our lives. Indeed, the deepest knowledge of the truth comes through the love of God and of others which faith enables. As faith comes through hearing and sight, it is an intensely personal experience which opens out into a unique trustworthy knowledge, stimulating a constant dialogue between faith and reason. The Pope notes that the Hellenic impulse, taken to represent the thrust of reason, is contained within Scripture itself, as the philosophical interplay with faith was expressed under divine inspiration in the course of Jewish history. But the truth of faith, a fruit of love, is not some totalitarian imposition. It is a true gift for the common good. Its light is a light within the believing subject, which is the whole Church.
This leads directly to the third chapter, in which Francis explains that faith is not passed on as if from individual to individual, which can only produce an increasing distance from and uncertainty about the original events on which faith is based. Rather, it is transmitted whole and entire by the Church which, under the real authority of Christ in the Magisterium, always contains the entire content of faith—the entire ecclesial memory and the full life of Christ. Thus the Church extends the relational reality of Faith not only through her doctrines, but through her very sacramental life. The Creed becomes an invitation to enter the Divine mystery and be transformed in love. This ecclesial life is also transmitted in the path of the 10 commandments, and of course in prayer. This faith in the one God, directed toward the one Lord, is shared in the one Church, and so must be professed in its full unity and integrity.
Finally, in the fourth chapter, Pope Francis more thoroughly explores the impact of the gift of faith on the community. He had already noted its role in securing the common good, for from the first those who put their faith in God have been preserved not only individually but as a people. Thus the great Old Testament mediators of faith, Noah, Abraham and Moses, brought all who believe to the fulfillment of God’s promises. This principle of mediation enables others to participate in the vision of the mediator, preparing us to participate in the vision of Christ Himself, who irrevocably places God’s action in the context of human history and so secures the dignity of the human person. Without Christ, this sense of human dignity is always lost. With Christ, all the saints mediate this vision to others, fruitful with new life and new hope. To all those who suffer, the Church provides a service of hope against a new horizon of absolute confidence in the reality of the faithfulness of God.
I hope that it is easy to see, from these brief highlights, the richness and depth of Lumen Fidei. Faith is very difficult in the modern period, and almost never understood. Clearly, if we can read only one explanation of the mystery and reality of faith, we should read this jewel of an encyclical, given to us in the first year of the pontificate of Pope Francis—the year of faith, the year of the New Evangelization.
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