With all of the excitement from World Youth Day in Rio, we’ve been receiving fresh doses of inspiration from our dear Pope each day. Pope Francis has been building a deep and coherent message for all of us these past few weeks, starting with the publication of Lumen Fidei, his first encyclical. Even as he spoke to the millions of youth in Rio each day, he continued to weave his message of a faith full of joy and warmth, even pulling in citations from Lumen Fidei on the beaches of Copacabana. I would like to take a deeper look at Lumen Fidei, the document itself, and also the ways in which Pope Francis is continuing to develop the themes of Lumen Fidei. Needless to say, this will take more than one post!
For our starting point, let’s look at all the situational factors around the publication of Lumen Fidei. Here is how Pope Francis himself introduced the encyclical, at his Angelus address two days after publication:
“As you know, two days ago was published the Encyclical Letter on the subject of faith, entitled Lumen fidei, “The light of faith”. For the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI had started this Encyclical, which follows on from those on charity and hope. I picked up this project and I have finished it. I offer it with joy to the whole People of God: in fact, especially today, we need to go to the essentials of the Christian faith, to deepen it, and to measure current issues by it. But I think that this encyclical, at least in some parts, can also be useful to those who are searching for God and for the meaning of life. I put it in the hands of Mary, the perfect icon of faith, that it may bring in the fruits that the Lord wants.”
So first we see that Lumen Fidei will be understood most holistically as the third and final part of Pope Emeritus’ Benedict XVI’s encyclicals on love, Deus Caritas Est, God is Love (whose themes were further developed in Caritas in Veritate, Charity in Truth) and on hope, Spe Salvi, In Hope we are Saved. Immediately we remember the passage in Scripture where Paul speaks to the Corinthians saying,
The Church calls faith, hope and love the theological virtues: “The theological virtues are the foundation of Christian moral activity; they animate it and give it its special character. They inform and give life to all the moral virtues. They are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life. They are the pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in the faculties of the human being. There are three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity.” Catechism, 1813
So that is our first element in undertaking a reading of Lumen Fidei: it is situated in the context of the heritage Benedict XVI left us in the gift of his encyclicals on the other two theological virtues. The second element is two fold – Benedict also left us the gift of opening the Year of Faith, and beginning this encyclical on faith; and Pope Francis has finished it! So we have Lumen Fidei with the whole context of the Year of Faith behind it (including the element of celebrating the 50th anniversary of Vatican II), and we also have the first encyclical written in collaboration by two popes!
The last element Pope Francis gives us is his purposes he hopes to accomplish with Lumen Fidei as paraphrased from above: to help Christians deepen the essentials of the Christian faith, to measure current issues by these essentials, and to offer something to those who are searching for God and the meaning of life. Let’s keep this framework in mind as we dive into the introduction – we want to talk about and deepen what it means to be Christian, we want to apply it to real life and current issues, and we want the door to be open to everyone, where ever they may be in their search for meaning and for God. This last purpose has already been a marked feature of Pope Francis’ papacy.
In the introduction, Pope Francis talks about the transformation of how we have understood light and faith. He says that Jesus brought us the “great gift” of the “light of faith,” a new revelation of God breaking forth in the world. Then somehow, through the ages and into our modern era, this light of faith became “illusory,” a light that obscured one’s vision and “an illusion which blocks the path of a liberated humanity to its future.” Thus faith became associated with darkness, as being “driven by blind emotion, or as a subjective light, capable perhaps of warming the heart and bringing personal consolation, but not something which could be proposed to others as an objective and shared light which points the way.” Have you not felt faith treated as such? You could try to dismiss the whole faith/light/darkness thing as mere semantics – but I believe it carries too much weight to be dismissed, and I believe that our daily life is affected by how we understand and relate to faith.
I have often heard our modern world sneer at faith as something that clouds the intellect and dumbs down our rational faculties. As if not having faith would make one “liberated,” as if a person could see better without faith. The sneers prompt me to ask myself if I have internalized that cynicism. Has our Church internalized that cynicism? Have we become reactionary against it? And we must also ask – is there a modicum of truth in that cynicism? Are there places in our lives where we are treating faith as an illusion, using an illusory faith to hide from our modern reality and refuse to see?
Thus, Pope Francis says, there is an “urgent need” to understand in a new way that faith ”is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence,” and that faith is a light so “powerful [that it] cannot come from ourselves.” That true faith gives us “new eyes.”
Pope Francis ends with an invitation to move with him on a journey of discovering the light of faith anew:
“Thus wonderfully interwoven, faith, hope and charity are the driving force of the Christian life as it advances towards full communion with God. But what is it like, this road which faith opens up before us? What is the origin of this powerful light which brightens the journey of a successful and fruitful life?”
I look forward to being a part of this journey with him, and with you. As Pope Francis said, with our Mother Mary, may our journey be fruitful!
P.S. This is a helpful source for reading Lumen Fidei, it has an outline of the whole encyclical (caveat, not an official Vatican site)