In order to begin to understand the magnitude of Pope Francis’ first Encyclical, “Lumen Fidei,” we must take into consideration a scene in the Vatican Gardens early this morning which preceded the unveiling of this great papal teaching prepared by “four hands.” Pope Francis went to the Vatican Gardens to bless a new statue of St. Michael the Archangel and to consecrate the Vatican to the Archangel’s protection. To the delight of hundreds of employees of Vatican City State, Francis was accompanied by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who joined Francis in the blessing. It was a fitting, simple gesture to begin an historic day at the Vatican and for the Church. St. Michael was blessed by four hands.
Later this morning in the Vatican Press Centre, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, Archbishop Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, presented Francis’ first encyclical letter “Lumen Fidei,” the final document of a trilogy of papal teachings long desired by Pope Benedict XVI.
Benedict had written the first two documents on hope (Spe Salvi, 2007) and love (Deus Caritas Est, 2005), but his resignation in February had left the task unfinished. Today the circle is complete. While many are claiming today’s work a “first” in recent Church history, in actuality Benedict’s first encyclical “Deus Caritas Est” was thought to have been based on a draft encyclical John Paul II had been planning to issue prior to his death in 2005.
In paragraph 7 of Francis’ work, he humbly states: “These considerations on faith – in continuity with all that the Church’s magisterium has pronounced on this theological virtue – are meant to supplement what Benedict XVI had written in his encyclical letters on charity and hope. He himself had almost completed a first draft of an encyclical on faith. For this I am deeply grateful to him, and as his brother in Christ I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own. The Successor of Peter, yesterday, today and tomorrow, is always called to strengthen his brothers and sisters in the priceless treasure of that faith which God has given as a light for humanity’s path.”
“Lumen Fidei” is not light reading! It is a magnificent, deep reflection on the gift and meaning of faith, steeped in the Old Testament, winding its way through the history of salvation, and culminating in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The table of contents presents us with a broad vista of the magnitude of the faith question, addressing Faith and truth, Knowledge of the truth and love, Faith as hearing and sight, The dialogue between faith and reason, Faith and the search for God and Faith and theology.
Chapter three presents the place where this faith is experienced and lived: in the Church and through her sacramental life. To believe in Jesus Christ is to understand the Church as the home of faith.
Chapter four illustrates where this faith is lived out: in society and in the family. Faith provides us with strength and courage in the midst of suffering and pain. We discover in the lives of Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Calcutta and Mary, Daughter of Zion, exemplary role models of faith in action.
“Lumen Fidei” reminds us in its first moments that many of our contemporaries object to the light of faith. “That light might have been considered sufficient for societies of old, but was felt to be of no use for new times, for a humanity come of age, proud of its rationality and anxious to explore the future in novel ways. Faith thus appeared to some as an illusory light, preventing mankind from boldly setting out in quest of knowledge.” But we also learn that the light of autonomous reason is not enough to illumine the future; ultimately the future remains shadowy and fraught with fear of the unknown. As a result, humanity renounced the search for a great light.”
Later on in paragraph 35, “Lumen Fidei” evokes the moving story of the Christmas magi: “who were led to Bethlehem by the star (cf. Mt 2:1-12). For them God’s light appeared as a journey to be undertaken, a star which led them on a path of discovery. The star is a sign of God’s patience with our eyes which need to grow accustomed to his brightness. Religious man is a wayfarer; he must be ready to let himself be led, to come out of himself and to find the God of perpetual surprises. This respect on God’s part for our human eyes shows us that when we draw near to God, our human lights are not dissolved in the immensity of his light, as a star is engulfed by the dawn, but shine all the more brightly the closer they approach the primordial fire, like a mirror which reflects light.”
Let me offer you ten jewels of “Lumen Fidei”
1. From Paragraph 4: “The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, it must come from God. Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives. Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see; we realize that it contains a great promise of fulfillment, and that a vision of the future opens up before us.”
2. From Paragraph 16: “If laying down one’s life for one’s friends is the greatest proof of love (cf. Jn 15:13), Jesus offered his own life for all, even for his enemies, to transform their hearts. This explains why the evangelists could see the hour of Christ’s crucifixion as the culmination of the gaze of faith; in that hour the depth and breadth of God’s love shone forth.”
3. From Paragraph 17: “Our culture has lost its sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world. We think that God is to be found in the beyond, on another level of reality, far removed from our everyday relationships. But if this were the case, if God could not act in the world, his love would not be truly powerful, truly real, and thus not even true, a love capable of delivering the bliss that it promises. It would make no difference at all whether we believed in him or not. Christians, on the contrary, profess their faith in God’s tangible and powerful love which really does act in history and determines its final destiny: a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.”
4. From Paragraph 18: “In many areas in our lives we trust others who know more than we do. We trust the architect who builds our home, the pharmacist who gives us medicine for healing, the lawyer who defends us in court. We also need someone trustworthy and knowledgeable where God is concerned. Jesus, the Son of God, is the one who makes God known to us (cf. Jn 1:18). Christ’s life, his way of knowing the Father and living in complete and constant relationship with him, opens up new and inviting vistas for human experience.”
5. From Paragraph 25: “In contemporary culture, we often tend to consider the only real truth to be that of technology: truth is what we succeed in building and measuring by our scientific know-how, truth is what works and what makes life easier and more comfortable. Nowadays this appears as the only truth that is certain, the only truth that can be shared, the only truth that can serve as a basis for discussion or for common undertakings. Yet at the other end of the scale we are willing to allow for subjective truths of the individual, which consist in fidelity to his or her deepest convictions, yet these are truths valid only for that individual and not capable of being proposed to others in an effort to serve the common good. But Truth itself, the truth which would comprehensively explain our life as individuals and in society, is regarded with suspicion.”
6. From Paragraph 26: “Faith transforms the whole person precisely to the extent that he or she becomes open to love. Through this blending of faith and love we come to see the kind of knowledge which faith entails, its power to convince and its ability to illumine our steps. Faith knows because it is tied to love, because love itself brings enlightenment. Faith’s understanding is born when we receive the immense love of God which transforms us inwardly and enables us to see reality with new eyes.”
7. From Paragraph 46: “The Decalogue [Ten Commandments] is not a set of negative commands, but concrete directions for emerging from the desert of the selfish and self-enclosed ego in order to enter into dialogue with God, to be embraced by his mercy and then to bring that mercy to others. Faith thus professes the love of God, origin and upholder of all things, and lets itself be guided by this love in order to journey towards the fullness of communion with God. The Decalogue appears as the path of gratitude, the response of love, made possible because in faith we are receptive to the experience of God’s transforming love for us.”
8. From Paragraph 52: “The first setting in which faith enlightens the human city is the family. I think first and foremost of the stable union of man and woman in marriage. This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgment and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation, whereby spouses can become one flesh (cf. Gen 2:24) and are enabled to give birth to a new life, a manifestation of the Creator’s goodness, wisdom and loving plan.”
9. From Paragraph 53: “Young people in particular, who are going through a period in their lives which is so complex, rich and important for their faith, ought to feel the constant closeness and support of their families and the Church in their journey of faith. We have all seen, during World Youth Days, the joy that young people show in their faith and their desire for an ever more solid and generous life of faith. Young people want to live life to the fullest. Encountering Christ, letting themselves be caught up in and guided by his love, enlarges the horizons of existence, gives it a firm hope which will not disappoint. Faith is no refuge for the fainthearted, but something which enhances our lives. It makes us aware of a magnificent calling, the vocation of love. It assures us that this love is trustworthy and worth embracing, for it is based on God’s faithfulness which is stronger than our every weakness.”
10. From Paragraph 57: “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light. In Christ, God himself wishes to share this path with us and to offer us his gaze so that we might see the light within it. Christ is the one who, having endured suffering, is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2).”
One can see and hear Benedict on every single page, but one also easily understands how Pope Francis has not only understood and embraced Benedict’s profound teaching, but has given it flesh and blood in his Petrine Ministry that has clearly captivated the mind and heart of the world since his election on March 13 of this year.
With the release of Pope Francis’ masterful text – the work of “four hands,” we truly see how Chesterton’s words about another Francis come alive in our day: ‘What Benedict stored, Francis scatters.’” Many people have delighted in pointing out all the areas of seeming disconnect or discontinuity between the two popes. “Lumen Fidei” puts those furtive attempts to rest. We cannot forget that more than any of the recent choices made by Francis of Argentina, it was Benedict XVI’s resignation that represented the greatest change of the papal office. Benedict’s decision does not in any way undermine the papacy. Benedict is the great theologian and teacher. Francis is “pontifex,” a bridgebuilder: a man of theology and a man of deep pastoral intelligence.
Pope Francis’ intelligence shines forth through his preaching the mercy of God, even on those occasions when he uses words. For in the long run, the papacy is not about the vestments that one wears, or the style of thrones upon which one sits nor the gold crosses one carries in procession. While all of these external things place proper emphasis on the sacredness, uniqueness and universality of the papal ministry, Benedict, the great teacher and his successor, Francis the good shepherd model for us great, humble men of faith. They teach us about the necessity of an intense theological life, constant prayer and quiet contemplation which would naturally give way to good moral living, a commitment to others, and a life of charity and justice.
As I read these concluding words in “Lumen Fidei,” I closed my eyes and imagined Benedict and Francis sitting in the Lourdes Grotto of the Vatican Gardens, not far from either of their two dwellings at Domus Sanctae Marthe and in the newly refurbished convent of the Pope Emeritus, and saying these words of paragraph 57 aloud together:
“Let us refuse to be robbed of hope, or to allow our hope to be dimmed by facile answers and solutions which block our progress, “fragmenting” time and changing it into space. Time is always much greater than space. Space hardens processes, whereas time propels towards the future and encourages us to go forward in hope.”
What Benedict stored, Francis scatters. “Lumen Fidei” helps us to never lose sight of the deep continuity between Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, Bishop of Rome. This continuity is not only made manifest in joint blessings of statues in the Vatican Gardens, nor in shared texts prepared with love and devotion, but is manifested in their shared outlook on faith and their awareness that it is the Lord who leads the Church, not a particular Pope at any given moment in history.