One of the Pope’s most important duties is to implement Jesus’ command to Peter to strengthen his brothers and sisters in the faith (Luke 22:32).
That’s one of the reasons why it is particularly striking that, in the Year of Faith, we have an encyclical on faith written, as Pope Francis said, by “four hands” — his and Benedict XVI’s — and fittingly signed on the feast of St. Peter. The didactic duet and distinguished date suggest that Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith) is less the act of a particular pope and more the faithful exercise of the Petrine office in apostolic succession.
Pope Francis dramatically reinforced this impression by publishing it on the same day he approved the recommendations for the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. These two were responsible for the two greatest papal attempts to strengthen the faith of the Church in recent memory, the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, both of whose jubilees are the occasion for this special Year of Faith.
The faith is transmitted by “living persons in a way consonant with the living faith,” Lumen Fidei underlines, referring to apostolic succession. The encyclical is evidence that faith is strengthened in the same way.
If there were an official motto for the Year of Faith, it would surely be the apostles’ plea, “Lord, increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). Lumen Fidei identifies four ways the faith of believers can be augmented and reinforced.
The first is in our capacity to see by the light of faith. “There is an urgent need,” the encyclical says, “to see once again that faith is a light” intended to illumine “every aspect of human existence.” Faith ultimately means to see things “as Jesus sees them, with his own eyes,” an eye transplant every believer needs.
The second intensification is in our hearing. Faith comes through hearing, St. Paul writes (Romans 10:17), and each of us needs to tune anew into the Good Shepherd’s voice speaking to us, calling us to follow him and summoning us to become those who “hear the word of God and do it,” with loving, trusting obedience (Luke 8:21).
The third growth is through the sense of touch. The encyclical challenges us to open ourselves to the interior caress of Christ’s love and to respond like the hemorrhaged woman in the Gospel (Luke 8:45): by reaching out in faith to touch him in return. This heart-to-heart contact happens, above all, through the sacraments.
The last maturation is in our memory. Faith, Lumen Fidei declares, is a living memory of the history of salvation preserved in the heart of the Church. Like Mary’s heart, our heart is called to ponder the meaning of these wondrous deeds, treasure them and unite God’s past miracles and future promises in a present full of confident hope.
Lumen Fidei seeks to strengthen our faith in each of the four ways so that we can more fully share in St. John’s authentically sacramental outlook — “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1) — and can transmit that glorious living memory to others.
The encyclical also tries to fortify our faith by responding to various contemporary doubts, attitudes and idolatries that undermine believing. It does so very subtly, so subtly that it’s easy to miss. In order to grasp the encyclical’s structure and greatness, however, it’s important to see these considerations hiding in the background.
For the most part, Lumen Fidei doesn’t criticize or even mention these challenges by name, but, rather, shows what faith is, positively and attractively, enticing people away from these common snares.
We can mention a dozen of the most noteworthy examples, in honor of the 12 articles of the Creed.
In response to the idea that faith is an outdated relic of the Dark Ages, retarding mankind’s growth, the encyclical shows how Christian faith provides the foundation for fidelity in interpersonal relationships, without which society would be debilitated by fear.
Against those who posit that faith seduces people to abandon the world and live for an ethereal Jerusalem, the encyclical emphasizes that raising hands in prayer strengthens them to build an earthly city founded not just on justice, but also charity and mercy.
In contrast to the secularism that organizes society as if God is distant or dead and makes utilitarianism the principle of justice in human relationships, faith makes God tangible and Christlike love possible.
For relativists who respond to the horror of totalitarianism by rejecting not false anthropology, but truth as a whole, the encyclical shows how the truth of God’s love embraced and reciprocated in faith frees us from solipsism (the belief that knowledge of anything outside one’s own mind is not sure), rehabilitates our memory and leads us to treat others not with force, but humility and reverence.
To the rationalists who believe truth is only what can be verified through the scientific method, Lumen Fidei proclaims that faith draws reason beyond formulae and opens knowledge to the wonders and richness of creation.
To those who look at faith as a burden, the encyclical testifies that faith is a treasure that makes us exceedingly rich, a good news of great joy meant to be shared contagiously — and a light capable of setting an often-dark world ablaze.
Anticipating the objections of those who claim faith is dry, cold and boring, Lumen Fidei shows that the life of faith is a drama involving not just the head, but the heart; an assent not principally to a list of truths, but to Person; and a passionate life that transforms crosses into signs and means of love.
For individualists tempted to privatize faith, the encyclical discloses how faith is personal and communal, bringing us into communion with the eternal Trialogue and into the family of believers.
To those inveigled to view the content of the faith as an à la carte buffet, Lumen Fidei describes how the truths of faith are interconnected and are meant to connect us with God and others. To subtract from the truths of faith is, therefore, to wound communion.
For those who try to reduce faith to doctrine and separate faith from life, the encyclical illustrates how faith is meant to be lived, as we see beautifully and compellingly in the lives of Abraham and Mary.
For Protestants tempted toward affirming salvation by faith alone, the encyclical shows how faith leads us to live in the Lord’s love to such a degree that it overflows in deeds of love.
Finally, for those who prefer to believe in Christ without believing in the Church, Lumen Fidei stresses the ecclesial dimension of the faith: that to believe in Christ means to believe in, care for and build up his body, which he loves as his beloved Bride.
In inoculating us against each of these common viruses that lead to spiritual blindness, deafness, insensitivity and amnesia, the encyclical not only strengthens and augments the faith of believers, but reinforces how important faith is for humanity’s present and future.
Lumen Fidei summons all those in the Church to take the bushel basket off the light of faith and set it on a lampstand for the whole world to see.
Father Roger Landry is pastor of
St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, Massachusetts,
and is national chaplain of Catholic Voices USA.
He provided commentary for EWTN during
the conclave that elected Pope Francis.