Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), is being widely acclaimed for the beauty, clarity and profundity of its teaching.
"I believe it will be incredibly helpful to those trying to make sense of a world which appears to have lost faith in God but puts its faith instead in technology, celebrities and material possessions," said Father Paul Haffner, professor of theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
The 80-page encyclical, released by the Vatican July 5, begins with Pope Francis explaining that Benedict XVI had "almost completed" it before he stood down and that it supplements Benedict’s previous ones on the two other theological virtues of hope and charity, Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope) and Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love).
Francis says that he added "further contributions" to the "first draft," and these can be fairly easily determined.
Analyzing past teachings and priorities of both Francis and Benedict, it can be roughly estimated that about 70 out of the 80 pages is the work of Benedict XVI, but the fact that Francis was willing to make those words his own and lend his signature to the encyclical shows how the teachings of the Holy Father and the pope emeritus harmoniously coincide.
"The document has the rich teaching of Pope Ratzinger and the communicative warmth of Pope Bergoglio," observed Luigi Accattoli, the former veteran Vatican correspondent for the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera.
But who wrote what aside, Accattoli says no one will know exactly until the Vatican Archives releases documents in 70 years’ time.
But Lumen Fidei is filled with pertinent teachings geared for today’s increasingly secular societies, where faith has become dismissed, ridiculed or ignored.
A Gift From God
The encyclical begins by teaching that faith is not a condition to be taken for granted, but it is, rather, a gift from God to be nurtured and reinforced. "Who believes, sees," the Pope writes, and he stresses it is able to illuminate all aspects of man’s existence.
It proceeds from the past, from the memory of Jesus’ life, but also comes from the future, as it opens up vast horizons.
He goes on to highlight the flaws of modernity and its dismissal of faith as "an illusory light." Yet the light of autonomous reason that was meant to replace faith was "not enough to illumine the future [which ultimately] remains shadowy and fraught with fear of the unknown," he says. It has led to an "urgent need" to see once again that "faith is a light" and that the light of faith is "unique since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence."
Lumen Fidei then draws on the example of Abraham to show that faith is about "listening," a "call" to come out of one’s isolated self in order to embrace the "promise" of a new future. It states that faith is the opposite of idolatry, as it "breaks with idols to turn to the living God in a personal encounter."
The encyclical frequently talks of "faith knowledge," which it says can be obtained through seeing, listening to and encountering Christ.
"Christ’s death discloses the utter reliability of God’s love above all in the light of his resurrection," the Pope says.
"As the Risen One, Christ is the trustworthy witness, deserving of faith and a solid support for our faith."
Yet faith is not merely about gazing at Jesus, he stresses, but seeing things as Jesus himself sees them and participating in his way of seeing.
Furthermore, faith must be joined with truth and love. "Today, more than ever, we need to be reminded of this bond between faith and truth, given the crisis of truth in our age," the document says, observing that truth for many today is about success in terms of scientific know-how and what makes life easier and more comfortable.
"Faith transforms the whole person precisely to the extent that he or she becomes open to love," the Pope explains in one of the encyclical’s key passages.
"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."
He continues, "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."
This is a truth, Father Haffner noted, that the Church has always taught from the Letter of St. James onwards. "The bond between love and reason is developed in the context of faith," Father Haffner said.
Pope Francis then contrasts this with today’s notion of love, which is not connected with any notion of truth. "The light of love proper to faith can illumine the questions of our own time about truth," he writes.
And in a warning against fundamentalism, he stresses faith cannot be imposed and never leads to arrogance. "One who believes may not be presumptuous," he says. "On the contrary, truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all."
Father Haffner, who has written extensively on faith and reason in his 2010 book The Mystery of Creation, was particularly struck by these passages.
"Christian faith does not humiliate or force reason; so faith is totally different from fundamentalism or sectarianism," he said. "God respects reason so that, as the encyclical says, 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.’"
The Family of Faith
Elsewhere in the encyclical, the Pope links the importance of faith to evangelization, underlining the nature of faith as being open to the "we" of the Church and a communion of persons.
"Our belief is expressed in response to an invitation, to a word which must be heard and which is not my own," he writes, adding that those who "receive faith discover that their horizons expand as new and enriching relationships come to life."
The Holy Father talks about the importance of passing on the faith, underscoring the importance of baptism and the Eucharist and recalling St. Augustine’s words that parents are called not only to bring children into the world, "but also bring them to God." He discusses the significance of unity of faith and that, "since faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity."
Noting that when the faith is weakened, "the foundations of humanity also risk being weakened," Francis teaches that "faith is good for everyone; it is a common good," building societies so they can "journey towards a future of hope."
And he adds that the first setting in which faith enlightens humanity is the family.
"I think first and foremost of the stable union of man and woman in marriage," the Pope says, adding that "acceptance of sexual differentiation" enables spouses to "give birth to new life." Faith, he teaches, "helps us to grasp in all its depth and richness the begetting of children."
Adding that faith is "not for the fainthearted, but something which enhances our lives [and] makes us aware of the magnificent calling, the vocation of love," he also explains how faith sets us on the path of true brotherhood and not the "universal brotherhood of equality" that modernism sought.
"Faith teaches us to see that every man and woman represents a blessing for me, that the light of God’s face shines on me through the faces of my brothers and sisters," the Pope says.
He also explains how faith, by revealing the love of God the Creator, enables one "to respect nature all the more."
Mary: ‘Perfect Icon’ of Faith
Lumen Fidei concludes with an invitation to look to Mary, "perfect icon" of faith, who, as the Mother of Jesus, conceived "faith and joy."
Pope Francis elevates this prayer to Mary, that she might assist man in his faith, to remind those who believe that they are never alone — and teaching us to see through Jesus’ eyes.
"Teach us to see all things with the eyes of Jesus, that he may be light for our path," the Holy Father implores of Mary in the encyclical’s final lines. "And may this light of faith always increase in us, until the dawn of that undying day, which is Christ himself, your Son, Our Lord!"