14 things you need to know about Pope Francis’s new encyclical

Pope Francis has just released his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei. Here are 14 things you need to know about it.
Pope Francis has just released his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei. Here are 14 things you need to know about it. (photo: Register Files)

Pope Francis has just released his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, or “the light of faith.”

The first encyclical of a pope is always closely watched, because it frequently signals the way in which he intends to govern the Church.

This new encyclical is even more intriguing because much of it was actually written by former Pope Benedict.

Here are 14 things you need to know . . .


1. What is an encyclical?

An encyclical is a kind of letter. Papal encyclicals usually deal with matters of Church teaching (doctrine). Popes write them when they feel they have something important to say about particular teachings.

Although they are not infallible, encyclicals are authoritative.

The word “encyclical” comes from the Greek word for “circle,” indicating that it is to be circulated among different people.

The encyclical Lumen Fidei is addressed to “the bishops, priests, and deacons, consecrated persons, and the lay faithful.” This indicates a broad audience.

You can read the full encyclical here.


2. How did this encyclical come to be?

The encyclical was originally begun by Pope Benedict in order to commemorate the Year of Faith and to complete a trilogy of encyclicals he had been writing on the three theological virtues—faith, hope, and charity.

The preceding two were Deus Caritas Est, on the theological virtue of charity, and Spe Salvi, on the virtue of hope.

Pope Benedict’s health did not allow him to remain in office, however, and so the draft of the encyclical was inherited by Pope Francis, who chose to complete it.


3. Has this ever happened before?

Yes. In fact, Pope Benedict’s first encyclical was based, in part, on an encyclical that John Paul II had begun preparing but had not finished.


4. Does Lumen Fidei acknowledge Pope Benedict’s role in its composition?

Yes. In it, Pope Francis writes:

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. [LF 7].


5. Does Lumen Fidei sound like Pope Benedict?

Much of it does. It includes many of the characteristic touches and themes of his writings.

For example, it contains many references to history, including early Christian history, Jewish history, and pagan history.

It contains references to the thought of historical figures, including the Church Fathers Justin Martyr and Irenaeus.

It also refers to the thought of recent intellectual figures, including the Catholic thinker Romano Guardini, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, the agnostic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.


6. Do particular passages sound like Pope Francis?
This is harder to judge. He is mostly known for his speaking style, and his own voice for a document of this nature may take time to emerge.

One touch that is distinctly Pope Francis, though, is the way he signs the encyclical.

Normally popes give their name in Latin, followed by “PP” (a Latin abbreviation for “pope”) and followed by their number.

Pope Benedict, for example, signed Spe Salvi by writing “Benedictus PP XVI.”

Pope Francis, being the first pope to use this name, does not have a number, so you wouldn’t expect that in his signature.

He does, however, seem to prefer not to use the title “pope,” preferring “bishop of Rome,” instead.

Thus he leaves out the “PP” in his signature and simply signs the encyclical “Franciscus.”


7. How is the encyclical structured?
The encyclical, which takes about two hours to read in full, is structured this way:

·      Introduction (1-7)

·      Chapter One: We Have Believed in Love (8-22)

·      Chapter Two: Unless You Believe, You Will Not Understand (23-36)

·      Chapter Three: I Delivered To You What I Also Received (37-49)

·      Chapter Four: God Prepares a City for Them (50-60)


8. What does the introduction cover?

The introduction introduces the idea of “the light of faith” (Latin, lumen fidei) and the role it plays in our lives.

It discusses the inadequacy of pagan, pre-Christian faiths and the neglect of faith in our own time. It also stresses the need to rediscover the role that the light of the Christian faith can and should play in our lives and in society.

A favorite quote, right from the beginning of the encyclical is this:

The pagan world, which hungered for light, had seen the growth of the cult of the sun god, Sol Invictus, invoked each day at sunrise.

Yet though the sun was born anew each morning, it was clearly incapable of casting its light on all of human existence.

The sun does not illumine all reality; its rays cannot penetrate to the shadow of death, the place where men’s eyes are closed to its light.

"No one — Saint Justin Martyr writes — has ever been ready to die for his faith in the sun" [LF 1].


9. What does the first chapter cover?

The first chapter retraces the history of the true faith, beginning with Abraham, moving forward through the faith of the people of Israel, to the fullness of the Christian faith.

It also discusses salvation by faith and the “ecclesial form of faith”—that is, the role of the Church in the life of faith, that our faith is not to be lived in isolation from the Church.

A notable quotation from this section:

Faith is not a private matter, a completely individualistic notion or a personal opinion: it comes from hearing, and it is meant to find expression in words and to be proclaimed.

For "how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?" (Rom 10:14).

Faith becomes operative in the Christian on the basis of the gift received, the love which attracts our hearts to Christ (cf. Gal 5:6), and enables us to become part of the Church’s great pilgrimage through history until the end of the world [LF 22].


10. What does the second chapter cover?

Philippa Hitchens summarizes:

Chapter two insists on the essential link between Faith and Truth, without which our beliefs seem nothing more than a fairy story, an illusion of happiness, unable to sustain us when the going gets tough.

Contemporary society, the encyclical says, tends to see technological progress and individual pleasure as the only objective truth, viewing any broader questions about the origins of our existence with deep suspicion.

Without love in our hearts, truth becomes cold, impersonal, oppressive, unable to transform the lives of others.

But by listening, seeing and believing in Christ’s presence in our lives today, we can broaden our horizons and find better ways of serving the common good.

The light of our faith in Christ can also contribute to a more fruitful dialogue with non-Christians and non-believers, showing how all those who search for God or seek for truth will be welcomed and illuminated by that light.


11. What does the third chapter cover?

Hitchens again summarizes:

The third chapter of the encyclical centers on the Church as the place where the light of faith is safeguarded and transmitted from one generation to the next.

Through the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, through profession of the Creed, praying the Our Father and obeying the Ten Commandments, the Church teaches the language of faith and draws us into the Trinitarian relationship of love, so that ‘whoever believes is never alone’.


12. What does the fourth chapter cover?

Finally, Hitchens notes:

The final chapter focuses on Faith and the common good and shows how the light of faith can promote peace and reconciliation, and teach respect for God’s creation.

The encyclical also considers those areas illuminated by Faith, starting with the family based on marriage, understood as a stable union between man and woman.

Faith, writes the Pope, cannot eliminate suffering in our world, but it can accompany us and bring a new sense of hope in God’s love.

The encyclical ends with a prayer to Mary, Mother of Jesus and icon of faith, who can lead us into the light of God’s love.


13. Does it stress the fact that marriage is the union of man and woman?

Yes. It does not mention the idea of homosexual “marriage” explicitly, but it clearly stresses the Church’s understanding of what marriage is:

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 [LF 52].


14. Does this encyclical tell us much about how Pope Francis will govern the Church?

Not as much as you might think. Unlike Pope John Paul II’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, it does not appear to lay out a blueprint for his entire pontificate.

This is largely due to the fact that he inherited an almost complete first draft of the encyclical from Pope Benedict. Thus Pope Francis’s second encyclical may actually shed more light on the agenda for his own pontificate.

It does, however, contain some intriguing clues, including the emphasis on the role of faith in society, the allusion to marriage as the union of man and woman, and his own personal style, as illustrated by his signature.


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