July 12, 2013


Pope Francis first encyclical

When Pope Francis announced the completion of his first encyclical, he said that it was the work of four hands, meaning his and those of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. He might better have said that “Lumen Fidei” (“The Light of Faith”) is the work of two brilliant minds.

When Pope Emeritus Benedict retired, it was known that he had been working on the third of his encyclicals on the three theological virtues. The first was on charity and the second on hope. Now Pope Francis said, “I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own” (#7).

Since we have only one pope, this is Pope Francis’s encyclical no matter how much was contributed by Pope Emeritus Benedict.

As Archbishop Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said at a news conference marking the release of the encyclical on July 5, “Anyone who reads this encyclical will immediately note the substantial continuity of the message of Pope Francis with the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI.”

It is not unusual for popes to complete encyclicals that their predecessors began. Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est,” was started by Blessed John Paul II and released nine months after Benedict’s election.

Pope Francis tell us that “the light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence” (#4, the italics are in the encyclical). Faith “is born of an encounter with the living God” and is “received from God as a supernatural gift” (#4).

At another point, Francis says, “Faith consists in the willingness to let ourselves be constantly transformed and renewed by God’s call” (#13). It is “God’s free gift, which calls for humility and the courage to trust and to entrust” (#14).

There’s a lot in this encyclical about the relationship between faith and love, including our belief that God loves us so much that he sent us his Son, and Christ’s love that is found in his dying for our sake: “If laying down one’s life for one’s friends is the greatest proof of love (cf. Jn 19:37),” Pope Francis says, “Jesus offered his own life for all, even for his enemies, to transform their hearts” (#16).

Christian faith, he says, “is faith in the incarnation of the Word and his bodily resurrection; it is faith in a God who is so close to us that he entered our human history” (#18).

Pope Francis also says that “faith is not a private matter” that it “is necessarily ecclesial; it is professed from within the body of Christ as a concrete communion of believers” (#22).

The encyclical emphasizes that “today more than ever, we need to be reminded of [a] bond between faith and truth, given the crisis of truth in our age” (#25). He is referring to the relativism that is so common these days in which people consider “truths valid only for that individual, and not capable of being proposed to others in an effort to serve the common good” (#25).

There’s a section on “the dialogue between faith and reason” (#32). Pope Francis notes, “The encounter of the Gospel message with the philosophical culture of the ancient world proved a decisive step in the evangelization of all peoples, and stimulated a fruitful interaction between faith and reason which has continued down the centuries to our own times” (#32).

Those who have faith and who have opened their hearts to God’s love, “cannot keep this gift to themselves,” the pope says (#37). Faith “must be passed on in every age,” and it is passed on “from one person to another, just as one candle is lighted from another” in the Easter Vigil liturgy (#37).

And how is our faith passed on? “There is a special means for passing down, a means capable of engaging the entire person, body and spirit. . . . It is the sacraments, celebrated in the Church’s liturgy” (#40). It is first and foremost in baptism, the pope says and devotes four paragraphs to baptism.

But, he says, “The sacramental character of faith finds its highest expression in the Eucharist” (#44).

—John F. Fink

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