A Shepherd's Message - July 16, 2013

July 16, 2013

On July 5 Pope Francis published his first Encyclical, “Lumen Fidei,” “The Light of Faith,” a work he has described as done “with four hands.” The reference is to the fact that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI began an encyclical on Faith as part of the Year of Faith, October 11, 2012 through November 24, 2013. Pope Francis received some of the notes and writing of Pope Benedict XVI and “made them his own” while also threading through the work his own modifications and thinking. It arrives on the scene of our Catholic life as a remarkable witness of the continuity between the two Successors of St. Peter and a sign also of the newness that Pope Francis brings to the Office of teaching that which belongs to Peter!

The encyclical begins with a simple declarative sentence: “the light of Faith is the way the Church speaks of the gift given by Jesus.” Faith is, first of all, a spiritual and supernatural “bestowal” of a new way of seeing everything from Jesus’ point of view. The sun certainly gives light to the earth and helps show things; but it cannot reveal all of reality. Pope Francis quotes the dry humor of the early Christian martyr and writer, St. Justin, who in the midst of the pagan world of the second century A.D. remarked: “No one has ever been ready to die for his faith in the sun!” Faith reaches from outside-in and from inside-out and truly affects the way we appreciate, and think about, reality beginning with ourselves in relation to the Lord. Those who believe “see” with a light that illumines their whole journey through life.

In the course of recent centuries and the growth of modern science, some have proposed to make faith a kind of darkness, a place of refuge for those things the “light” of scientific reason has not quite figured out. It becomes subjective, a matter of certain emotions, a form of private subjectivity. My term for it is that faith is a hobby for a certain sentiment of longing for order. But problems developed for scientific reason to gradually make it renounce any search for Truth; so it becomes a search for little “truths” and more modest empirical assurances. The result has been confusion, disputes about good and evil, and a public square that seems to authorize a benign form of nihilism. This is the phase in which many now live.

Faith, however, is much more robust, even today, than what certain elites and experts think and try to make people think. The encyclical moves from this starting point and centers beautiful attention on Faith as an encounter with a Person, Faith as a way to illumine the magnificence of reason, Faith as an act of response to God’s call requiring a genuine total personal response, Faith as an anchor that is discovered in the Church, Faith as a basis for moral and social action.

Though the encyclical is not terribly long, it is very dense. In this brief article, I want to highlight a few points that are marvelous and are an invitation for us all to read and meditate upon them with profit!

The first chapter is a biblical reflection on the faith of Abraham and God’s call to faith to Israel. There is a fine section on how faith is new, but not totally foreign, to the lived experience of Abraham prior to his call. God makes promises and shows “reliability” to Abraham, particularly in reference to his desire for children. Faith is a gift to trust, a trust that is not misplaced, and faith as a memory of a promise opens up the future to a person and establishes a way to live. In a subsequent section, Pope Francis deals with the faith of Israel and how God’s deeds not only illuminate history but also ask for a deeper trust in Who He Is, a trust that is always being compromised by Israel’s return to idolatry and pagan practices. The hiddenness of God shows His mysterious depths and transcendence. Faith is not the same as manipulating, but is the response of a loving trust to the One who has acted first in deeds and words to save Israel. This is an important section.

In his comments on the New Testament and Faith, Pope Francis takes up anew the question of reliability and points, with St. Paul, to the absolute significance of Christ’s Resurrection, the seal of Jesus’ love for us and the action of the Father and the Son to witness to their love for all humankind. Because Jesus is truly Son of God He is worthy of faith for He is absolutely grounded in the Father. Faith in Him means that Jesus acts even now, everyday, in the life of the disciple.

Chapter Two centers its attention on what we call “Faith and Reason.” A highpoint for me in reading this section was its treatment of the great St. Augustine who, before his conversion, was certainly centered on reason and truth as “light” – but in his conversion was confronted with the importance of “hearing the truth, the word of truth and life.” St. Paul says that faith comes through hearing. St. Augustine then spends his days integrating these two important dimensions of our life, reason/experience and faith/hearing in what has been handed on to us. The analysis is very important for us today when we are either tempted or counseled to toss aside our hearing in faith in favor of what is experienced now as relevant, to jettison what is supposedly “outdated!” (How is that decided?)

Chapter Three has a beautiful description of Faith and the Sacraments, the importance of all our life, mind, heart, emotions and sensibility as being involved in being disciples of faith! Sacraments are concrete and visible, yet they are constant reminders of transcendence and of our genuine union with Christ, especially in the Eucharist.

There is much more to be unpacked in this very fine encyclical. I hope that we can all profit from reading and studying it, and engaging in conversation about it.

Happy Reading!