Encyclical: A harmony of Popes Benedict, Francis

Pope Francis examined the theological virtue of faith in the first encyclical of his pontificate, Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), which was issued July 5.

The encyclical represents the final piece of a papal triptych on the theological virtues of faith, hope and love that began under Pope Benedict XVI with Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”) in 2005 and followed by Spe Salvi (“Saved in Hope”) in 2007.

Pope Francis stresses the essential relationship among the virtues in his encyclical: “Thus wonderfully interwoven, faith, hope and charity are the driving force of the Christian life as it advances toward full communion with God. But what is it like, this road which faith opens up before us?”

Lumen Fidei was begun by Pope Emeritus Benedict, but he resigned the papacy in February before its completion. Pope Francis notes in the introduction to the encyclical that his predecessor “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.”

Seamless continuity

While there might be a temptation to study the encyclical paragraph by paragraph to discern what was penned by Pope Benedict or by Pope Francis, the papal teaching is strikingly harmonized, and the result is not a hybrid document of two competing minds but a product of nearly seamless continuity among the modern popes, in particular Blessed John XXIII, Blessed John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

the Light of Faith

Interestingly, on the very day the encyclical was promulgated, Popes Francis and Benedict were together in the Vatican Gardens for the unveiling of a statue dedicated to the Archangel Michael as protector of the Vatican.

That same morning came the announcement that both Blesseds John XXIII and John Paul II would be canonized in the coming months, and then there is the important context of the encyclical’s release in the middle of the Year of Faith and during the events marking the 50th anniversary of Vatican II.

The encyclical is thus taken up from the start with the concern of the Church, especially since the council, of a dialogue with modernity that nurtures an encounter with the light of faith, that great gift brought by Jesus Christ. Pope Francis writes in his introduction, “In modernity, that light might have been considered sufficient for societies of old, but was felt to be of no use for new times, for a humanity come of age.” Pope Francis shows through his encyclical, however, that, “There is an urgent need ... to see once again that faith is a light, for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim.”

Each chapter reflects a different aspect of faith in light of this greater purpose: “We have believed in Love (1 Jn 4:16),” on faith in salvation history; “Unless you believe you will not understand” (see Is 7:9) on the relationship between faith and truth, the dialogue between faith and reason and the search for God; “I delivered to you what I also received” (see 1 Cor 15:3), on the safeguarding and transmission of the faith; and “God prepares a city for them” (see Heb 11:16), on the social dimensions of faith and of faith and the common good, in the family, in society and in the midst of suffering.

The pope writes that “if we want to understand what faith is, we need to follow the route it has taken, the path trodden by believers,” that is, that we see the role of faith in the fulfillment of salvation history — in the journey of Abraham, the people of Israel and Moses. It is a journey that is historical but that also anticipates a future promise, a “memory of the future” (memoria futuri) that sees beyond this world and to the source of our hope, the culmination of salvation history in Christ Jesus, who is “the definitive ‘Yes’ to all the promises, the ultimate basis of our ‘Amen’ to God (cf. 2 Cor 1:20).”

For Pope Francis, too, the history that culminates in Jesus “is the complete manifestation of God’s reliability,” but in our modern era, “culture has lost its sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world. We think that God is to be found in the beyond, on another level of reality, far removed from our everyday relationships.”

Proper setting for faith

In the relationship between faith and truth, Pope Francis notes the need for a proper setting for faith: the Church.

“Faith, in fact, needs a setting in which it can be witnessed to and communicated, a means which is suitable and proportionate to what is communicated,” he writes.

But what is communicated in the Church, the pope teaches, remains “an encounter with the true God, a light which touches us at the core of our being and engages our minds, wills and emotions, opening us to relationships lived in communion.”

The Church hands down this faith through the four elements — the profession of faith, the celebration of the sacraments, the Ten Commandments and prayer.

This handing down of faith, of course, points to the truth that “the unity of the Church in time and space is linked to the unity of the faith: ‘there is one body and one Spirit… one faith’ (Eph 4:4-5).”

But, Francis sees that if the faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity, which is another way that every generation can see and attest to the reliability of God.

This reliability is seen in practical terms in the way that “the light of faith is concretely placed at the service of justice, law and peace.” It has a vital social dimension, and allows us to proclaim that “God, by his concrete actions, makes a public avowal that he is present in our midst and that he desires to solidify every human relationship.”

This is especially important in a modern world that struggles with suffering and a tragic absence of hope. “Suffering,” Pope Francis writes, “reminds us that faith’s service to the common good is always one of hope — a hope which looks ever ahead in the knowledge that only from God, from the future which comes from the risen Jesus, can our society find solid and lasting foundations.”

Pope Francis ends his reflections on faith with Mary, the great role model in faith, who received the word into her heart, “so that in her womb it could take flesh and be born as light for humanity.” 

Matthew Bunson is senior correspondent for OSV Newsweekly.