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Like a bridge

If a bridge is the best image to show how the extraordinary text of the Encyclical Lumen Fidei serves to connect the Pontificates of Benedict XVI and his Successor Francis, then this image can serve to illustrate their first public encounter in the Vatican. It's no coincidence that this encounter, in itself extraordinary, was preceded only a few hours earlier by the presentation of the Encyclical, followed by the announcement of the historic canonization of two Popes, authentic and exemplary Christians: John XXIII and John Paul II. But more than anything else one fact stood out: the meeting took place with a simplicity that expresses the real and visible brotherhood between the Bishop of Rome and his Predecessor.

This is the context, both immediate and profound, in which one should read and appreciate the Encyclical. “We have had a marvellous example of what this relationship with God is like, a recent and marvellous example. Pope Benedict XVI”, his Successor told us explicitly at the start of the week, “gave us this great example when the Lord made him understand, in prayer, what the step was that he had to take. With a great sense of discernment and with courage, he followed his conscience, that is, the will of God speaking in his heart. And this example of our father does such great good to us all, as an example to follow.” These words were not said for effect, just as his words were not formal at the opening of their first truly public meeting when he expressed affection to his Predecessor, acknowledgement and great joy in his presence, as discrete as it was expressive.

If therefore the continuity in diversity between the Successors to the Roman See forms the background of the document that bears the date of the Solemnity of Sts Peter and Paul, its subject is essential and decisive: “the light of faith”, which lumen fidei that invokes the lumen Christi of the Easter Vigil that breaks through the darkness. After the Encyclicals of Benedict XVI on love ( Deus caritas est ) and on hope ( Spe salvi ), this completes a long meditation and is offered with simple humility by his Successor. The Bishop of Rome from almost “the ends of the earth” has thus made his own this “precious work” and personalized it, as the text traditionally programmed on that “great gift brought by Jesus”. And he published it at the heart of a period expressly dedicated, at the wish of his Predecessor, to a reflection on faith and to its celebration.

It was immediately noted that another “year of faith” had been desired by Paul VI soon after the close of Vatican ii, and it is no accident that this Encyclical cites one of his acute observations in response to the murmuring and opposition already circulating at that time: “Though the Council does not expressly deal with faith, it speaks of it on every page, it recognizes its living, supernatural character, it presumes it to be full and strong, and it bases its teachings on it”. At the beginning this document takes up the closing discourse of Vatican ii: describing the contemporary objection to faith, by “a humanity come of age, proud of its rationality”. Taking into account these difficulties, and nourished by its root in Judaism and the great Tradition of the Church, this Encyclical is recommended to whomsoever wishes to read it to discover in faith a “lamp which guides our steps in the night”.

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