· On the first Encyclical of Francis’ Pontificate ·
“Those who believe, see”. Pope Francis’ teaching in his first Encyclical may be summed up in this sentence, as penetrating as it is symbolic. The text lies on the horizon of two words: light and love. What is taught is a journey that the Pope proposes to the Church so that she may recover her mission in today’s world. Light is a crucial category for the faith and life of the Church. It returns with special effectiveness at a moment like this, often profoundly troubled due to a crisis of faith which, because of the problems it involves, has few precedents in our history. In presenting faith the Encyclical asks us to fix our gaze once again on the essential of the Church and of every believer. This is the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God who through his death and Resurrection revealed love in its fullness and depth. The first two chapters, from the perspective of theological reflection, are certainly among the most original pages. Here, in fact, starting from the presupposition that faith is born from love, the relationship between knowledge of faith and knowledge of love is structured as an inseparable binomial; where love, however, has indisputable primacy. The “light of faith” is resolved in the “light of love” (n. 34) and in it truth finds its original meaning, truth and the paths for a coherent understanding of it. Further, reinterpreting faith in relation to love permits the Pope to highlight the very nature of truth in which those who believe abandon themselves. The truth illuminated by love ensures believers a safe journey in their quest for meaning. Without this truth the criticism of believing in a “beautiful story” or giving in to “the projection of our deep yearning for happiness” ( ibid ., n. 24) would, on the contrary, always be round the corner. Faith generated by love seeks truth and desires it as an expression of a deeper and more genuine knowledge.
Lumen Fidei is published in the middle of the Year of Faith. It is symbolically dated 29 June, the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul. They are the first witnesses of faith in this Church of Rome where the Successor of Peter is called to serve and to assume responsibility for strengthening his brethren in the unity of the unchanging faith. It is useful to know that with a view to the Year of Faith Benedict XVI was constantly asked to write an Encyclical on faith which would in a certain way conclude the triad he had begun with Deus Caritas Est on love, and Spe Salvi on hope. The Pope was not convinced that he should subject himself to this additional effort. However, insistence got the upper hand and Pope Benedict decided he would write it in order to offer it as a conclusion to the Year of Faith. History ordained otherwise. This Encyclical is offered to us today by Pope Francis with strong conviction and as a “programme” of how to continue living this experience, which has seen the entire Church committed for a whole year in so many strongly meaningful experiences. Yet it must be said without hesitation that even though Lumen Fidei takes up some of the insights and content proper to the Magisterium of Benedict XVI, it is totally a text by Pope Francis. His style is found in it, as well as the particularity of the content to which he has accustomed us in these first months of his Pontificate, especially in his daily homilies. The immediacy of the expressions used, the richness of the images he refers to and the use of certain citations from both ancient and modern authors make this text a true introduction to his Magisterium and permit readers to be better acquainted with the pastoral style that distinguishes him. Solely as an example, an attentive reading of these pages will instantly reveal the recurrence of three verbs that Pope Francis used in his first homily to the Cardinals the day after his election: to journey, to build, to profess. In some respects it can be said that the Encyclical is structured on these three verbs and specifies their content.
Let us therefore receive this teaching in the Year of Faith with special interest and also as a particular sign and personal contribution that Pope Francis wishes to offer to the new evangelization. This Year, as the Pope has written, is “a time of grace which is helping us to sense the great joy of believing and to renew our wonder at the vast horizons which faith opens up, so as then to profess that faith in its unity and integrity, faithful to the memory of the Lord” ( ibid ., n. 5). The Pope does not forget the two anniversaries that mark this Year: the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, and the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church . As regards the first event, Pope Francis reaffirms that it was “a Council on faith” (n. 6), even though the Council Fathers produced no document on this explicit subject. The purpose of the Second Vatican Council was in fact to put the primacy of God back in the centre of the Church’s life and the need to say so today, in different societies and cultures, in a way that would be comprehensible and credible. With regard to the Catechism however, the Encyclical reasserts its validity as a tool with which the Church carries out her work of transmitting the faith with the vivid memory of the proclamation of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, it is worth underlining that in this very context Pope Francis stresses the great value of the Profession of faith, the Creed . As is well known, one of the themes of the Year of Faith, already mentioned in Porta Fidei by Benedict XVI, is to re-propose the Creed to Christians as a daily prayer. This permits believers — who all too often show an unjustifiable illiteracy concerning the content of faith — to sense faith as a vibrant and effective dimension in their life. In these pages the profound value that the Creed possesses is reaffirmed, not only in order to remind peopl of the synthesis of faith but, above all, to explain the commitment to conversion of life: “in the Creed believers are invited to enter into the mystery which they profess and to be transformed by it” (n. 45). As may be noted, Pope Francis does not leave issues as mere theory but provokes people to verify their practice, the practice that is indispensable in the life of faith if it is to become true witness. This link enables him to ask for an effective presence for the construction of “a city which is reliable” (n. 50), the result of the commitment to faith which becomes responsibility for society and for nature. In short, believers are called to live responsibly in the world, by being “concretely placed at the service of justice, law and peace” (n. 51), aware that “faith does not draw us away from the world or prove irrelevant to the concrete concerns of men and women” ( ibid .).
Lumen Fidei is an Encyclical with a strong pastoral connotation. These pages will be very useful in the commitment which it will be our community’s duty to make in order to give continuity to the important work undertaken in the Year of Faith. Pope Francis, with his sensitivity as a pastor, succeeds in turning many strictly theological issues into themes which can help reflection and catechesis. For this reason it is important to accept the invitation that comes as a conclusion to the Encyclical: “let us refuse to be robbed of hope” (n. 57). The Pope has repeated this several times in the past few months, especially in speaking to young people and children. By writing it in his first Encyclical, he wishes to point out that no one must be afraid of looking at great ideals and pursuing them. Faith and love are the first to be proposed. In a weak cultural period like our own, such an invitation is a provocation and a challenge that cannot leave us indifferent.
St. Peter’s Square
Jan. 19, 2020
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