by Francis X. Rocca
VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Pope Francis’ first encyclical, “Lumen Fidei” (“The Light of Faith”), is a celebration of Christian faith as the guiding light of a “successful and fruitful life,” inspiring social action as well as devotion to God, and illuminating “every aspect of human existence,” including philosophy and the natural sciences.
The document, released July 5, completes a papal trilogy on the three “theological virtues,” following Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclicals “Deus Caritas Est” (2005) on charity and “Spe Salvi” (2007) on hope. Publication of the encyclical was one of the most awaited events of the Year of Faith, which began in October, 2012.
Pope Benedict “had almost completed a first draft of an encyclical on faith” before his retirement in February, 2013, Pope Francis writes, adding that “I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own.”
Commentators will likely differ in attributing specific passages, but the document clearly recalls the writings of Pope Benedict in its extensive treatment of the dialogue between faith and reason and its many citations of St. Augustine, not to mention references to Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
On the other hand, warnings of the dangers of idolatry, Gnosticism and Pharisaism, a closing prayer to Mary as the “perfect icon of faith” and an entire section on the relevance of faith to earthly justice and peace echo themes that Pope Francis has already made signatures of his young pontificate.
“Lumen Fidei” begins with a brief survey of the biblical history of faith, starting with God’s call to Abraham to leave his land – “the beginning of an exodus which points him to an uncertain future” – and God’s promise that Abraham will be “father of a great nation.”
The Bible also illustrates how men and women break faith with God by worshipping substitutes for him.
“Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the center of reality and worshipping the work of our own hands,” the pope writes. “Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires … Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another.”
Pope Francis sees another way of turning from God in the Pharisees’ belief that salvation is possible through good works alone.
“Those who live this way, who want to be the source of their own righteousness, find that the latter is soon depleted and that they are unable even to keep the law,” the pope writes. “Salvation by faith means recognizing the primacy of God’s gift.”
Faith finds its fulfillment in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the pope writes. By virtue of his humanity, Jesus is both the object of faith and the ultimate model and mediator for all believers.
“Christ is not simply the one in whom we believe, the supreme manifestation of God’s love,” Pope Francis writes. “He is also the one with whom we are united precisely in order to believe. Faith does not merely gaze at Jesus, but sees things as Jesus Himself sees them, with His own eyes: it is a participation in his way of seeing.”
This participation means that faith inevitably makes a Christian part of Christ’s mystical body, the Church.
“It is impossible to believe on our own,” the pope writes. “By its very nature, faith is open to the ‘we’ of the Church; it always takes place within her communion.”
The Church transmits the faith across time “through an unbroken chain of witnesses,” allowing us to “see the face of Jesus,” Pope Francis writes.