Joy! That was my immediate reaction when I heard that Pope Francis was releasing his first encyclical on the topic of faith. I know papal letters are not often the cause of rejoicing, but there are many reasons to be happy over this document, Lumen Fidei (Light of Faith).
First: This is the work of “four hands,” as Francis himself described it. In issuing the encyclical, Pope Francis finished and continues the masterworks of his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Our beloved Benedict wrote on love (Caritas Deus Est), hope (Spe Salvi), and the relationship of love and truth (Caritas in Veritate). He had begun this most recent encyclical on the theological virtue of faith but did not finish it before stepping down in February.
We Catholics can rejoice that Francis saw fit to build on his predecessor’s body of work and complete this letter on faith, as a teaching document and also as a sign of continuity from one papacy to another. The Pope is the Successor of Peter, who was established as vicar by Christ himself, and holds his Chair by the grace of God. He is not an elected functionary or bureaucrat. He holds the keys of the kingdom, handed on from one pope to another for the salvation of souls.
Francis, in the humility that has graced his papacy, chose to underscore these facts by following the path Benedict blazed.
Second: There is so much in the text of Lumen Fidei to engender joy in the believer and even in those who do not share in the fullness of the Catholic faith. The encyclical opens the door to faith, leading the reader through faith history, beginning with Abraham, “our father in faith,” and the patriarchs of Israel, and proclaiming that all the promises made by God in the Old Testament are fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, true God and true man.
That is to say, the Light of Faith is first of all the faithfulness of God throughout history toward the human race. He is a God, a Father, who keeps his promises. This is the “light that shines in the darkness,” which leads humanity on the way of truth and salvation, and thus we need fear no evil as we go forward in life, uncertain though the path and our own strength may be.
The Good News is that God is faithful, he has become one of us – a man in “all things except sin” – and has given us the means through Jesus Christ to make it back to the Father, to heaven.
Pope Francis also stresses the connection between faith and reason (it is not irrational or unreasonable to believe) and the very tangible good that people of faith have brought and continue to bring to mankind.
Third: The family has an honored place in this papal document. This fact is a particular joy for all those whose vocation is marriage and family life. We are the primary educators of our children, and we have a special duty to keep the Catholic faith alive and vibrant in our families and to hand it on to our children.
I quote from the section “Faith and the family” (Nos. 52 and 53), which is very personal in tone:
“The first setting in which faith enlightens the human city is the family. I think first and foremost of the stable union of man and woman in marriage. … Grounded in this love, a man and a woman can promise each other mutual love in a gesture which engages their entire lives and mirrors many features of faith.”
The love of a man and a woman in marriage requires faith and faithfulness, and in its expression there is reflected some of the aspects of faith in God. In fact, God must be present in that love for it to be constant and purified.
The encyclical continues: “Faith also helps us to grasp in all its depth and richness the begetting of children, as a sign of the love of the Creator who entrusts us with the mystery of a new person.”
I am reminded of St. Paul’s teaching that the love between spouses is a reflection of the Trinity, two persons begetting a third in love (see Ephesians 5:22-35).
Finally, the encyclical offers a ringing challenge to our secular age, which claims to know all about love but misses its deeper meaning:
“Faith is no refuge for the fainthearted, but something which enhances our lives. It makes us aware of a magnificent calling, the vocation to love.”
I am afraid that our age, our culture, has failed to discern and respond to that “magnificent calling” to love – look at broken marriages, abandoned children, abortion, contraception, assisted suicide and the most basic denial of sexual difference in the begetting of new life.
We have failed to love, and that failure is related to a lack of faith in God and in one another. Yet to move forward as a people, we need faith, hope and love. By God’s grace, the “four hands” of our two popes have given us a map to these three virtues, in word and by example.