The great gift of Faith: Pope Francis' first encyclical

The great gift of Faith: Pope Francis' first encyclical

Damian Wyld

In the first encyclical of Pope Francis' pontificate, the Church has received something unique. Not only is it a timely and pertinent document in itself – it also completes the encyclical cycle of the three theological virtues begun by Benedict XVI. Deus Caritas Est ( God is Love, on Charity) and Spe Salvi ( Saved in Hope, on Hope) are now brought to fulfilment in the newly published Lumen Fidei ( The Light of Faith, on Faith).

It is interesting that the documents appear on superficial glance to be in reverse order, but as St Paul says in 1 Corinthians, "the greatest of these is charity". Both Charity and Faith receive treatment in this new encyclical which is, Pope Francis explains, very much the product of his predecessor's efforts. This is the second sense in which Lumen Fidei is unique – it may be the only encyclical to have come from the pens of two popes.

Lumen Fidei is epic in scope, contrasting and contextualising "the light of Faith ... the great gift brought by Jesus ... come as light into the world" with a pagan world grasping for illumination. While thinkers like Nietzsche turn away from Christ's "illusory light", Dante professes his faith to St Peter as a "spark, which then becomes a burning flame and like a heavenly star within me glimmers."

Planned to open the Year of Faith, itself marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Fidei acknowledges "that this gift [Faith] of God needs to be nourished and reinforced so that it can continue to guide [the Church's] pilgrim way."

The "path trodden by believers" is given prominence, particularly the pilgrim figure of Abraham, "our father in faith". Of Abraham, we learn:

"Something disturbing takes place in his life: God speaks to him he reveals himself as a God who speaks and calls his name. Faith is linked to hearing. Abraham does not see God, but hears his voice. Faith thus takes on a personal aspect. God is not the god of a particular place, or a deity linked to specific sacred time, but the God of a person, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, capable of interacting with man and establishing a covenant with him. Faith is our response to a word which engages us personally, to a 'Thou' who calls us by name."

This call, however, is also a promise. Likewise, remembrance is not merely a case of looking back, but also forward, "as the memory of a promise" – demonstrating the close connection between Faith and Hope.

The faith of the Israelites is discussed, as is the fullness of Christian faith, the dialogue between faith and reason, and the role of the Church as "mother of our faith". Here we are reminded that "faith is not simply an individual decision which takes place in the depths of the believer's heart, nor a completely private relationship between the 'I' of the believer and the divine 'Thou', between an autonomous subject and God. By its very nature, faith is open to the 'We' of the Church; it always takes place within her communion" – that is, as part of the Mystical Body of Christ.

In a wonderful analogy, the Church is likened to a family which, "like every family, passes on to her children the whole store of her memories ... It is through the apostolic Tradition preserved in the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit that we enjoy a living contact with the foundational memory".

The common good, society and the family are also discussed in light of faith. Family is the "first setting in which faith enlightens the human city," being "first and foremost of the stable union of man and woman in marriage."

Finally, Our Lady is lauded as the "perfect icon of faith", demonstrating Faith at all times, whether it be in treasuring "in her heart all that she had heard and seen", or in accompanying her Son to the cross. The encyclical concludes with a prayer to Mary, Mother of the Church and Mother of our faith. Pope Francis asks us to seek her help:

"Open our ears to hear God's word and to recognise his voice and call. Awaken in us a desire to follow in his footsteps, to go forth from our own land and to receive his promise.

"Help us to be touched by his love, that we may touch him in faith.

"Help us to entrust ourselves fully to him and to believe in his love, especially at times of trial, beneath the shadow of the cross."

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At the time of writing, commentary on Lumen Fidei was still appearing. Naturally, a document long in the writing will also need adequate time for assimilation. It is worth noting one aspect of its release and reception, however, which has turned some heads.

A number of prominent Catholic bloggers, including US-based Brandon Vogt and "Fr Z" (Father John Zuhlsdorf), have been issued with formal cautions over potential breach of copyright. Vogt explains on his blog that current Vatican copyright laws can be traced to a desire – in the time of Pope Leo XIII – to rightfully prevent alteration, manipulation and abuse of Church-issued documents.

While the desire for protection is understandable, it has led to Vogt receiving "a litany of emails" from the US bishops' conference accusing him, among others things, of "[violating] both civil and moral law" and "stealing from the pope." His actual crime was to have made the new encyclical available in other file formats (presumably more suited to tablets, iPads, as so on). As soon as requested, he willingly removed the offending content.

Likewise the well-known "Fr Z", who had made Lumen Fidei available as an audio-book. While no doubt a wonderful assistance to the visually impaired and others, it was not appreciated by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana, whose Vatican-based director permitted him to keep the audio-book online, but only after inserting a note about the Vatican's copyright.

The Church obviously needs to maintain control over its instructional material. But in an age where every second person seems to be on Facebook or carrying a tablet computer – and where the secular public is increasingly likely to disregard a papal encyclical rather than deface it – it may be that a suitable arrangement needs to be reached. There are many faithful servants who deserve support in fanning the flames of Faith – that wonderful virtue of Lumen Fidei.

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