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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVIII, No. 3
Michaelmas 2013

Pope Francis's First Encyclical
Lumen Fidei -- The Light of Faith

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

“There is an urgent need to see once again that faith is a light, for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim. The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, it must come from God.... Faith, received from God as a supernatural gift, becomes a light for our way, guiding our journey through time....” (§4)


Lumen Fidei, the first encyclical of Pope Francis, released less than four months into his papacy, is a powerful beacon for the Church and the world. Significantly, “The Light of Faith” appears in the midst of the Year of Faith — begun by Pope Benedict October 11, 2012, the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, concluding on November 24, 2013, the Solemnity of Christ the King.

Lumen Fidei unites in a unique way the pontificates of Benedict XVI with his successor, Francis. In announcing the imminent release of his first encyclical, Pope Francis himself said that it was the “work of four hands” — that Pope Benedict had completed a draft of Lumen Fidei, which Pope Francis completed and issued in his own name.

Moreover, in the encyclical Pope Francis writes: “Conscious of the duty entrusted to the Successor of Peter, Benedict XVI proclaimed the present Year of Faith, 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 and sustained by His presence and by the working of the Holy Spirit. The conviction born of a faith which brings grandeur and fulfillment to life, a faith centered on Christ and on the power of His grace, inspired the mission of the first Christians.” (§5) 

And he further stresses this continuity with Pope Benedict, who “had almost completed a first draft of an encyclical on faith. For this I am deeply grateful to him, and as his brother in Christ I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own. The Successor of Peter, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, is always called to strengthen his brothers and sisters in the priceless treasure of that faith which God has given as a light for humanity’s path.” (§7)

It seems clear that it is no coincidence that the presentation of the encyclical on July 5 was followed only a few hours later by the historic announcement of the forthcoming canonizations of two beloved popes, Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II — or that on the same day both Pope Francis and Pope emeritus Benedict were together in the Vatican Gardens for the ceremony dedicating a statue of Saint Michael Archangel and consecrating the Vatican City State to Saints Michael and Joseph.

At the July 5 news conference, three prelates presented Lumen Fidei: Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops; Archbishop Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Commission for Promoting the New Evangelization. All emphasized the shared view of the popes that the gift of faith is transmitted by the Church, and is a gift meant to be shared with all human beings — in order to bring the Love and Truth of God to the entire world.

Cardinal Ouellet said that “A pillar was lacking in Benedict XVI’s trilogy on the theological virtues,” his encyclicals on love (Deus Caritatis Est 2005) and hope (Spes Salvi 2007).

“Providence willed that this missing pillar should be both a gift from the pope emeritus to his successor, and a symbol of unity,” thus, “the light of faith is passed from one pontiff to another like a baton in a relay, thanks to ‘the gift of apostolic succession,’” Cardinal Ouellet said. “The encyclical presents the Christian faith as a light that comes from listening to the Word of God in history. It is a light that allows us to see the love of God at work, establishing His covenant with mankind.”

Archbishop Müller commented that Pope Francis frequently reminds us in his daily homilies that “all is grace”: “This is the purpose of the encyclical,” he said. “The light that comes from faith, from the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and in His Spirit, illuminates the depths of reality and helps us to recognize that reality bears within itself the indelible signs that the work of God is good.”

Faith Opens a Way before Us That Accompanies Us through Time

Lumen Fidei consists of four chapters, with titles drawn from Scripture. The first chapter, “We have believed in love” (I John 4:16) focuses on the continuity of faith, from Old Testament times, the faith of Abraham. “Faith opens a way before us and accompanies our steps through time.” (§8) It explains that “the life of the believer becomes an ecclesial existence, a life lived in the Church,” “an essential relationship with all other believers.” (§22)

Chapter 2 explains the intrinsic relationship between faith and truth. “Today more than ever, we need to be reminded of this bond between faith and truth, given the crisis of truth in our age,” which sees “the only truth to be that of technology.” Dividing faith from truth leaves us with relativism, which severs the bond between faith and truth. (§25)  But “love and truth are inseparable. Without love, truth becomes cold, impersonal and oppressive.” (§27)  Faith and reason are necessarily in dialogue: “Since faith is a light, it draws us into itself, inviting us to explore ever more fully the horizon which it illumines, all the better to know the object of our love. Christian theology is born of this desire. Clearly, theology is impossible without faith; it is part of the very process of faith, which seeks an ever deeper understanding of God’s self-disclosure culminating in Christ.” (§36)

The Church Is the Mother of Our Faith

The Church is the “mother of our faith,” we read in Chapter 3. And the powerful light of faith cannot but be handed on to others through the encounter within the Church throughout time.

The pope illustrates this with a striking image: the light of Christ is spread, he writes, as “in the Easter liturgy, the light of the paschal candle lights countless other candles. Faith is passed on, we might say, by contact, from one person to another, just as one candle is lighted from another.” (§37)

“It is impossible to believe on our own. 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.” (§39)

The sacraments of the Church make this transmission of faith possible. “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.” Moreover, the faith has a sacramental structure:

There is a special means for passing down this fullness, a means capable of engaging the entire person, body and spirit, interior life and relationships with others. It is the sacraments, celebrated in the Church’s liturgy. The sacraments communicate an incarnate memory, linked to the times and places of our lives, linked to all our senses; in them the whole person is engaged as a member of a living subject and part of a network of communitarian relationships. While the sacraments are indeed sacraments of faith, it can also be said that faith itself possesses a sacramental structure. The awakening of faith is linked to the dawning of a new sacramental sense in our lives as human beings and as Christians, in which visible and material realities are seen to point beyond themselves to the mystery of the eternal. (§40)

The encyclical describes the fundamental importance of the sacrament of baptism, by which all are “reborn” into the community of faith, and speaks of the important role of the family in giving children a “fundamental orientation” that will be strengthened in Confirmation by the Holy Spirit.

“The sacramental character of faith finds its highest expression in the Eucharist,” the pope writes. “The Eucharist is a precious nourishment for faith: an encounter with Christ truly present in the supreme act of His love, the life-giving gift of Himself. In the Eucharist we find the intersection of faith’s two dimensions. On the one hand, there is the dimension of history: the Eucharist is an act of remembrance, a making present of the mystery in which the past, as an event of death and resurrection, demonstrates its ability to open up a future, to foreshadow ultimate fulfillment. The liturgy reminds us of this by its repetition of the word hodie, the ‘today’ of the mysteries of salvation. On the other hand, we also find the dimension which leads from the visible world to the invisible. In the Eucharist we learn to see the heights and depths of reality. The bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ, who becomes present in His passover to the Father: this movement draws us, body and soul, into the movement of all creation towards its fulfillment in God.” (§44)

The Family in the Light of Faith

Chapter 4 of Lumen Fidei, “God Prepares a City for Them” (ref Heb. 11:16), speaks of faith and the common good, faith and the family, and the “light of life” in society. The fundamental role of the family in transmitting faith and in “illumining all our relationships in society,” is stressed:

Faith and the Family

§52 … 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. This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgment and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation, whereby spouses can become one flesh (cf. Gen 2:24) and are enabled to give birth to a new life, a manifestation of the Creator’s goodness, wisdom, and loving plan. 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. Promising love for ever is possible when we perceive a plan bigger than our own ideas and undertakings, a plan which sustains us and enables us to surrender our future entirely to the one we love. 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. So it was that Sarah, by faith, became a mother, for she trusted in God’s fidelity to His promise (cf. Heb 11:11).

§53. In the family, faith accompanies every age of life, beginning with childhood: children learn to trust in the love of their parents. This is why it is so important that within their families parents encourage shared expressions of faith which can help children gradually to mature in their own faith. Young people in particular, who are going through a period in their lives which is so complex, rich and important for their faith, ought to feel the constant closeness and support of their families and the Church in their journey of faith. We have all seen, during World Youth Days, the joy that young people show in their faith and their desire for an ever more solid and generous life of faith. Young people want to live life to the fullest. Encountering Christ, letting themselves be caught up in and guided by His love, enlarges the horizons of existence, gives it a firm hope which will not disappoint. Faith is no refuge for the fainthearted, but something which enhances our lives. It makes us aware of a magnificent calling, the vocation of love. It assures us that this love is trustworthy and worth embracing, for it is based on God’s faithfulness which is stronger than our every weakness.

A light for life in society

§54. Absorbed and deepened in the family, faith becomes a light capable of illumining all our relationships in society. As an experience of the mercy of God the Father, it sets us on the path of brotherhood. Modernity sought to build a universal brotherhood based on equality, yet we gradually came to realize that this brotherhood, lacking a reference to a common Father as its ultimate foundation, cannot endure.

Prayer to Mary, Mother of the Church

Pope Francis concludes the encyclical, dated June 29, the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, with a “prayer to Mary, Mother of the Church and mother of our faith”:

Mother, help our faith!

Open our ears to hear God’s word and to recognize

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, when our faith is called to mature.

Sow in our faith the joy of the Risen One.

Remind us that those who believe are never alone.

Teach us to see all things with the eyes of Jesus, that He may be light for our path. And may this light of faith always increase in us, until the dawn of that undying day which is Christ Himself, your Son, our Lord!


[A version of this article appeared in The Adoremus Bulletin, August 2013.]

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