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July 16, 2013

New encyclical on faith completes trilogy on theological virtues -
Pope Francis' first encyclical views faith as light for life -
Faith's role in human relationships and social justice underscored by encyclical

In this edition:
1. Encyclical views faith as light.
2. Four hands behind this encyclical.
3. Faith connects past and future.
4. Quoting the encyclical:
a) Faith and community.
b) Faith and human experience.
c) Faith and suffering.
5. Faith illumines relationships.
6. Connecting faith with justice.

1. For New Encyclical, Faith Is Light

Faith is light. And faith expands the horizons of life. Those simple points are basic to the first encyclical of Pope Francis, titled "The Light of Faith" ("Lumen Fidei").

Those points may sound too simple, and some may not view them as greatly relevant. But religious educators of all kinds who struggle at times to explain faith's meaning and the symbolism of light in the sacraments -- in baptism for example -- should find this encyclical invaluable. Pope Francis speaks of "an urgent need" at the present time "to see once again that faith is a light."

The encyclical came across to me, someone who prepares parents in my parish for their children's baptisms, as a basic catechetical text in a number of ways. In the class I always attempt to underscore the sharing in the light (the life) of Christ symbolized by the lighting of the child's baptismal candle from the paschal candle that stands on a church altar as a reminder of Christ.

"The light of faith: This is how the church's tradition speaks of the great gift brought by Jesus," the encyclical begins. "Those who believe, see; they see with a light that illumines their entire journey, for it comes from the risen Christ, the morning star which never sets," it states. It affirms that "in the absence of light everything becomes confused; it is impossible to tell good from evil or the road to our destination from other roads which take us in endless circles, going nowhere."

Faith "becomes a light for our way, guiding our journey through time," according to the encyclical. It says, "We come to see that faith does not dwell in shadow and gloom; it is a light for our darkness."

A contrast is drawn in the encyclical between the conviction in the ancient church that Christ is the light of the world and the belief of so many others at that time that the sun itself was a god.

"The pagan world, which hungered for light, had seen the growth of the cult of the sun god, 'Sol Invictus,' invoked each day at sunrise. Yet though the sun was born anew each morning, it was clearly incapable of casting its light on all of human existence," the document observes. It says, "The sun does not illumine all reality; its rays cannot penetrate to the shadow of death, the place where men's eyes are closed to its light."

On the other hand, "conscious of the immense horizon which their faith opened before them," the early Christians "invoked Jesus as the true sun 'whose rays bestow life.'"

A link between evangelization and the light of faith appears to be highlighted by the encyclical when it says, "Those who have opened their hearts to God's love, heard his voice and received his light, cannot keep this gift to themselves." It explains:

"The light of Christ shines, as in a mirror, upon the face of Christians; as it spreads, it comes down to us, so that we too can share in that vision and reflect that light to others, in the same way that, 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."

2. Encyclical's Four Hands

The new encyclical is being described as the work of four hands, those of Pope Francis and of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. During his years as pope, Benedict published encyclicals on the theological virtues of love ("Deus Caritas Est") and hope ("Spe Salvi"). Work was under way on an encyclical devoted to faith when he announced his retirement.

Pope Francis explains in "The Light of Faith" that its "considerations on faith" are intended "to supplement what Benedict XVI had written in his encyclical letters on charity and hope." Benedict "himself had almost completed a first draft of an encyclical on faith," the new pope notes in the encyclical. He says, "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."

In comments July 7 during the Sunday Angelus, Pope Francis said that "for the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI began this encyclical, to follow up those on love and hope. I took up this great work, and I brought it to conclusion." Pope Francis added that, "especially today, we all need to go to the essence of the Christian faith, to deepen it and to confront it with our current problems."

With the publication of "The Light of Faith," a series of contemporary encyclicals now exists on the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. "Wonderfully interwoven, faith, hope and charity are the driving force of the Christian life," the new encyclical asserts.

3. Connecting Past and Future

Faith's roots in past history are not at all ignored by the new encyclical, but it stresses at the same time the connection of faith to the future and insists upon faith's significance not only for a future, eternal life, but for life here and now.

First, faith "is a light coming from the past, the light of the foundational memory of the life of Jesus which revealed his perfectly trustworthy love," it says. "Yet," it continues, "since Christ has risen and draws us beyond death, faith is also a light coming from the future and opening before us vast horizons which guide us beyond our isolated selves."

Faith is a light that is able to "grow and enlighten the present," it says.

"Faith is no refuge for the fainthearted but something that enhances our lives," the encyclical makes clear. It says faith "makes us aware of a magnificent calling, the vocation to love."

All of this implies that God is present in a "tangible" way in this world, it indicates. However, it expresses concern that the culture of these times "has lost its sense of God's tangible presence," thinking instead "that God is to be found in the beyond, on another level of reality far removed from our everyday relationships."

In the words of the encyclical, "The light of faith is unique since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence."

Faith also enlarges the horizons of human existence. This is something youths today need and want to hear, the encyclical proposes. It observes at one point that "those who receive faith discover that their horizons expand as new and enriching relationships come to life."

"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," the encyclical notes. It says:

"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."

4. Quoting the Encyclical

Christian Individuals in Community: "Those who believe come to see themselves in the light of the faith which they profess: Christ is the mirror in which they find their own image fully realized. And just as Christ gathers to himself all those who believe and makes them his body, so the Christian comes to see himself as a member of this body, in an essential relationship with all other believers. The image of a body does not imply that the believer is simply one part of an anonymous whole, a mere cog in a great machine; rather, it brings out the vital union of Christ with believers and of believers among themselves (cf. Rom 12:4-5). Christians are 'one' (cf. Gal 3:28), yet in a way which does not make them lose their individuality; in service to others, they come into their own in the highest degree" (No. 22).

Faith and Human Experience: "Christian faith, inasmuch as it proclaims the truth of God's total love and opens us to the power of that love, penetrates to the core of our human experience. Each of us comes to the light because of love, and each of us is called to love in order to remain in the light" (No. 32).

Suffering: "How many men and women of faith have found mediators of light in those who suffer! So it was with St. Francis of Assisi and the leper or with Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her poor. They understood the mystery at work in them. In drawing near to the suffering, they were certainly not able to eliminate all their pain or to explain every evil. Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light" (No. 57).

5. Faith and Relationships

"The light of faith is capable of enhancing the richness of human relations, their ability to endure, to be trustworthy, to enrich our life together," the just-published encyclical of Pope Francis comments. It speaks repeatedly of faith as a light that illumines relationships. Its discussion of faith and human relationships is a key way it calls attention to the relevance of faith to the daily lives people actually live. It states pointedly that "once we discover the full light of Christ's love, we realize that each of the loves in our own lives had always contained a ray of that light."

Faith reveals "how firm the bonds between people can be when God is present in their midst," according to the encyclical. Thus, "faith does not merely grant interior firmness, a steadfast conviction on the part of the believer; it also sheds light on every human relationship because it is born of love and reflects God's own love."

The relationships under discussion include those that are part of personal life and life at home, as well as those within our larger, surrounding world. A point the encyclical drives home is that "the God who is himself reliable gives us a city which is reliable." In other words, faith's light should enlighten the human city.

The family is the "first setting" mentioned by the encyclical "in which faith enlightens the human city." In this context, Pope Francis says he thought "first and foremost of the stable union of man and woman in marriage."

The love that spouses promise to each other, "grounded" in God's love, is "a gesture that engages their entire lives," the encyclical observes. It says, "Promising love forever is possible when we perceive a plan bigger than our own ideas and understandings, a plan that sustains us and enables us to surrender our future entirely to the one we love."

The encyclical's discussion of marriage and the family is followed immediately by a discussion of faith as "an experience of the mercy of God the Father" that "sets us on the path of brotherhood" in our surrounding world.

6. Connecting Faith and Justice

"Faith teaches us to see that every man and woman represents a blessing for me, that the light of God's face shines on me through the faces of my brothers and sisters," the encyclical says in a discussion of ways that faith is made visible in concern for those who suffer.

It calls faith "a good for everyone." Faith, it says, "makes us appreciate the architecture of human relationships because it grasps their ultimate foundation and definitive destiny in God, in his love, and thus sheds light on the art of building; as such it becomes a service to the common good." So faith's "light does not simply brighten the interior of the church, nor does it serve solely to build an eternal city in the hereafter; it helps us build our societies in such a way that they can journey toward a future of hope."

The new document says that "faith does not draw us away from the world or prove irrelevant to the concrete concerns of the men and women of our time." Rather, it explains, "the hands of faith are raised up to heaven, even as they go about building in charity a city based on relationships in which the love of God is laid as a foundation."

Because faith is "linked to love," it is placed concretely "at the service of justice, law and peace," it says.

Faith, "absorbed and deepened in the family," will in turn become "a light capable of illumining all our relationships in society," the encyclical states.

Faith does not "make us forget the sufferings of this world," the encyclical insists. The reality of suffering is a reminder "that faith's service to the common good is always one of hope." It says:

"The dynamic of faith, hope and charity . . . leads us to embrace the concerns of all men and women on our journey toward that city 'whose architect and builder is God' (Heb. 11:10), for 'hope does not disappoint' (Rom 5:5)."