PRESENTATION OF THE ENCYCLICAL LETTER
Archbishop Gerhard L. Müller
In the meditations that he offers us by way of his daily homilies, Pope Francis often reminds us that “all is grace.” This affirmation, which in the face of all the complexities and contradictions of life might seem naïve or abstract, is in fact an invitation to recognise the ultimate goodness of reality.
This is the purpose of the encyclical letter Lumen fidei: 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 recognise that reality bears within itself the indelible signs that the work of God is good. Faith, because of the illumination that comes from God, in fact enables those who believe to see with a light that “illumines their entire journey” (n. 1), “every aspect of human existence” (n.4). Faith “far from divorcing us from reality…enables us to grasp reality’s deepest meaning and to see how much God loves this world and is constantly guiding it towards himself” (n. 18).
This is the central message of this encyclical letter which takes up some of the ideas that were dear to Benedict XVI. “These considerations on faith” writes Pope Francis “are meant to supplement what Benedict XVI had written in his encyclical letters on charity and hope. He himself 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” (n. 7).
It is a fortunate coincidence that this text was written, so to speak, by the hands of two Popes. Notwithstanding the differences of style, sensibility and accent, anyone who reads this encyclical will immediately note the substantial continuity of the message of Pope Francis with the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI.
The origin of all things is God – and faith in Him is a recognition of this fact. Faith opens up the mind and the heart of man, expands his horizons, brings him ever closer to his fellow man and throws open the doors to an existence commensurate with his dignity. Conversely, we must also recognise that every time we do not think, act or love in accordance with our faith in God, we do not contribute to building a more human world. In fact, acting in this way, we often give a counter- testimony to God and disfigure the face of the Church.
A living faith in God - through which we are led by His Spirit to His only begotten Son Jesus Christ – is our greatest resource. It is from this starting point that all attempts at reform and renewal must begin, and not only in the Church for at this level we are talking about a gift which the Church cannot keep for herself. Faith, and the life of grace that it offers us, is in fact a treasure of goodness and truth for all of humanity, because all are called to live in friendship with God and to discover the horizons of freedom that are opened to all who allow themselves to be guided by the hand of God.
Faith in the God who is revealed to us by Jesus Christ is the true “rock” upon which man is called to build his life and the life of the world. It is a gift which can never be presupposed or “taken for granted” but which must be continually “nourished and reinforced” (n. 6). It is through faith that we are able to recognise that every day we are offered a “great love”, a love that “transforms us, lights up our way to the future and enables us joyfully to advance along the way on wings of hope” (n. 7). It is because of faith that we are able to face the future that awaits us with realism and realistic confidence, without allowing ourselves to be “robbed of hope,” as Pope Francis continually reminds us. Faith, hope and love “wonderfully interwoven” constitute the dynamism of the life of man, opened to the gifts provided by God (cf. n. 7).
The encyclical Lumen fidei is divided into four parts, which can be seen as four aspects of one whole.
In the first part, we move from the faith of Abraham, the man who recognised in the voice of God “a profound call which was always present at the core of his being” (n. 11), to the faith of the People of Israel. The history of the faith of Israel, in its turn, is a continual passage from “the temptation to unbelief” (n. 13) and the adoration of idols, “works of the hands of man”, to the confession “of God’s mighty deeds and the progressive fulfilment of his promises” (n. 12). This leads ultimately to the history of Jesus, a summary of salvation, in which all the diverse threads of the history of Israel are united and fulfilled.
In Jesus we are able to say definitively that “we know and believe the love that God has for us” (1 Jn 4:16) because he is “the complete manifestation of God’s reliability” (n. 15). In him faith reaches its fulfilment. It calls us to recognise that God does not remain far away in the heights of heaven, but has become, and remains, approachable in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again and who remains present among us.
In following Jesus, faith transforms the whole of human existence. The individual identity of the believer, the “I”, once opened to the primordial love offered through faith (cf. n. 21) “becomes an ecclesial existence” (n. 22). By opening us to communion with our brothers and sisters, faith does not reduce us to “a mere cog in a great machine” (n. 22) but helps us to come into our own to the highest degree (cf. n. 22). “For those who have been transformed in this way, a new way of seeing opens up” (n. 22), and faith becomes an authentic “light” that invites us to allow ourselves to be transformed ever anew by the call of God.
In the second part, the encyclical forcefully raises the question of truth as one which is “central to faith” (n. 23). Because faith has to do with knowledge of reality it is intrinsically linked to truth: “ faith without truth does not save… it remains a beautiful story…or it is reduced to a lofty sentiment” (n.24).
The question of truth and the imperative to seek the truth cannot be avoided. Neither can the role played by the major religious traditions in this search for truth be a priori excluded, especially when it comes to the great truths of human existence.
What, then, is the specific contribution offered by the Christian faith in this search? Faith, which opens us to the love of God, transforms the way we see things “because love itself brings enlightenment” (n. 26). Even if modern man does not always see the connection between love and truth – not least because today love is often relegated to a type of sentimentality – “love and truth are inseparable” (n. 27).
Love is authentic when it binds us to the truth and truth attracts us to itself with the force of love. “This discovery of love as a source of knowledge, which is part of the primordial experience of every man and woman” is confirmed for us in the “biblical understanding of faith” (n. 28) and is one of the most beautiful and important ideas emphasised in this encyclical.
It is because faith is both connected to knowledge and bound to the truth, that Thomas Aquinas was able to speak of oculata fides, of the act of faith as a type of “seeing” (cf. n. 30). Faith is not only about hearing because it is also “tied to sight” (n. 30) which looks for and recognises the truth, in an “interaction between faith and reason” (n.32). Already Augustine of Hippo had “discovered that all things have a certain transparency” and can therefore “reflect God’s goodness” (n. 33). Faith helps us to draw out the profound meaning of reality.
In this way we can understand how faith is able to “illuminate the questions of our own time about truth” (n. 34), the great questions which arise in the human heart when faced either with the beauty of reality or by its dramas. And because the truth, to which we are led in faith, is linked to and comes from love, it is not a truth which we must fear, for it does not impose itself with violence but seeks to persuade deeply, fortiter ac suaviter simultaneously.
This is why the encyclical does not hesitate to affirm that faith “broadens the horizons of reason to shed greater light on the world which discloses itself” (n. 34) both to scientific investigation and to any man or woman who is seeking with a sincere heart. It is precisely faith which reveals to us that any person who sets out to search for truth and goodness “is already drawing near to God” and is “already sustained by his help” (n. 35) even without knowing it.
I do not intend, in the brief time remaining to me, to summarise the third and forth sections of the encyclical, but would just like to draw attention to a few points which, in my opinion, are particularly important. Above all I would like to highlight the origin of faith, which if it profoundly touches the believer, is an event which does not close the person in on himself in an isolated and isolating “face-to-face” with God. Faith in fact “is born of an encounter which takes place in history” (n. 38) and “is passed on…by contact from one person to another, just as one candle is lighted from another” (n.37).
Faith arises out of a set of relationships which both precede and transcend us, from an “us” which invites us to emerge from the solitude of our “I” and to place ourselves within an ever larger environment and horizon, in a dialogue and on a journey that have no end. The dialogical form of the early baptismal formulas of the Church (which are the origin of our Creed) testify to this fact and to this dynamic which places us within an ecclesial “we”, within a new subject to which we belong through faith.
The Church is the place in which this personal dynamic – which arises out of the vision of faith – is rooted and from which it is constantly re-launched, moving us towards God and to our neighbour, and becoming, therefore, a new Weltanschauung, and unique way of looking at the world: it is, in fact – as Romano Guardini beautifully put it – “ the bearer within history of the plenary gaze of Christ on the world” (n. 22).
The Church is the place in which faith is born and in which it is able to be communicated, that is, the place in which it can be witnessed to in a rational, and therefore reliable, way: “what is communicated in the Church…is the new light born of an encounter with the true God” (n. 40).
It is precisely this encounter with the living God that is made possible by the Church and that renders faith credible. The vehicles and efficacious signs of this encounter “are the sacraments celebrated in the liturgy of the Church” (n. 40). Thus the encyclical affirms that “faith itself possesses a sacramental structure” (n. 40).
In this way we can easily understand the inherent dynamic of faith: it moves us from the visible and the material “to the mystery of the eternal” (n. 40). In this dynamic the believer in his whole being becomes involved in the truth that he recognises and confesses (cf. n 45). And so “he or she cannot truthfully recite the words of the creed without being changed” (n. 45) because faith demands a continual change; it prohibits the believer from closing his or herself in an accommodating sense of peace.
Another issue I would like to draw your attention to is a quotation from the Sermons of St. Leo the Great that is included in the third part of the encyclical: “If the faith is not one, then it is not faith” (n. 47). We live today in a world which, despite all its connectedness and globalisation, is fragmented and divided into many “worlds” that, even if in communication with one another, are often and intentionally isolated and in conflict. The unity of the faith is, therefore, the precious gift that the Holy Father and his fellow Bishops are called to foster, guarantee and witness to, as the first fruits of a unity that wants to give itself as a gift to the whole world.
What we are talking about is not a monolithic unity, but a rich and active pluriformity – God himself is Three in One – which is simultaneously both the origin and the mission of the Church. For this very reason the Church was defined by the Second Vatican Council as “the sign and instrument” (LG 1) of the unity that comes from God and which is destined to embrace the whole of humanity.
This unity is rightly called “catholic” because it is founded on the truth that it seeks to serve and promulgate. It has, in fact, the “power to assimilate everything that it meets in the various settings in which it becomes present and in the diverse cultures which it encounters, purifying all things and bringing them to their finest expression” (n. 48). This unity, because it is founded on the truth, deprives us of nothing – rather it enriches us with the gifts that come from the generosity of the heart of God.
This unity in truth, which leads us to God – the Father of us all – actually assists us in the rediscovery of the origins of true brotherhood (cf. n. 53). Without truth and without God, the modern dream of universal brotherhood will never be realised but is rather destined only to replicate the miserable experience of Babel. Indeed, brotherhood “lacking a reference to a common Father as its ultimate foundation, cannot endure” (n. 54) - a fact that is unfortunately all too manifest in the history of the last two centuries.
Finally, I would like to make one last suggestion taken from the fourth part of the encyclical. While it is true that authentic faith fills one with joy and “a desire to live life to the fullest” (n. 53) – here we see concretely the connection between the teaching of Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI – “the light of faith does not make us forget the sufferings of the world” (n. 57). Rather it opens us up to “an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light” (n. 57). Only the light that comes form God – from the incarnate God who has encountered and defeated death – is able to offer a reliable hope in the face of evil, in the face of every type of suffering which afflicts the life of man.
In summery, the encyclical wishes to restate in a new way the truth that faith in Jesus Christ is a good for humanity “truly a good for everyone; a common good”: “It’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 towards a future of hope” (n. 51).
These are just a few thoughts through which I want to encourage everyone to read and savour this beautiful document. Indeed, this encyclical letter can be rightly called a “document” because it is not just a collection of words but documents for us, in the light of faith, the Christian vision of life which draws us into a total participation in God. This, above all, is the witness for which we are grateful to both Pope Francis and Benedict XVI – two great witnesses of faith and hope for modern man.