On the First Encyclical of Francis' Pontificate

Author: Marc Ouellet

On the First Encyclical of Francis' Pontificate

Marc Ouellet*

Lumen Fidei and the use of 'we'

There was a pillar missing from Benedict XVI's trilogy on the theological virtues. Providence deigned that this missing pillar be the Pope emeritus' gift to his Successor and at the same time a symbol of unity; for by assuming and carrying to completion the work begun by his Predecessor, Pope Francis bears witness with him to the unity of faith. The light of faith is in this way consigned from one pontiff to another, like the baton in a race, thanks to "the gift of apostolic succession" through which "the continuity of the Church's memory is ensured" as well as "certain access... to the wellspring from which faith flows" (n. 49).

We therefore, experience a special joy in the reception of the Encyclical Lumen Fidei, whose joint mode of transmission illustrates in an extraordinary way the most fundamental and original aspect developed within it, the dimension of communion in faith. This Encyclical speaks, in fact, by expressing itself in a "we" that is not maiestatis but rather of communion. It speaks of faith as an experience of communion, of broadening the "I", and of solidarity on the journey of the Church with Christ for the salvation of humanity. I will limit myself to illustrating this point of view.

The Encyclical presents the Christian faith truly as a light that comes from hearing the Word of God in history — a light that shows the love of God at work forging a covenant with humanity. This light can already be seen in the work of the Creator but is resplendent as love in the life, in the death and in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In him, the light of Love bursts into history and offers to men and women a hope that instills courage to walk together towards a future of full communion. "Christ is the one who, having endured suffering, is 'the pioneer and perfecter of our faith'", as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us and the Encyclical expounds (Heb 12:2) (n. 57).

Objectively, the light of faith directs the meaning of life, brings comfort and consolation to restless and discouraged hearts, and commits believers to place themselves at the service of the common good of humanity through the proclamation and authentic sharing of grace received from God. Faith, therefore, calls believers to embrace the suffering of the world, as St Francis and Blessed Mother Teresa did, in Order to spread the light of Christ in it. "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", the Encyclical states (n. 57).

Subjectively, faith is an opening to the Love of Christ, an acceptance, an entering into a relationship that widens the "I" to the dimension of a "we" that is not only human, in the Church, but is properly divine, and is thus an authentic participation in the "We" of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. The Encyclical stresses this Trinitarian foundation, constituting the faith as a reality both personal and ecclesial: "This openness to the ecclesial 'We' reflects the openness of God's own love, which is not only a relationship between the Father and the Son, between an 'I' and a 'Thou', but is also, in the Spirit, a 'We', a communion of persons" (n. 39).

In this light — Christological, Trinitarian and ecclesial — the confession of faith acquires its concrete expression in the celebration of the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and of the Eucharist, in which "the believer thus states that the core of all being, the inmost secret of all reality, is the divine communion" (n. 45). The believer thus finds him- or herself "taken up, as it were, into the truth being professed" and by this very fact transformed and "becoming part of that history of love which embraces us and expands our being, making it part of a great fellowship... namely, the Church" (n. 45). From the Trinitarian "We" that extends into the ecclesial "we", the Encyclical leads in an entirely natural way to the "we" of the family that is the primary place for the transmission of the faith (cf. n. 43). On the one hand, it is very clear in the experience of the Baptism of children when parents and godparents profess the faith on behalf of the little one, welcoming him or her, in this way, into the faith of the Church which always precedes us.

On the other hand — the Encyclical reminds us — endless affinities exist between the faith and love that a man and woman who join in matrimony promise each other. "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" (n. 52). In this way, thanks to faith, spousal love is more certain to endure and to unite generations in the joy of fidelity and service to life. "Faith is no refuge for the fainthearted, but something which enhances our lives" (n. 53), the Encyclical concludes, which sees the family as "the first setting in which faith enlightens the human city" (n. 52).

The Encyclical adds a significant development concerning the relevance of the faith for social life, and for the edification of the city in justice and peace. And this is thanks to respect for each person and his or her freedom, and thanks to the resource of compassion and reconciliation offered by it to soothe suffering and resolve conflict. "Faith is truly a good for everyone; it is a common good" (n. 51). The tendency to confine faith to the sphere of private life is refuted here in soft tones, but the manner is decisive.

Many of the aspects previously developed by the Encyclicals on love and hope find their completion in faith being highlighted as communion and service to the common good. "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" (n.51). "If we remove faith in God from our cities, mutual trust would be weakened" (n. 55). In brief, through faith God wants "to solidify every human relationship", He hopes that the
"grandeur of the life in common which he makes possible" can be achieved through the grace of his pesence (ibid.).

In closing, the Encyclical contemplates Mary, the figure of faith par excellence, she who heard the Word and carried it in her heart, she who followed Jesus and who allowed herself to be transformed by "entering into the gaze of the incarnate Son of God" (n. 58). Pope Francis reaffirms at the end with his Predecossor a truth of faith set aside and at times in certain circles coubted: "As Virgin and Mother, Mary offers us a clear sign of Christ's divine sonship. The eternal origin of. Christ is in the Father. He is the Son in a total and unique sense, and so he is born in time without the intervention of a man" (n.59).

Let us, therefore, welcome with great joy and gratitude this confession of full faith in the form of a catechesis performed as a duet by the Successors of Peter. Together they expound the faith of the Church in her beauty which "is professed from within the body of Christ as a concrete communion of believers" (n. 22).

*Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 July 2013, page 11

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