From the moment he first appeared as the new pope on a balcony in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis has surprised and pleased most of his church with both his humble demeanor and his actions.
Now he’s produced his first encyclical, a celebration of Christian faith in words beautiful in their directness and inspiring in their humble simplicity. The encyclical, entitled “Lumen Fidei” (“The Light of Faith”), is a completion of work begun by Pope Benedict XVI and completes a trilogy he began with the issuance of “Deus Caritas Est” in 2005 and “Spe Salvi” in 2007.
“I have taken up his fine work,” the humble Pope Francis said, “and added a few contributions of my own.”
Vatican observers and those in the Catholic press have been impressed with those “contributions” from the new pope. “Lumen Fidei” was released July 5, and Catholic News Service writer Francis X. Rocca noted that it “illuminates every aspect of human existence, including philosophy and the natural sciences.”
Rocca said the encyclical “clearly recalls the writings of Pope Benedict,” but also noted that the “entire section on the relevance of faith to earthly justice and peace echoes what has become known as one of the themes of Pope Francis’ young pontificate.”
In fact, a cursory search of Catholic News Service stories produced nearly a dozen instances where the pope’s primary message is a call to the people of the church to live out the Gospel message and care for the less fortunate, the outcasts. Pope Francis has repeatedly referred to the Gospel call to care for the least of us, and does so again in this encyclical.
He cautions us to avoid the easily-available temptation to worship the work of our own hands. Doing so, the pope says, destroys the “fundamental orientation which unifies our existence” — our ability to worship the one true God. The other path, he notes, leads us to live simply “from one ‘god’ to the next.”
That style of living, of false “religion,” produces a theology that asks “who has the most money, the biggest house with the most bathrooms? Who has the largest SUV, the most and biggest television screens? Who sends their children to the most expensive schools?”
It is an empty course, one that Pope Francis says leads us away from a communion with the Father who will provide the foundation on which we can build our lives.
Pope Francis also takes note of those who believe their salvation is possible through good works alone. These people, the pope notes, “want to be the source of their own righteousness.”
It is a false hope, the encyclical says.
“Salvation by faith means recognizing the primacy of God’s gift,” Pope Francis writes. Faith finds its fulfillment “in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” he says. And CNS’ Rocca notes that Pope Francis stresses that “by the virtue of his humanity, Jesus is both the object of faith and the ultimate model and mediator for all believers.”
“Christ is not simply the one in whom we believe,” Pope Francis writes. “He is also the one with whom we are united precisely in order to believe.”
And in a stirring passage, the pope captures the essence of our belief — “Faith does not merely gaze at Jesus,” the pope says, “but sees things as Jesus himself sees them, with his own eyes.”
Our faith, in other words, “is a participation in (Jesus’) way of seeing.” That participation makes Christians a part of Christ’s body, the church.
While some may claim they can worship God’s creation on a golf course each Sunday, or see the beauty of his handiwork while fishing or hiking, Pope Francis notes that our faith is truly found in the sacraments.
“It is impossible to believe on our own,” he writes. “By its very nature, faith is open to the ‘we’ of the church; it always takes place within her communion.”
If we live a life of faith, the pope notes, we experience a new light in our souls, “born of an encounter with the true God, a light which touches us at the core of our being and engages our minds, wills and emotions, opening us to relationships lived in communion.”
In the new encyclical, the pope notes that throughout history faith has “proven itself essential to the promotion of justice, law and peace. Faith teaches us to see that every man and woman represents a blessing” for all of us. And he asks us to recognize that the “light of God’s face shines … through the faces of (our) brothers and sisters.”
It is a message the whole world should embrace.