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Decoding the Encyclical Letter 'Lumen Fidei', Light of Faith

By Fr Dr Santhosh Sebastian Cheruvally
August 27th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Lumen Fidei categorically states that faith illuminating life means Christ affecting our life and our convictions. Indeed a christification of our life and commitments, convictions and values are called for. It is in this sense, "Faith in Christ brings salvation because in him our lives become radically open to a love that precedes us, a love that transforms us from within, acting in us and through us." (Cf. Chapter 1, no. 20.) The encyclical is clear: What is communicated in the Church, what is handed down in her living Tradition, is the new light 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

ALLAHABAD, India (Catholic Online) - Given in Rome, at Saint Peter's, on 29 June, the Solemnity of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, in the year 2013, the first encyclical letter of the pontificate of Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei - Light of Faith - serves as both a catechetical and missionary boost to Catholic Christian faith at a time when faith, church life, as well as church structures and authorities, - are being called into question. Sometimes, the questioning itself comes from the dichotomies each contains and carries as both a strength and a weakness.

One must not forget that this papal encyclical letter has a time reference and a context. That is,  some of the things apparently more negative (humanly speaking) which are happening around us, such as; the various church scandals and their aggressive highlighting by the media, the surprising exit of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of a new Pope. These are often greeted with cautious enthusiasm as well as anxiety etc. In fact, the heart of the message which Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith) communicates provides an assurance that both consoles and consolidates the faith community by calling its attention towards a genuine awareness of the gift of faith- who is Christ Jesus Himself.

Pope Francis humorously opined that this encyclical is a work of \'four hands\'. This indicated that it contains content from the thoughts of his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI regarding the already set context of the golden jubilee of the Second Vatican Council and the Year of Faith which was already inaugurated. In addition, it has a serial and organic connection to the encyclicals of Benedict XVI - Deus Caritas est and Spe Salvi. In addition, the letter offers the characteristically down to earth teaching style of the present Pope Francis as he infuses the encyclical with his peculiar way of connecting the teaching to the heart of the people and not simply to the head of the people. Even though both are equally important!

The encyclical is brief in length. It has four chapters (Chapter I We have believed in love, cf. 1 Jn 4: 16, Chapter II Unless you believe, you will not receive, (cf. Is 7: 9) Chapter III:  I delivered to you what I also received, (cf 1 Cor 15: 3),  Chapter IV: God prepares a city for them, (cf Heb 11: 16) with a striking introduction that  draws from the sources of two diametrically opposed characters from history, as regards their convictions on faith- namely Justin Martyr and the german atheist philosopher Nietzsche. While the former stands for the apologetic acceptance of the faith- often represented by practicing Christians, the latter stands for the contemporary challenges and questions to the faith and to God.

This presentation, set against the bedrock of the gospel St John, is, for me, the most relevant way of shaking pious Christians out of their slumber in the context of the year of faith. By that, I refer to some who are often overjoyed when things go right in the Church and who become overanxious and, at times,even  self-righteous, when scandals mire the Church. The four titles of the chapters stand out as four four fundamental statements on faith as well as four directions and dimensions by which - and in which -  a Catholic Christian believer has to approach the matter of faith in his/her time and context. The encyclical answers, convincingly and candidly, the matter of faith. That is why I pointed out in the beginning its catechetical nature.  

Hence, Lumen Fidei teaches: Christian faith is centred on Christ; it is the confession that Jesus is Lord and that God has raised him from the dead (cf. Rom 10:9), Cf. Chapter 1, no. 15. What does then love mean for a Christian? Again the encyclical declares: Christians, on the contrary, profess their faith in God's tangible and powerful love which really does act in history and determines its final destiny: a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ's passion, death and resurrection. Thus the encyclical has an emphatic Christological centrality as regards faith and lover or charity.

This is the reason that Pope Benedict XVI had already taught that faith and charity go hand in hand. Charity is not thus an Italian dressing on a yummy, scrummy salad. Therefore, social systems and political values are all affected by and aided by Christian heritage and the Church and its structures, including the personal and family life of a Christian. All are challenged by the encyclical. It calls us all to an examination of conscience as to the existence of the dichotomy between faith and charity in our own lives.

The second Chapter, with a reference to the verse from Isaiah, offers a charismatic approach and orientation to faith. Without faith we cannot see God's acts and the power of God in our own life. It also has an opening to the hitherto existing political systems and rational and scientific achievements and searches happening in our age. It offers an uncanny, interreligious richness when it states: God is light and he can be found also by those who seek him with a sincere heart. (Cf chapter 2, no. 35.)

In other words, the Christian faith does not run away or retreat in the face of the political and scientific issues and challenges of the age. In fact, in terms of human welfare and the meaning of life, Christian faith is seen as the mystery of Christ Jesus's involvement in the creation and human pilgrimage of life and its destiny. Christian faith transformatively contributes to the secular goals set by rational and scientific systems and thought. It also daringly corrects them when they turn upon themselves as idols trying to take the place and plan of God. At the same time, the encyclical serves both as a warning and indicator to theologians to do their duty within the framework of enhancing the faith with respect and sensitivity shown to the faith community and to the teachings of the Church.

Moving further, faith is dealt with as dynamic, situating God and human beings, our hearing and our response. Tradition is not to be seen as a nostalgic remembrance of something outgone and outdated. Rather, it contains a living responsibility of passing itself on to another generation. At the same time, tradition should not become an escapist haven or the refuge of the obscurantist, never ready to respect the present time and its unique cries and challenge.

Hence the encyclical is clear: What is communicated in the Church, what is handed down in her living Tradition, is the new light 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. (Cf. Chapter 3, no. 40).

Thus, the transmission of the faith, from the magisterium to the catechist, from parish priest to the parents in the family, from theologians to the teachers in the schools, is a dynamic missionary responsibility for everyone in the present time and in every context.

Characteristic of Pope Francis, the encyclical invites Christians to reflect on the natural end of their faith journey and life not just as heavenly city but also of "building in charity a city based on relationships in which the love of God is laid as a foundation.\"(Cf. chapter 4, no. 51).

Seen within the context of present day political and economic systems, which have also affected the structures and life style of the Church, the letter calls for making faith sensible and available to those outside of the mainstream of the society. Charity and justice, shown in favour of the suffering and the poor, are, in fact, the very essence of the Christian faith.

Francis offers two striking images and figures which the world and the church easily understand but often refuse to follow, because of the inherent "inconvenience" they present to one's own concept of safety in the world. However, Francis has the guts and authority to present them as challenging the stereotypes of faith which become institutionalized so often in formalism and create a \'culture of appointments\' which can present hindrances to access rather than facilitate access to faith.

Lumen Fidei thus categorically states that faith illuminating life means Christ affecting our life and our convictions. Indeed a christification of our life and commitments, convictions and values are called for. It is in this sense, "Faith in Christ brings salvation because in him our lives become radically open to a love that precedes us, a love that transforms us from within, acting in us and through us." (Cf. Chapter 1, no. 20.)

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Fr Dr Santhosh Sebastian Cheruvally is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Gorakhpur in North India and is currently a  professor of Dogmatic Theology at St Joseph's Regional Seminary, Allahabad, India, affiliated with the Pontifical Urban University, Rome.

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