Pope Francis’ First Encyclical Letter

We are expecting friends from Uganda to arrive, and I hope by the time you read this they will be with us. Most of you are well acquainted with our relationship with St. Anthony’s Parish in Migyera, Uganda. We welcome Fr. Lawrence Kimbowa, former pastor there, back to St. Peter’s. We also welcome Fr. Charles Muyimba, who has also been here before. May God bless you and the people of the towns of Migyera and Nabbingo!

On June 29 of this year, Pope Francis published his first encyclical letter. An encyclical is the highest level of papal teaching, and any pope can be expected to write only a small number of them during his entire pontificate. Pope Francis, who was elected on March 13, tells us in the encyclical itself that he took up the text prepared in draft form by his predecessor Benedict XVI, who renounced the papacy effective February 28. He says he added “a few contributions of my own.” This is the first time a new pope has acknowledged this cooperative process in preparing an encyclical for publication.

The name of the letter is Lumen Fidei. Encyclicals are always referred to by the first several words in the Latin original of the text. Lumen Fidei means “the light of faith,” and the letter is quite simply written on the topic of faith. I would like to tell you a few things about the letter, which has a special significance to us since we are in the Year of Faith.

The encyclical, which is easily downloaded from the Vatican website, has 60 sections which total 26 pages when printed. It is divided into an introduction and four chapters. In the introduction, Pope Francis states that many people of our day believe the light of faith is only an illusory light that prevents people from searching for knowledge. To them, faith is associated with darkness. So it is necessary for us to recover the understanding that faith is a light born of an encounter with God who reveals his love. God’s love allows us to see both the past in the fulfillment of God’s promises, and to see the future that guides us on the path from isolation to communion with others. This, I might add, was a consistent theme of Pope Benedict XVI: that we are always being called by God to journey out of our “I” into a relationship with others.

Chapter One is entitled, “We Have Believed in Love.” It speaks of the faith of Abraham, and then addresses the faith of all of Israel before speaking specifically about Christian faith and life lived in the Church. Chapter Two, “Unless You Believe, You Will Not Understand,” describes the reasonableness of faith. In it, the Holy Father speaks of understanding God’s plan through hearing and sight. He addresses the dialogue between faith and reason, and mentions the search for God.

Chapter Three of Lumen Fidei is named, “I Delivered to You What I Also Received.”  It addresses the fact that we receive our faith through the Church. We are people who are in relation to others. Faith is transmitted to us through the sacraments, especially through Baptism and the Eucharist. Finally, Chapter Four, “God Prepares a City for Them,” points out the place of faith in the network of human relationships, both in the family and in society.

Now I would like to go into more detail about what Pope Francis has to say in his first encyclical. Chapter One begins with Abraham, our father in faith. He hears a call and a promise: the call is to leave his land and journey to another, and the promise is that he would be the father of a nation. The Pope says Abraham’s faith was an act of remembrance, but not of the past. It would be “the memory of a promise” which “becomes capable of opening up the future.” He is promised by God that he would be a father, and then is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, and he trusts that the God who was able to grant him a son in his old age would also be able to fulfill his promise (paragraph 11).

The faith of ancient Israel was always one of remembering God’s mighty deeds. It also shows “the temptation to unbelief to which the people yielded more than once. Here the opposite of faith is shown to be idolatry” (paragraph 13). Pope Francis says that people turn to idols because in idol worship there is no risk that people will be asked to do what they do not want to do, to abandon their security. He even says idols exist “as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshiping the works of our own hands.” Faith, however, “breaks with idols to turn to the living God in a personal encounter.” Faith enables us to see the path “to the encounter of God and humanity: the history of salvation.”

Christian faith is centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His life is God’s definitive intervention in history. Through Jesus’ dying for us, we can know the reliability of his love. The Pope says that if God were remote from us, it would make no difference whether we believed in him or not. But Christians “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” (paragraph 17). We are united with Christ in order to believe. As we would trust one more knowledgeable than we are to build a house, for example, so we can trust Jesus in the matter of knowing God. “We ‘believe’ Jesus when we accept his word, his testimony … We ‘believe in’ Jesus when we personally welcome him into our lives and journey toward him” (paragraph 18).

To be continued…

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