Reflections on the Conclusion of Pope Francis’ First Encyclical

Last Sunday the parish expressed strong support for our relationship with the children of St. Anthony’s Parish in Uganda. Fr. Lawrence Kimbowa, who preached at all of the Masses last week, has now departed from Minnesota and will soon resume his canon law studies in Rome, where he was sent by the bishop of his diocese. Fr. Charles Muyimba, though, will remain with us through September 29, and you will have more opportunities to get to know him. His previous visit to our parish was in the spring of 2008, about six weeks before I came to St. Peter’s. So I am just getting to know him, too.

For the last two Sundays, a large portion of my bulletin article has been a summary of Lumen Fidei, the first encyclical of Pope Francis. The September 1 bulletin covered the introduction and Chapter One, on coming to faith and the life of faith. The September 8 bulletin covered Chapter Two, on the relationship of faith to truth and reason. Now we move on to Chapter Three, “I Delivered to You What I Also Received.”  It addresses the fact that we receive our faith through the Church, which means that it has passed through many generations. Faith, the Pope says, “is born of an encounter which takes place in history and lights up our journey through time,” and so in every age it must be newly passed to the next generation. Because we live in relationship with others, we can be enlivened by the encounter with Christ which first took place long ago (paragraph 38). Faith is not a private relationship between the believer (“I”) and God (“thou”); faith is open to the “we” of the Church (paragraph 39). Because faith involves not merely doctrine, but an encounter with God, it is transmitted through the sacraments (paragraph 40). Baptism is the first of the sacraments. Since faith is lived in the Church, even children too young to profess their own faith can be supported by others, by their parents and godparents (paragraph 43). The sacrament of the Eucharist nourishes faith: it is both an act of remembrance and a way of opening up a future (paragraph 44).

Pope Francis says, “In the celebration of the sacraments, the Church hands down her memory especially through the profession of faith,” which is not something abstract, but “when it is recited the whole of life is drawn into a journey towards full communion with the living God” (paragraph 45). When recited truthfully, the creed changes a person. Besides the creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) are strongly linked to faith; by them we can emerge “from the desert of the selfish and self-enclosed ego in order to enter into dialogue with God, to be embraced by his mercy and then to bring that mercy to others” (paragraph 46). The Pope says these four elements (the profession of faith, the sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and prayer) “make up the storehouse of memory the Church hands down.” The faith that is handed down is one because of the oneness of God and because it is shared by the whole Church. It must be handed down in its entirety, as “every period of history can find this or that point of faith easier or harder to accept.” Denying one of the articles of faith has the effect of distorting the whole. And so the Lord gave the Church the gift of apostolic succession, which ensures “the continuity of the Church’s memory” (paragraphs 48-49).

The encyclical’s final part is Chapter Four, “God Prepares a City for Them.” In it, the Holy Father points out the place of faith in the network of human relationships, both in the family and in society. “The light of faith is capable of enhancing the richness of human relations,” he writes. Faith does not draw us away from the world, but allows people to know a trustworthy love that keeps them united. Without that love, human relations would be based only on conflicting interests or fear. With it, people can find joy in the mere presence of others. Faith allows us to understand that human relationships have their foundation and their destiny in God. The light of faith “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 journey toward a future of hope” (paragraph 51).

The family is the first setting enlightened by faith, beginning with the union of a man and a woman in marriage, Pope Francis writes. It is possible to promise to love someone forever only when we are aware of a plan greater than ourselves. The faith that was absorbed in the family enlightens our relationships in society outside the family as well. The idea of a universal brotherhood of people only makes sense when we return to the understanding that we have a common Father. Faith has allowed us to see the “dignity of each person, something which was not clearly seen in antiquity” (paragraph 54). By revealing the love of the Creator, faith allows us to respect nature and see it as the work of God, as “a dwelling place entrusted to our protection and care” (paragraph 55). Faith makes forgiveness possible by allowing us to see “that goodness is always prior to and more powerful than evil;” faith calls us to confront conflict and move beyond it (paragraph 55). Faith, we know, sometimes leads to suffering. It makes us aware of the “sufferings in this world” and reminds us of the hope that “only in God can our society find solid and lasting foundations” (paragraph 57).

Pope Francis ends the encyclical with a prayer to Mary, Mother of the Church and Mother of our faith (paragraph 60). I hope you will find some benefit in this overview of his teaching on faith.

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