Talking About God: 'Lumen Fidei' in the Year of Faith

Pope Francis embraces retired Pope Benedict during ceremony in Vatican gardens, July 5, 2013

Before his election to the papacy, Joseph Ratzinger recalled an anecdote from the deliberations that preceded the Second Vatican Council. When they were first gathering, the bishops clearly saw their mission as continuing the work of the First Vatican Council. The primary task would be, as John XXIII so familiarly said, to help provide an aggiornamento of the church. But from within that perspective, another voice emerged, that of the elderly bishop of Regensburg. He proposed a more foundational vision to his brother bishops, urging them to “talk about God. That is what is most important.” According to Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, a new tone was evident after that intervention. The bishops’ task would indeed be to update the church, but the only way to authentically do that would be to allow for the primacy of the spiritual, to go to the divine source of the church, God’s very self. Going to this source would need to be an act of humility, opening up yet again, to the freshness of the mystery of what it means to be in relationship to God as God’s people. It would be an act of opening up to the light of faith.

Some fifty years later, the church has been given a new invitation to again allow for the primacy of the spiritual, letting this light of faith radiate anew. On July 5, Pope Francis offered his first encyclical to the universal church making precisely this invitation to Christians everywhere to experience the Lumen Fidei. Francis acknowledges the text is largely the work of his predecessor, “He [Benedict] himself had almost completed a first draft of an encyclical on faith. For this I am deeply grateful to him, and as his brother in Christ I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own” (No. 7). Lumen Fidei might well be read in light of that earlier intervention that preceded the council in which her pastors were called not just to adjust external structures and strategies for the renewal of the church, but first and foremost, to “talk about God.” This is precisely the task Benedict and ultimately Francis have undertaken in this encyclical that concludes a triptych on the theological virtues preceded by the ones on love (Deus Caritas Est) and hope (Spe Salvi). In each of these, Benedict offered extraordinarily tender visions of the nature of God who is self-emptying love and how humanity is saved by that love offered from the heart of Christ pierced on the Cross. He has pointed to the reality of humility in God as well as the necessity of humility in humanity to receive divine love.

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Humble Popes

Francis’ popularity since his election has been well noted. The cause of this seems to be his simplicity and humility. Whether it was in the choice of his papal name, his first gesture from the balcony of St. Peter’s asking for the prayers of the people before he would offer his own blessing, or in his words and deeds since then highlighting a spirit of collegiality and resisting the trappings of pomp and circumstance, people of all sorts seem to be taken with his spirit. This manifestation of humility resonates with the preaching and writings of his predecessor. Indeed, the very act itself of the generation of Lumen Fidei strikes us as humble. The humility of Benedict who would do the labor of the writing and then simply leave it on the desk for his successor to do with it what he pleases, is striking. So too, we are struck by the humility of Francis to receive such a gift and then to acknowledge in the text itself that it was largely the work of his predecessor. There seems to be very little ego at work in either of these men. This is refreshing. And yet there is great zeal and confidence in each of them to propose to the world the joy that comes in living this common faith.

These characteristics of humility and receptivity set out the very structure of faith that this encyclical explores. Only in the posture of humility and receptivity can we be open to the light that comes to us from above. Faith is first of all a gift. The light of faith cannot be autonomously generated (No. 4). It is given first from God (No. 6). It is handed on down through the generations of the faithful who have preceded us (No. 8). It is given in a way that is mediated (No. 14), paradigmatically through Abraham and Moses. This gift of faith culminates in the person of Jesus (No. 15) and is extended to the present through the apostles whom he chose and their successors (No. 40). And yet this faith always remains personal. It requires not only our listening, but also our responding.

The structure of faith, since it is handed down from earlier ages, is about remembering. Following Augustine in various parts of the encyclical, Francis indicates that it is essential to use the sacred faculty of memory to continue to allow the light of faith to shine. We must remember what God has promised, indeed what God has done. Only in this act of remembering, in turning back to God and God’s word, can we get our bearings in the present to know who we are, what we are made for and where we are going. This structure is established from the beginning in the model of Abraham. He explains “As a response to a word which preceded it, Abraham’s faith would always be an act of remembrance. Yet this remembrance is not fixed on past events but, as the memory of a promise, it becomes capable of opening up the future, shedding light on the path to be taken” (No. 9).

Francis acknowledges that this call to remembrance is always a challenge because there is a constant temptation before us to lose patience with the call to remember who the living God is and to take the time to listen and speak with him. It is tempting to put our trust in something more immediate and not so unsettling as a relationship with a personal God. Drawing upon Martin Buber’s recollection of a way of describing idolatry as “when a face addresses a face that is not a face,” the constant need before us is to turn again to the living God who has shown us his face in Christ. We continue to be fooled into thinking there must be a more efficient way that exists, one that affords us a more acceptable level of control. Yet, “Once I think that by turning away from God I will find myself, my life begins to fall apart (cf. Lk 15:11-24). The beginning of salvation is openness to something prior to ourselves, to a primordial gift that affirms life and sustains it in being” (No. 19). This is the context of this encyclical on faith in the year of faith offered by Francis, seeking like his namesake, to rebuild God’s church by stirring up a desire in the people of God to seek again the face of God.

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Michael Barberi
5 years 3 months ago
Honestly, I have major issue with this encyclical or its message. However, the encyclical seems to view the world, on one extreme, as those that are atheistic and agnostic, and on the other hand, by those who believe in every teaching of the RCC. The agnostic is skeptical of God but seeks the truth. Thus, there is hope for agnostics in dialogue with Christians and God's divine mercy and grace. However, this worldview is not realistic. The overwhelming majority of people of faith fall between these two extremes. Hence, what is the message for those of other Judeo-Christian religions that have different interpretations of Scripture and different views of ethical morality, and those in the RCC that disagree with some teachings? I agree that the truth is a primordial gift, and a rethinking is a way to recover the truth what is hidden The encyclical seems to say that the truth can be found outside of the doctrines of the RCC and in dialogue with those who seek the truth, and God, in Jesus Christ, because he is the truth, the way and the life. If so, what is this message for the great majority of people of faith who fall between the two extremes as noted above? I agree that salvation and the truth is a primordial gift and a rethinking is one way to recover and reveal the truth that is often hidden. I may have missed something, but I do not see a broad practical message here, other than reference to agnostics and atheists, where the Judeo-Christian faith is pluralistic and there is no complete consensus of the truth other than important fundamental principles.
Michael Barberi
5 years 3 months ago
Correction of typo. I have no major issue with this encyclical or its message.
Beth Cioffoletti
5 years 3 months ago
I am enjoying reading all of the commentary on Lumen Fedei, and pondering what Faith really is. Its structure, its dynamic. Light! Of course! We all (or at least most of us) have a first hand experience of what wandering around in the Dark is like. I have yet to read the full encyclical but my impression is that anyone (atheist, agnostic, Muslim, Jew etc.) would find much here to relate to. My impression, also, is that its message is essentially mystical - an encounter and relationship with a personal God, a burning bush, which would totally shift one's perception of reality. There are those - I'm thinking of someone like Eckart Tolle, or perhaps Etty Hillesum - who appear to have received this gift despite the lack of "remembrance" or history. I wonder how those people fit into the notion of Faith ...
Michael Barberi
5 years 3 months ago
"This gift of faith culminates in the person of Jesus (No. 15) and is extended to the present through the apostles whom he chose and their successors (No. 40). And yet this faith always remains personal. It requires not only our listening, but also our responding." Not all "faiths" culminate in the person of Jesus. To wit, what is the message here about "faith" as a gift from God? To whom is the encyclical directed? To those who lack a faith about God (atheists and agnostics) and perhaps those will little faith, those who have fallen away from their faith? What is this faith? Is it selective or all-inclusive: Muslim, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopal, Buddhist, et al? What is the message about faith? That dialogue about faith helps us to recognize, understand and embrace the truth and God's will? That living one's faith leads us to everlasting life? For more than 1,000 years different faiths have different fundamental and moral beliefs. Are they all equally good and important? Do they all lead us to salvation?
Bruce Snowden
5 years 3 months ago
Talking about God, one reality interests me more than any other and that’s the term, “Face of God.” Which one? It’s all very perplexing considering that God is, first of all a “Spirit” and as such has no face. Of course in Jesus, I guess one could say, “Like Father, like Son,” so we discover that God in the person of his Son has a face identifiably human, meaning he can smile, laugh, frown, wrinkle his forehead, twitch his nose and tears and sweat can also trickle down his face, the Face of God! And so much more. All very, very, reassuring considering that Faith, by which we come to know God, is a dark light, often casting shadows on the Jagged walls of the tunnel of life. But fortunately, Faith is a LIGHT nonetheless! At least that’s my experience. I think all of this has intimate relationship, and intrinsic link, to Holy Father Francis’ First Encyclical “Light of Faith,” wherein if I read it correctly Faith is an identical twin to Love, Faith and Love one and the same. This brings up something very important about the Face of God – it is MYSTERIOUS, as is God, first and foremost a MYSTERY who becomes more understandable in Jesus. I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t like a good mystery story. Well, we certainly have one in God, who resides within the Divine potpourri of a “Let’s keep ‘em guessing” solution. Thus in its human admixture Faith's dark light. Interestingly "Pope Frank" implies that God is a God of Surprises! I don’t mean to be disrespectful calling our beloved Pope “brash” by suggesting he’s unto something in saying that God is a God of Surprises, but he is unto something. The Holy Father is absolutely right and one has only to study the many faces of God in the OT and the NT to arrive at that delightful discovery. Like a great actor God takes on many roles, many faces, with one purpose in mind – to lead all to Faith which inescapably leads to Love. This may be along a rocky path, or through a troubled sea, but always with a wink in his eye the God of Surprises will be able to say, “Gotcha!” Surprise! Surprise! He wins and we win too, a happy ending to a sometimes scary story. At least so it seems to me.

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