Lumen fidei (“The light of faith”)

by Jahnabi Barooah

Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith), Pope Francis’ first encyclical letter that was released on July 5, 2013, one that was the “work of four hands” was not addressed to me. But that did not prevent this church nerd from reading it! Historically encyclicals have been addressed to bishops of a particular region, the episcopate, that is, the collective body of bishops in the Church, or all the Catholic faithful. But over the past few decades, beginning with John XXIII’s influential encyclical Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth), a few including Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI’s last Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”) have been addressed to all men (and sometimes all people) of “good will.” Encyclicals are typically not regarded as infallible teachings, but they are authoritative statements issued by a pope, that is, part of the Ordinary Magisterium, and therefore their importance for Catholics, and indeed for humankind I would say, cannot be understated. The first encyclical of a pope, especially, is believed to shed light on how he might govern for the rest of his papacy.

Lumen Fidei is beautifully crafted, even poetic at times. As the title suggests, it is a gentle, but firm reminder to a post-Enlightenment generation about how the theological virtue of faith when understood as light illuminates “every aspect of human existence.” (§4) It begins by going back to Abraham and demonstrating how faith is linked to hearing. “Faith is our response to a word which engages us personally,” the popes write. (§8) From there, it describes how essential truth is to faith (“faith without truth does not save” §24) and the co-dependence of truth and love stressing that love cannot be reduced to “ephemeral emotion.” (§27) Then it brings up the Hellenistic emphasis on sight, stating the bond between seeing and hearing. Ultimately it becomes clear that hearing itself is not sufficient to illuminate the path to the religious seeker. “[W]ithout this vision we would be left only with unconnected parts of an unknown whole,” the popes write. (§29 & §30) It goes on to explain why community is essential to the Christian faith even proclaiming that “it is impossible to believe on our own.” (§39) Finally, it dwells on the importance of the transmission of faith, how to find strength amidst suffering and concludes by explaining that while faith illuminates the path, “it is not a light which scatters all our darkness.” (§57)

For an encyclical that is officially addressed to “bishops, priests and deacons, consecrated persons and the lay faithful,” I think Lumen Fidei has a lot to offer to sincere seekers and even to atheists or agnostics as long as he or she is not afraid of challenging preconceived notions. As a non-Catholic reading the encyclical, this passage in particular resonated deeply within me:

Because faith is a way, it also has to do with the lives of those men and women who, though not believers, nonetheless desire to believe and continue to seek. To the extent that they are sincerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find, they are already, even without knowing it, on the path leading to faith. They strive to act as if God existed, at times because they realize how important he is for finding a sure compass for our life in common or because they experience a desire for light amid darkness, but also because in perceiving life’s grandeur and beauty they intuit that the presence of God would make it all the more beautiful. … Anyone who sets off on the path of doing good to others is already drawing near to God, is already sustained by his help, for it is characteristic of the divine light to brighten our eyes whenever we walk towards the fullness of love. (§35)

People like myself — somewhere between the spectrum of believers and nonbelievers, those who desire to anchor themselves to a religious community, those who strive to lead a moral life, those who (want to) say “Hallelujah!” after a beautiful sunrise but are challenged by the evidential problem of evil — I think this is telling us that we should not give in to the temptation to surrender ourselves to nihilism. Maybe, someday, we will have the gift of light that will enable us to “see reality with new eyes.” (§28) After all, isn’t this what it means to hope?

At 82 pages, Lumen Fidei is not exactly a document that can be read in an hour or two but will be a worthwhile investment for anyone seriously contemplating the meaning of life.

Let me close with the sentence that touched me most deeply, one that I’m sure people of all religious backgrounds will be able to relate to: Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey.

Interested in reading Lumen Fidei? It probably contains many of your favorite words! Download it in PDF format here. Lumen Fidei

ad maiorem dei gloriam