An abbreviated version of this story was published in the Sept. 2013 issue of the Dakota Catholic Action.
A lot can happen in a year. When midnight struck on January 1, it would have been impossible to predict– just in the first six months of 2013–the papal resignation of Benedict XVI, an election of a pope from Latin America, and an encyclical, Lumen Fidei
(The Light of Faith) written by both of them. Remember, an encyclical is a letter from the pope intended to circulate among a particular audience; that is why the word “encyclical” has within it the Greek word, kyklos
, meaning circle
. In addition, an encyclical is always titled by its first words in Latin, which specify its topic, therefore, following Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on Hope and Charity, Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis are presenting an encyclical on Faith, Lumen Fidei
. As Pope Francis said, it is the encyclical written by “four hands” or as Francis humbly noted, was written “with a few contributions of my own.”
The timing of this encyclical on Faith coincides with the Year of Faith as declared by Pope Benedict to last from October 11, 2012 (the 50th
Anniversary of the opening of Vatican II) through November 24, 2013 (the Solemnity of Christ the King), 13 months and 13 days. Also coinciding with its publishing on June 29, Pope Francis approved the canonization of Pope John XXIII, who called the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II, whose pontificate included the publishing of the Catechism of the Catholic Church
. Add those details to your first half of the year 2013 predictions.
Since Lumen Fidei
’s publication, there have been many articles and summaries written, published and posted. They are found virtually anywhere. I will write this article about Lumen Fidei
in the context of an experience I had long ago, an experience with an answer I’ve attempted to refine over nearly 30 years. I will briefly review the encyclical’s highlights as I read it. Finally I will add a contributive perspective, if you will, of an aspect of faith necessary and vital for the church today.
Let me begin with a story. When I entered the seminary, I had a conversation with a high school classmate who was very surprised by my desire to possibly become a priest. As I explained to him the reason, I presented a (certain) fledgling understanding of the Catholic faith, of which I knew at the time, to give my news some backing. Concluding my explanation of the faith, he looked at me and asked, “Why in the world would
you believe that?” My response to him was, “Well, I just do.” That question is difficult to answer well as a teenager.
Reading an occasional encyclical or homily of the Holy Father is good for the soul. Remember Anselm’s definition of theology as, “Faith seeking understanding.” The reading of Lumen Fidei
will, then, bring a better understanding for the answer than I had at the time as to why I believe, as to why I have faith. (Belief and faith are both, essentially, the assent given to a truth and I may use them alternately.) Reading Lumen Fidei
helps us to better answer that question because reading any encyclical also deepens our “…knowledge of God’s will and our duties towards him,” as John Henry Newman defined “religion” in Grammar of Assent
(Doubleday, p. 303). The prophet Hosea warned long ago, “My people perish for lack of knowledge.” (4:6)
The encyclical begins with the history of faith in the Old Testament, beginning with Abraham, our father in faith, the nation of Israel and its failures, and the role of Moses, “the mediator.” The popes make it clear that faith, for Abraham, was a relationship with God that changed his life. It wasn’t a thing
he possessed or simply duties he performed. The relationship, the encyclical reminds us, was tested in the sacrifice of his son Isaac which would show the depth of his “capability” of faith.
Following the Old Testament, the encyclical then turns to the New Testament, the fullness of Christian faith. My favorite line of the encyclical is found in the fifteenth paragraph, “the history of Jesus is the complete manifestation of God’s reliability.” Clearly, the popes are reminding us that faith begins in the recognition of God’s initiative towards us and thereby, our faith helps us respond to that initiative made by God, reliably
manifested in the Incarnation. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is a reliable initiative which has as its clearest evidence in our Lord’s death on the cross. Contemplating His death is to deepen our faith, not harm it as happened in Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot,” as noted in paragraph 16. (Benedict also referred to Dostoyevsky’s “The Brother’s Karamazov” in his encyclical letter on Hope, Spe Salvi,
in paragraph 44.)
After the two Testaments, the encyclical reminds how faith brings us salvation. I think this is truly an ecumenical component of Lumen Fidei
. This encyclical, more than others, should appeal to our brethren of the Protestant denominations who believe in salvation through faith alone, sola fide
. The encyclical then connects faith to truth which reminds us that it is our faith which leads us to truth, rather than our opinions leading us to personal preferences.
In chapter three I read another inspiring sentence which leads us to be reminded how the Church not only protects our faith, but also transmits it. The encyclical outlines how faith, “travels through time passing from one generation to another” (.38). I could not read that without recalling the mission of our Catholic schools, which have as their purpose to transmit faith to the next generation. As the encyclical develops its thought of faith in the Church, we are reminded how we cannot believe on our own, “it is impossible to believe on our own”(.39), the popes write. Faith is communal, which is why faith is found in the Church. Consequently, it is impossible for us to have faith in Christ and to not have faith in the Church. Christ is the Church and the Church is Christ, for this is how faith finds its “setting in which it can be witnessed to and communicated” (.40).
As the encyclical reads, it highlights the importance of the sacraments, the Our Father prayer, the Ten Commandments and how faith brings unity. Quoting St. Leo the Great, “If faith is not one then it is not faith”(.47). It is important to reiterate that division is not of God. Splintering groups are not of God. People of faith are not called to hang out in divisive groups but to gather within the Body of the Church.
Another personal highlight of the encyclical is how it reminds us that faith provides consolation and strength during suffering, quoting Psalm 116:10, “I kept my faith even when I said I am greatly afflicted” (.56). We will all face an hour of trial and the encyclical virtually promises that faith, in the midst of our suffering and weakness, will bring light. I recalled how C.S. Lewis calls faith “the art of holding onto things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods.” Faith allows us to hold onto our true beliefs even though our changing moods, or tragic circumstances at the present time, may prompt us to doubt or unbelief. I continue to be surprised how changing moods, or tragic circumstances, move some people to a more profoundly lived faith while some are moved to doubt or lose their faith entirely. Some are made better through suffering, some are made bitter.
Finally, my added perspective of an aspect of faith necessary and vital for the Church today (not highlighted in the encyclical) is how faith, being the opposite of fear, enables leadership to become effective and efficient. Faith brings light, as the encyclical is titled, while fear brings darkness. Fear, therefore, is not of God. And it is not ridiculous to propose, as I now will, that those who have been given and live a life of faith are more inclined to become more effective/efficient leaders in a world which needs more true leadership. Failed leadership, or its lack thereof, can be attributed to a lack of skills or hidden self-serving interests. Failed or poor leadership can also be attributed to fear. Consequently, those who lack faith are more likely to have fear of the unknown or fear of failure which will scuttle their efforts to lead people effectively and manage time efficiently. Fear will cause “would be leaders” to fold when they are opposed or criticized by their community. Effective/efficient leaders exhibit a persevering will which, truly, does become admirable and attractive to adversaries. I have often said in my years of teaching how the cardinal virtue of fortitude is essential in leaders. How may one portray a steadfast posture and, at the same time, lack faith? Our Lord knew the dark effects of fear as he often encouraged us to renounce fear. Our Lord was repeating the words the Father assured the Israelites, through His prophets, repeating the admonition, “do not be afraid,” for he knew, full well, how fear would sabotage both the intentions and efforts of his disciples. Rather than fear, he said, have faith; faith in a God who knows your needs before you do and tends to them beyond your imagination.
Now, returning to where I began. I often wonder where that classmate is today who asked me a question, nearly 30 years ago, that I still attempt to answer more clearly for myself, “Why in the world would
you believe that?” The answer is mysterious, yet it is clear that, for me, faith is light because faith is the reliable relationship I will need for my salvation, uniting me to the Church founded by the Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Faith gives me something to “hold on to” in every context of my life. Faith in the Son of God’s passion reminds me that nothing can overwhelm me. Faith in the Son of God’s resurrection reminds me that my daily work, as small and futile that it often seems, has value. Faith in the Church and her Sacraments, remind me that I am a part of something larger than myself, my faith is not God and me
(as Evangelicals and Pentecostals often purport), it is God and we
as the family of the Body of Christ. All in all, the best answer to “Why in the world would
you believe that?” is to respond, “I have never had any reason to have faith in anyone else, because Jesus Christ is to be believed when he said of himself: “I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.”(John 12:46, Lumen Fidei
.1). Why do you have faith?
Msgr. Patrick Schumacher is pastor of the Church of St. Wenceslaus in Dickinson and director of continuing education for clergy for the Diocese of Bismarck.