Pope Francis’ very first encyclical, which is meant to help highlight the Year of Faith which the Church is currently in the midst of celebrating, has been released today. It is called Lumen Fidei, or “the Light of Faith,” after the very first words of the document. This encyclical must certainly be considered unique because it has truly been co-written by Francis and by his predecessor Pontiff Emeritus Benedict XVI, and from what I’ve seen of the document so far (I haven’t gotten all the way through it yet), it clearly contains the “written voice” and the theological and exegetical imprint of both men. As a result, it is packed with years of wisdom and it helps us better understand what it means to be on a journey of faith. For example, check out this passage from the introduction on the Second Vatican Council and its relationship to the importance of our faith:
The Year of Faith was inaugurated on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. This is itself a clear indication that Vatican II was a Council on faith, inasmuch as it asked us to restore the primacy of God in Christ to the centre of our lives, both as a Church and as individuals. The Church never takes faith for granted, but knows that this gift of God needs to be nourished and reinforced so that it can continue to guide her pilgrim way. The Second Vatican Council enabled the light of faith to illumine our human experience from within, accompanying the men and women of our time on their journey. It clearly showed how faith enriches life in all its dimensions.
The 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican II was one of Pope Benedict’s primary reasons for calling the Year of Faith in the first place. Benedict had seen plenty of abuse based on what people think Vatican II was all about, but Benedict understands the Council in a way that few others today really could because he was there as a theological advisor. Few people understand the theology behind Vatican II as well as Pope Benedict, because as our own Justin Cardinal Rigali reminds us, there are people still alive who were there and participated, and if people want to understand the meaning of something, start by asking those who were there. One of the things we learn in studying the Second Vatican Council is that it sought to revive, refresh, and renew the faith in the modern world, not to change Church teaching, but to change the way that teaching is presented to the world so that the whole world can see the richness of the Catholic faith.
The importance of the Second Vatican Council to how we understand our faith isn’t the only place where Francis seems to showcase the importance of the Church when he says that faith should be ecclesial. In other words, it seems that we are being told that faith without the Church is, well…hollow.
In this way, the life of the believer becomes an ecclesial existence, a life lived in the Church. When Saint Paul tells the Christians of Rome that all who believe in Christ make up one body, he urges them not to boast of this; rather, each must think of himself “according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Rom 12:3). Those who believe come to see themselves in the light of the faith which they profess: Christ is the mirror in which they find their own image fully realized. And just as Christ gathers to himself all those who believe and makes them his body, so the Christian comes to see himself as a member of this body, in an essential relationship with all other believers. The image of a body does not imply that the believer is simply one part of an anonymous whole, a mere cog in great machine; rather, it brings out the vital union of Christ with believers, and of believers among themselves (cf. Rom 12:4-5) Christians are “one” (cf. Gal 3:28), yet in a way which does not make them lose their individuality; in service to others, they come into their own in the highest degree. This explains why, apart from this body, outside this unity of the Church in Christ, outside this Church which — in the words of Romano Guardini — “is the bearer within history of the plenary gaze of Christ on the world”— faith loses its “measure”; it no longer finds its equilibrium, the space needed to sustain itself. Faith is necessarily ecclesial; it is professed from within the body of Christ as a concrete communion of believers. It is against this ecclesial backdrop that faith opens the individual Christian towards all others. Christ’s word, once heard, by virtue of its inner power at work in the heart of the Christian, becomes a response, a spoken word, a profession of faith. As Saint Paul puts it: “one believes with the heart … and confesses with the lips” (Rom 10:10). Faith is not a private matter, a completely individualistic notion or a personal opinion: it comes from hearing, and it is meant to find expression in words and to be proclaimed.
These words are lengthy and deep, but essentially the Holy Father is telling us that our faith cannot be lived in a vacuum. A living faith in Jesus Christ is not lived apart from his body, the Church, of whom Christ is the Head (Col. 1:18), so this argument of “I love Jesus, but hate religion,” or “I love Jesus, but not the Church,” doesn’t hold water. The Church is Christ’s body, so if you have no love for the Church, your love for Jesus is lip service.
As I pointed out yesterday, we all know that the Church is far from perfect, I am certainly not perfect and I am part of the Church. If we can see past all of the haze of that bad things that people in the Church can say or do to others, and despite that still love the Church, and even love those people, we are well on our way to loving as Christ loved, because it was for the life of the Church that Christ rendered himself up to death.