11th Jul 2013

Unity and the Light of Faith: Reflections on “Lumen Fidei”

by Carl E. Olson 

The encounter with Christ renews our human relationships, directing them, from day to day, to greater solidarity and brotherhood in the logic of love. Having faith in the Lord is not something that solely involves our intelligence, the area of intellectual knowledge; rather, it is a change that involves our life, our whole self: feelings, heart, intelligence, will, corporeity, emotions and human relationships. With faith everything truly changes, in us and for us, and our future destiny is clearly revealed, the truth of our vocation in history, the meaning of life, the pleasure of being pilgrims bound for the heavenly Homeland. — Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, October 17, 2012

In God’s gift of faith, a supernatural infused virtue, we realize that a great love has been offered us, a good word has been spoken to us, and that when we welcome that word, Jesus Christ the Word made flesh, the Holy Spirit transforms us, lights up our way to the future and enables us joyfully to advance along that way on wings of hope. Thus wonderfully interwoven, faith, hope and charity are the driving force of the Christian life as it advances towards full communion with God. — Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei (#7)

Having read and re-read Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), shortly after it was released last Friday, I spent some time re-reading some of Pope Benedict XVI’s writings relating to the start of the Year of Faith. These included the apostolic letter Porta Fidei (“The Door of Faith”), which was released on Oct. 11, 2012, the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council (which the future pope as a young priest, Father Joseph Ratzinger, attended as a theological expert), and the series of 17 general audiences given by Pope Benedict between Oct. 17, 2012, and Feb. 27, 2013, the latter a day before he stepped down from the Chair of Peter.

It was not surprising to see, once again, the unwavering and focused consistency of the themes and thoughts found throughout these wonderful texts. In the opening paragraphs of Porta Fidei, Pope Benedict had directly touched upon this focus, stating, “Ever since the start of my ministry as Successor of Peter, I have spoken of the need to rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ” (#2). In fact, that single, simple sentence contains three words that among a notable handful that appear several times, and in significant ways, in Lumen Fidei: “journey” (36 times), “encounter” (22 times), and “light” (149 times!). Considering the title of the encyclical, the fact of these many references to “light” is notable but not surprising. However, there was another word that appeared even more often, as I noted in this editorial for Catholic World Report:

… here is a number worth pondering: 161. That’s the number of times the word “love” appears. The word “light”? 149. The word “life”? 91. Those three words, I suggest, are together a sort of thematic trinity (all the more memorable, I suppose, because of the alliteration, at least in English). The other key word is “truth”, which appears 83 times. Put in very short form, an essential point of the encyclical is that the light of faith, which is always a gift of God, reveals the path to divine life, which is a sharing in Trinitarian communion and love, which in turn is the very ground of truth and reality.

In a unique way, Lumen Fidei brings to completion the papal project, if you will, begun with Pope Benedict’s 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”): a detailed and vigorous set of encyclicals focused on the three theological virtues. That this new encyclical is presented and authored by Pope Francis only reinforces the constant and important emphasis within this newest encyclical on unity: unity of faith, unity in truth, unity in the Church, journeying in unity, the unity of the divine plan, and the unity of the Godhead. The cooperation of Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict is, I think, a sort of quiet rebuke to those who would fret over and fixate upon the differences between the two men to the point of agitation. Comparisons are normal; they can even be helpful. But the very production of this text — which is bold, humble, direct, nuanced, intellectually demanding, and spiritually challenging — is a reminder of what the papacy is and what it is meant to do. “The Successor of Peter,” writes Pope Francis (having acknowledged that he had merely “added a few contributions” of his own to Benedict’s draft), “yesterday, today and tomorrow, is always called to strengthen his brothers and sisters in the priceless treasure of that faith which God has given as a light for humanity’s path” (#7).

Rather than be concerned or bothered by how obviously different Popes Benedict and Francis are in many respects, we should rejoice in how faith in the One God, who is a perfect communion of three Persons, so beautifully unites the people of God and calls all men into the saving union and communion of the Church. While the world speaks endlessly of a “diversity” that is often dull, coerced, and thoroughly homogenized, the Church demonstrates a unity that is possible precisely because it flows from God, is rooted in truth, is revealed in love, and is expressed in joy: “This is also the great joy of faith: a unity of vision in one body and one spirit. Saint Leo the Great could say: ‘If faith is not one, then it is not faith’.” (#47).

In my previous Catholic Pulse essay, “Love, Hope, and Truth: Benedict XVI’s Three Encyclicals,” I sought to show how Deus Caritas Est (on Christian love), Spe Salvi (on Christian hope), and Caritas in Veritate (on integral human development) together provide “a cohesive, integrated understanding of the person of Jesus Christ (Christology), the nature and mission of the Church (ecclesiology), and salvation and the last things (soteriology and eschatology).” It seems fitting to consider the same “-ologies” within Lumen Fidei, keeping in mind that there is no substitute for reading and prayerfully contemplating the entire encyclical!


“The light of Faith: this is how the Church’s tradition speaks of the great gift brought by Jesus.” The opening sentence tells us several things about faith: it is a “light”; the Church speaks to us about faith and transmits it to us; it is a gift; and it is brought and gifted by Jesus. The Prologue to the Gospel of John is not referenced (although the Fourth Gospel is referred to more than twenty times), but it is foundational here. “In him” — the Logos, or Word — “was life, and the life was the light of men. … The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world” (Jn 1:4, 9). This is a passage worth keeping in mind while reading Lumen Fidei. After reflecting on the place of Abraham and the people of God in the Old Testament, Pope Francis writes, “Christian faith is centered on Christ; it is the confession that Jesus is Lord and that God has raised him from the dead (cf. Rom 10:9)” (#15). Paragraphs 15 through 18 of Lumen Fidei provide a beautifully constructed presentation of the person, work, and meaning of Jesus Christ that is quite quotable, as these excerpts indicate:

The history of Jesus is the complete manifestation of God’s reliability.

Precisely because Jesus is the Son, because he is absolutely grounded in the Father, he was able to conquer death and make the fullness of life shine forth.

We “believe” Jesus when we accept his word, his testimony, because he is truthful. We “believe in” Jesus when we personally welcome him into our lives and journey towards him, clinging to him in love and following in his footsteps along the way.

Pope Francis notes that “Christ is not simply the one in whom we believe … he is also the one with whom we are united precisely in order to believe” (#18). We are not called just to follow Christ, but to participate by grace in the divine life which he uniquely possesses by virtue of his divine nature. As Francis states a bit later, “The Christian can see with the eyes of Jesus and share in his mind, his filial disposition, because he or she shares in his love, which is the Spirit” (#21). Then, in sections 30-31, the pontiff reflects on the relationship between hearing and seeing, both of which are integral to faith in Christ:

How does one attain this synthesis between hearing and seeing? It becomes possible through the person of Christ himself, who can be seen and heard. He is the Word made flesh, whose glory we have seen (cf. Jn 1:14). The light of faith is the light of a countenance in which the Father is seen. In the Fourth Gospel, the truth which faith attains is the revelation of the Father in the Son, in his flesh and in his earthly deeds, a truth which can be defined as the “light-filled life” of Jesus. This means that faith-knowledge does not direct our gaze to a purely inward truth. The truth which faith discloses to us is a truth centred on an encounter with Christ, on the contemplation of his life and on the awareness of his presence. (#30)

This is one example of how Lumen Fidei offers a seamless marriage of spirituality, theology, and pastoral wisdom. Another example is evident in the connection made between the Incarnation, the sacraments, and growth in faith and grace:

By his taking flesh and coming among us, Jesus has touched us, and through the sacraments he continues to touch us even today; transforming our hearts, he unceasingly enables us to acknowledge and acclaim him as the Son of God. In faith, we can touch him and receive the power of his grace. (#31)

In the fourth and final section, “God Prepares a City for Them,” the inner life of faith in Christ is shown to have a necessary, even radical, effect on how we are to live in the world while not being of the world:

As salvation history progresses, it becomes evident that God wants to make everyone share as brothers and sisters in that one blessing, which attains its fullness in Jesus, so that all may be one. The boundless love of our Father also comes to us, in Jesus, through our brothers and sisters. Faith teaches us to see that every man and woman represents a blessing for me, that the light of God’s face shines on me through the faces of my brothers and sisters. … At the heart of biblical faith is God’s love, his concrete concern for every person, and his plan of salvation which embraces all of humanity and all creation, culminating in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without insight into these realities, there is no criterion for discerning what makes human life precious and unique. Man loses his place in the universe, he is cast adrift in nature, either renouncing his proper moral responsibility or else presuming to be a sort of absolute judge, endowed with an unlimited power to manipulate the world around him. (#54)

While some commentators have noted that the encyclical does not directly address contemporary, hot button topics (although it does discuss the true nature of marriage), passages such as the one above make it readily evident that Pope Francis, just as Pope Benedict did so often, is addressing the deep disfunction and core evils that infect the modern and post-modern world: relativism, transhumanism, utilitarianism, selfishness, lust, conflict, and violence both physical and emotional The answer is simple: faith in Jesus Christ. But that answer, while apparently simple, is never shallow, for the mystery of Christ can never be exhausted. Instead, as Pope Francis emphasizes, it must be accepted, embraced, and lived, for Christ calls us out of the static numbness of sin into a transforming journey of faith, of love, of an authentic future: “In union with faith and charity, hope propels us towards a sure future, set against a different horizon with regard to the illusory enticements of the idols of this world yet granting new momentum and strength to our daily lives” (#57).


United with Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit, the Christian’s life takes on an “ecclesial form of faith,” that is, a “life lived in the Church” (#22). Pope Francis offers a subtle but compelling point: to be a member of the Church, the body of Christ, “does not imply that the believer is simply one part of an anonymous whole, a mere cog in great machine...” This is a fear of many who think that in becoming Catholic, or in really committing themselves to the Catholic Faith, they will fade as distinct persons. The opposite is true, for being “one” (as Christians are called to be) “does not make them lose their individuality; in service to others, they come into their own in the highest degree.”

Pursuing a life of faith outside of the Church leads to a serious imbalance, a loss of “equilibrium.” Which means, the Holy Father emphasizes, that faith “is necessarily ecclesial; it is professed from within the body of Christ as a concrete communion of believers.” The same is true, he states later, of the study and practice of theology:

Theology also shares in the ecclesial form of faith; its light is the light of the believing subject which is the Church. This implies, on the one hand, that theology must be at the service of the faith of Christians, that it must work humbly to protect and deepen the faith of everyone, especially ordinary believers. (#36)

Rightly understood, the authority of the Church’s magisterium does not hinder the practice of theology, but instead “ensures our contact with the primordial source and thus provides the certainty of attaining to the word of Christ in all its integrity” (#36). This harkens back to the unity of faith mentioned earlier, a point reiterated in a later section on the unity of truth, which is rooted in the ultimate unity of the Godhead:

As a service to the unity of faith and its integral transmission, the Lord gave his Church the gift of apostolic succession. Through this means, the continuity of the Church’s memory is ensured and certain access can be had to the wellspring from which faith flows. The assurance of continuity with the origins is thus given by living persons, in a way consonant with the living faith which the Church is called to transmit. She depends on the fidelity of witnesses chosen by the Lord for this task. For this reason, the magisterium always speaks in obedience to the prior word on which faith is based; it is reliable because of its trust in the word which it hears, preserves and expounds. (#49)

Although the term “cafeteria Catholicism” does not appear, that widespread practice of selective faith is addressed, and it is done in the context of the Church’s proclamation of the “articles of faith” (#48). To deny part of the faith and to pick-and-choose from the the Church’s dogmas and doctrines is to undermine and damage the communion we are called to in the body of Christ:

Indeed, inasmuch as the unity of faith is the unity of the Church, to subtract something from the faith is to subtract something from the veracity of communion. The Fathers described faith as a body, the body of truth composed of various members, by analogy with the body of Christ and its prolongation in the Church. The integrity of the faith was also tied to the image of the Church as a virgin and her fidelity in love for Christ her spouse; harming the faith means harming communion with the Lord. (#48)

Far too often, Catholics are guilty of living in a way that dishonors both our heavenly Father and the Church, “a Mother who teaches us to speak the language of faith” (#37-38). When we shy away from the fullness of the language of faith, we reveal our weakness and our need for courage. “Faith is no refuge for the fainthearted,” explains Francis, “but something which enhances our lives. It makes us aware of a magnificent calling, the vocation of love” (#53).

Soteriology and Eschatology

We have already covered some of what Lumen Fidei says about salvation, which comes through faith in Jesus Christ, who is salvation personified. This is summed up well toward the end of the encyclical:

At the heart of biblical faith is God’s love, his concrete concern for every person, and his plan of salvation which embraces all of humanity and all creation, culminating in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (#54)

A striking point, made more than once, is that a close relationship exists between salvation, history, and memory. The word “memory” appears eighteen times, and it used in ways that might be new to many readers. For instance, Pope Francis writes of Abraham, “our father in the faith”:

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. We see how faith, as remembrance of the future, memoria futuri, is thus closely bound up with hope. (#8)

This memory of the future is based in the recognition that we have entered history in progress, and history has a beginning and an end, a creation and a culmination. “The beginning of salvation is openness to something prior to ourselves, to a primordial gift that affirms life and sustains it in being” (#19). In recognizing that our existence — our being — rests upon a transcendent ground of Being, we “remember” that we are made for something greater than temporal existence:

The question of truth is really a question of memory, deep memory, for it deals with something prior to ourselves and can succeed in uniting us in a way that transcends our petty and limited individual consciousness. It is a question about the origin of all that is, in whose light we can glimpse the goal and thus the meaning of our common path. (#25)

Within the Church, “we enjoy a living contact with the foundational memory,” while the “sacraments communicate an incarnate memory, linked to the times and places of our lives, linked to all our senses...” (#40). The Church’s memory is also conveyed and passed on in the Creed, the “Our Father,” and the Ten Commandments (#46). More than just expressions of community in the here-and-now, there are reminders of the past and promises of the eternal communion in the future. And, coming full circle, we can see how the three theological virtues, given in baptism, work together to bring about salvation:

In union with faith and charity, hope propels us towards a sure future, set against a different horizon with regard to the illusory enticements of the idols of this world yet granting new momentum and strength to our daily lives. Let us refuse to be robbed of hope, or to allow our hope to be dimmed by facile answers and solutions which block our progress, “fragmenting” time and changing it into space. Time is always much greater than space. Space hardens processes, whereas time propels towards the future and encourages us to go forward in hope. (#57)

Faith, as Benedict noted in his general audience of October 17, 2012, changes us; it reveals our “final destiny,” and shows us “the truth of our vocation in history, the meaning of life, the pleasure of being pilgrims bound for the heavenly Homeland.” Lumen Fidei presents this truth in a profound, challenging, and encouraging way, and so is a gift that we should return to on a regular basis for many years to come.

Carl E. Olson is the Editor of Catholic World Report ( and Ignatius Insight ( He is the author/co-author of two best-selling books and has written hundreds of articles, reviews, and columns for a variety of periodicals and newspapers. In addition to undergraduate studies in art and theology, Carl has a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)