CNS PHOTO | SCALA COURTESY OF ART RESOURCE, NEW YORK
"A faith centred on Christ and the power of his grace inspired the mission of the first Christians," says the encyclical Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith) from Pope Francis. Pictured is the painting Christ Salvator Mundi by Quentin Metsys.
Today's society has "lost its sense of God's tangible presence and activity in our world," Pope Francis says in his first encyclical.
"We think that God is to be found in the beyond, on another level of reality, far removed from our everyday relationships," the pope said in the encyclical Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith) released July 5.
"But if this were the case, if God could not act in the world, his love would not be truly powerful, truly real, and thus not even true," Pope Francis wrote.
"It would make no difference whether we believed in him or not."
Christians, however, "profess their faith in God's tangible and powerful love which really does act in history," he said.
God's love is "a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ's passion, death and resurrection."
Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis said earlier, is an encyclical "written by four hands" – those of himself and of retired Pope Benedict XVI.
In the encyclical, he said the previous pope had almost completed a first draft of the encyclical on faith when he retired in February. "I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own."
The encyclical is the last of three that focus on the theological virtues – faith, hope and love. Pope Benedict wrote Deus Caritas Est (God is Love, 2005) on charity and Spe Salvi (In Hope We Were Saved, 2007) on hope.
Experts are likely to try to discern which pope contributed which elements of the encyclical.
One can, for example, see Pope Francis' hand in the encyclical's reflection on idolatry among the people of Israel.
Idolatry, not atheism, was shown in the history of Israel to be the opposite of belief. When Moses spoke to God on Sinai, the people could not "bear the mystery of God's hiddenness," the pope said. Instead of waiting to see his face, they began to worship idols.
Worshipping idols presents no risk, he said. It is a pretext "for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshipping the work of our own hands."
When people worship idols, they lose the unity in their lives and break down into the multiplicity of their desires, he said. "Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another."
There is no journey of faith in idolatry, only "a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth," the pope said.
In contrast, faith "consists in the willingness to let ourselves be constantly transformed and renewed by God's call." Faith is God's free gift to us, a gift that calls for humility and the courage to trust, he said.
In another section, Pope Francis says that faith involves not only believing that what Jesus says is true, but also "believing in" Jesus.
"Faith does not merely gaze at Jesus, but sees things as Jesus himself sees them, with his own eyes; it is a participation in his way of seeing."
To enable our faith, God took on human flesh, the pope said. Christian faith "is a faith in a God who is so close to us that he entered our human history."
This faith does not cut us off from reality, he said. Rather, it "enables us to grasp reality's deepest meaning and to see how much God loves this world and is constantly guiding it towards himself."
Because Christ is God present in history, a human who has faith must participate in Christ's body, the Church, the pope said. "Faith is necessarily ecclesial; it is professed from within the body of Christ as a concrete communion of believers."
Pope Francis calls the Church "a mother who teaches us to speak the language of faith." It is impossible for a person to believe on his or her own. Faith always takes place within the communion of the Church.
In a section that resonates with some of the themes of Pope Benedict's pontificate, the encyclical said faith has a necessary link with truth.
If faith does not have a link with truth, "It remains a beautiful story, the projection of our deep yearning for happiness, something capable of satisfying us to the extent that we are willing to deceive ourselves."
Today, we tend to think the only real truth is that of technology, the pope said. "Truth is what we succeed in building and measuring by our scientific know-how; truth is what works and makes life easier and more comfortable."
We are also willing to allow for "subjective truths of the individual," he said. These "truths" are a fidelity to one's deepest convictions, but are valid only for one person.
However, the truth that would provide a full explanation of our lives as persons and in society is regarded with suspicion, the pope said. "In the end, what we are left with is relativism, in which the question of universal truth . . . is no longer relevant."
The contemporary world, he said, suffers from "a massive amnesia." "The question of truth is really a question of memory, deep memory, for it deals with something prior to ourselves."
Truth has an intrinsic relationship with love, he said. Although most people do not realize it, the two are inseparable. "Faith transforms the whole person precisely to the extent that he or she becomes open to love."
Faith, the pope said, "sheds light on every human relationship," and it "illumines life and society." It also provides the basis for a successful and fruitful life.
"When faith is weakened, the foundations of humanity also risk being weakened."