May 4, 2015

From a Christian perspective, the most striking development of the last 50 years in the Western world is the declining practice of faith. Where, not that long ago, Christian belief was part of the DNA of most Europeans and North Americans, it is now the preserve of a minority.

The vast majority of Canadians say they believe in God, but it is hard to discern what that actually means. Is that belief the last tidbit of something inherited from their grandparents, or is it a seed that will grow into something glorious with proper watering?

What is faith anyway? Is it a firm adherence to the Church's dogmatic and moral tenets? Is it a general adherence of the heart and mind to a mysterious Supreme Being who transcends the physical?

Is it something totally personal and unspeakable, or does it have a communal and public aspect? Does faith help to nurture a better world or does it become polluted when it comes into contact with "politics"?

These are major questions Pope Francis confronted in his first – and, to this point, only – encyclical, The Light of Faith (Lumen Fidei).

Lumen Fidei had an unusual genesis. Begun by Pope Benedict XVI as the last of three encyclicals on the theological virtues, it was completed by Pope Francis following Benedict's resignation. Released July 5, 2013, it got lost in the shuffle between two popes and, a few months later, was outstripped in public attention by Pope Francis' marvellous apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel.

Faith enables us to see reality through new eyes.


Faith enables us to see reality through new eyes.

Yet Lumen Fidei is a little jewel, one through which the light of faith sparkles. It can help to enlighten us on the path of faith as the Church moves forward in this new millennium.

The Church's responsibility is to contribute to a rebirth of faith in our culture. For that to happen, we need to know what faith itself is. Too often, faith has been equated with regular church attendance or with holding firmly to the teachings of the catechism. But as Lumen Fidei points out, such dimensions of the life of faith barely scratch the surface.


Take the issue of abortion, for example. Respect for human life is not a specifically religious issue, yet those who oppose abortion are overwhelmingly people of faith. On scientific grounds alone one should be able to convince most people that the unborn child is a human person deserving of full legal protection.

Yet, for the most part, it doesn't. The fact that it is religious faith, rather than scientific evidence, that seems to stir respect for the unborn child should raise questions about the nature of such faith as well as about the resistance to faith.

In the introduction to Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis deals briefly with the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was one of the most influential – and colourful – opponents of faith.


For him, faith was not light, but darkness. One who seeks truth cannot believe, according to Nietzsche. Believing is a comfortable domestic happiness which has nothing to do with truth; seeking truth involves taking risks and avoiding solace and complacency. Faith is an illusion which prevents human liberation.

The child of a Lutheran minister, Nietzsche may have had personal reasons for seeing faith as insipid. His views, nevertheless, challenge Christians. They are a challenge to be faithful in ways that do not turn away from hard truths, faithful to the cross, faithful to a light that may sometimes overwhelm.

Faith is light, not darkness; that is the premise of the encyclical. Faith, however, is not only about seeing truth. It is about hearing truth and even touching truth. Faith engages all of our senses. It is not blind; it depends upon reason as well as sight. It involves a response; seeing cannot be passive.

Faith is not just an act of the intellect; more basically, it is an act of the heart. "Faith is an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love. . . . Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see" (LF14).


The knowing gained by faith comes from a knowing by the heart. As such, the passing on of faith in an irreligious era is far from a simple matter. It will not do to try to stuff truths into the minds of the next generation. That, in itself, will not pass on the faith. It is one thing to be able to say that God is love and quite another to know it.

Yet love is not a feeling nor is knowing a feeling. Faith is not a leap in the dark nor is it a subjective light. There is an objectivity to it, which allows us, even impels us, to share it with others.


To be Christian is to believe in Christ's resurrection from the dead. That belief is founded on the evidence of the empty tomb and the post-resurrection appearances of Christ.

Still, by itself, evidence is not enough to engender faith. One needs the personal experience of liturgy, reading God's word and of a loving faith community.

Over the next few issues of the WCR, I will explore various aspects of Lumen Fidei. By knowing more about the nature of faith, one can see where one's own faith needs to grow.

The encyclical may also help dispel illusions about passing on the faith in a secularized society and hint at ways we may contribute to keeping the Christian faith alive in a world where many would like to see it die.