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Papal Encyclical Lumen Fidei: Chapter I exploring roots of faith

(Vatican Radio) In our continuing five part series on Pope Francis’ first Encyclical letter Lumen Fidei or Light of Faith, Msgr. John Kennedy, an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, takes a look at Chapter I: “We have believed in Love.”
Msgr Kennedy tells Tracey McClure that the Pope “begins at the beginning and explores the roots of faith. He points out that what makes faith credible is not us, but rather God. God is trustworthy.”
Listen to the conversation: RealAudioMP3

Msgr. Kennedy: I have seen banks and financial institutions use the word trust or fidelity in their poster campaigns. To put it in financial terms, if God were not completely trustworthy, then it would be like putting your money in an unsafe bank.

Because God is trustworthy, he asks us to trust his word. This is a common experience in life, one that we have all had from time to time. Let me give you an example. From time to time I have often had to ask for directions to a place I did not know. So I stopped and asked someone the way. When you arrive safe and sound at your destination, you might pause to remember that the word that was spoken to you, the directions you were given by that person, were good and sound. The person who helped you was trustworthy and told the truth. God’s word is like that. God’s word is reliable.

Because God can be trusted, then faith in him opens up an understanding of God’s plan and God’s promise. In this context the encyclical discusses how Abraham put his trust in God. In fact the name Abraham means "father of many" or “the father of a multitude of nations” in Hebrew. This name reveals a promise God made to him that, because of his faith, he would become the father of many nations.

For Abraham, faith in God sheds light on the depths of his being. It enables Abraham to see that God is the source of all goodness and life. He is the origin of all things.

Abraham’s life is not just a lucky roll of the dice. Abraham realizes that his life is not the product of non-being or chance, but the fruit of a personal call and a personal love. The mysterious God who called him, whose voice he hears, is no alien deity, but the God who is the origin and mainstay of all that is.

Question: Isn’t it true that sometimes our faith is tested and that God sometimes surprises us?

We see in the Bible how God then tests Abraham’s faith. When God gives Abraham his son, Abraham understands this as showing the extent to which this primordial love is capable of ensuring life even beyond death. Abraham’s wife was advanced in years and beyond the age of childbirth. Yet God was able to raise up a son for her. If he can do this then he can and will stand by his promise of a future beyond all threat or danger (cf. Heb 11:19; Rom 4:21).

So, with the same faith as Abraham, we move to a deeper understanding. We begin to live in a new way. We do this even though the world is offering us many things. As Christians we are not interested in things but rather in the person who is God. Faith is relational.

Faith is a relationship because God enters human history and invites each person to participate in His plan of love.

Question: Can you tell us how we move from individual faith to having faith as a community?

Because God is calling everyone to faith, faith reaches its fullness in the community of the Church, where the love of God is manifested in the one body of Christ. It might not be the best example but think of it perhaps in football terms.

Let’s say I support a particular football club and watch all their matches. My friends at work and in their neighbourhood also do the same. If you know anything about football what you certainly notice is that fans don’t all stay at home and watch their television sets individually while their team plays in front of an empty stadium.

Football calls people together, gives them an identity. Fans believe in their team, they love and support it. They always hope that it can do well. They say, “I follow my team, I identify with my team.”

Christians believe in God, hope in him and love him. There identify with him because there is a bond between believers as individuals and as a body of believers. In fact what is more critical to appreciate is that God first loves us, approaches us and identifies with us. God gathers us together as his people, speaks to them and invites them to participate in his life. If God were not faithful or trustworthy, this would all be empty and pointless. But this is not so.

St. Augustine captured the bond created by faith when he explained: “Man is faithful when he believes in God and his promises; God is faithful when he grants to man what he has promised.” In Jesus Christ we see God’s fidelity incarnate.

If we needed proof that he loved us, the encyclical reminds us that we only need look to the cross where Jesus died for all, for our sins.

Question: Can you mention what the Pope says about our culture today and how faith finds it hard to secure its place?

One thing you can say about the world today is that there is a lot going on. It is easy to get distracted with all the images and messages that are being fired at us all the time.

With all of this happening, the Pope has stated that our culture has lost its sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world. We think that God is to be found in the beyond, on another level of reality, far removed from our everyday relationships. It is a strange coincidence that, as the world seems to be getting smaller and smaller, more closely knit through technology and social media, God is sometimes being pushed out.

The Pope insists on the central Christian message that, if God were removed and could not act in the world, his love would not be truly powerful, truly real, and thus not even true, a love capable of delivering the bliss that it promises. For that reason, it would make no difference at all whether we believed in him or not.

Christians, on the contrary, profess their faith in God’s tangible and powerful love which really does act in history and determines its final destiny: it is a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.

In his life and also in his death and resurrection Jesus brings a particular fullness to faith and gives it a new dimension. In faith, 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.

Question: Doesn’t the Pope give some great examples that can really help us to understand this point?

Yes. The Pope then gives some great examples. In many areas in our lives we trust others who know more than we do. We trust the architect who builds our home, the pharmacist who gives us medicine for healing, the lawyer who defends us in court.

We also need someone trustworthy and knowledgeable where God is concerned. Jesus, the Son of God, is the one who makes God known to us (cf. Jn 1:18). Christ’s life, his way of knowing the Father and living in complete and constant relationship with him, opens up new and inviting vistas for human experience.

Saint John brings out the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus for our faith by using various forms of the verb "to believe". In addition to "believing that" what Jesus tells us is true, John also speaks of "believing" Jesus and "believing in" Jesus.

To explain this a little more we can say that:

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.

Question: How hard is it for young people today to understand that they are loved by God?

You often hear of young people making a world trip after school or having finished university. A year out, some call it. Others say that during this year they were able to find and know themselves. While of course travel is great, the mystery of our faith tells us quite clearly that the Christian journey leads in a different direction. The Christian calling is not an inward looking exercise but rather a discovery of the mystery of Christ among us. Pope Francis says, “Once I think that by turning away from God I will find myself, my life begins to fall apart (cf. Lk 15:11-24).”

Why is this the case? The answer is because the beginning of salvation, discovering the light of faith is openness to something prior to ourselves, to a primordial gift that affirms life and sustains it in being.

Only by being open to and acknowledging this gift can we be transformed, experience salvation and bear good fruit. Salvation by faith means recognizing the primacy of God’s gift. As Saint Paul puts it: "By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God" (Eph 2:8).

At the end of the first chapter, we return to the question of light and how faith allows us to see things in a new way. Faith’s new way of seeing things is centred not on ourselves but on Christ. Faith in Christ brings salvation because in him our lives become radically open to a love that precedes us, a love that transforms us from within, acting in us and through us.

Question: When we are speaking about God’s commandments, is it not difficult to follow them because we cannot see God with our eyes or hear him with our ears?

Both in the Old and New Testament, we find very encouraging words and can see that God’s command is neither too high nor too far away so that we have no need to say: "Who will go up for us to heaven and bring it to us?" or "Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us?" (Dt 30:11-14).

Saint Paul, who himself encountered the Risen Lord Jesus, interprets this nearness of God’s word in terms of Christ’s radical closeness to humanity.

Christ came down to earth and rose from the dead; by his incarnation and resurrection, the Son of God embraced the whole of human life and history, and now dwells in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Faith knows that God has drawn close to us, that Christ has been given to us as a great gift which inwardly transforms us, dwells within us and thus bestows on us the light that illumines the origin and the end of life.

This is why Pope Francis says that we come to see the difference, then, which faith makes for us. Those who believe are transformed by the love of Christ. By their openness to his love, their lives are enlarged and expanded. The Pope Francis quotes a beautiful phrase from the letter of Saint Paul to the Galatians when he says, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal 2:20).

Question: And so we come to the end of the first chapter.
The first chapter ends with the words, “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.

Faith becomes operative in the Christian on the basis of the gift received, the love which attracts our hearts to Christ (cf. Gal 5:6), and enables us to become part of the Church’s great pilgrimage through history until the end of the world. For those who have been transformed in this way, a new way of seeing opens up, faith becomes light for their eyes.”
Look out next week for part 3 of our five part series on Pope Francis' Encyclical Lumen Fidei when Msgr. Kennedy looks at Chapter II....