Light is one of two key words in Pope Francis’s first encyclical, Lumen Fidei. (The other word, faith, is covered beautifully in Adam’s article here.) The encyclical itself is a beautiful, illuminating document, and I encourage anyone interested in learning more about faith to read it in its entirety. Although technically considered Pope Francis’s first encyclical, potential readers should make no mistake about it: This encyclical was written almost entirely by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Having just finished reading and A School of Prayer, I feel mostly comfortable vouching for the true authorship of this document. In fact, Benedict’s other encyclicals focused on hope and love/charity — a tidy package, indeed. (I’m also certainly not the first to think of this encyclical as “the work of four hands.“) All the same, it is Francis’s first encyclical. He did not need to release it, and yet at his word it was released and disseminated.
Light as a prominent religious motif is nothing new. After all:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (Genesis 1:1-5)
Light is a symbol representing unhidden or uncovered truth. It eliminates darkness, and reveals life as it is. The New Testament makes liberal use of the word. Jesus told parables about light. In fact, the word “light” appears 236 times in the Bible; 90 of those instances are in the New Testament alone. In 2002, Blessed Pope John Paul II modified the mysteries of the rosary (which had been essentially unchanged for 400 years) to include five optional mysteries between the Joyful and Sorrowful. These mysteries, which focus on the works and events in Christ’s ministry, he called the Luminous Mysteries (or mysteries of light). It is with this in mind that we examine Lumen Fidei, the Light of Faith.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105)
In the second chapter of the encyclical, Francis writes “The truth we seek, the truth that gives meaning to our journey through life, enlightens us whenever we are touched by love” (italics mine). Truth, according to Francis, is the very existence of God, who is love. We have faith that God (truth, love) shows us the way through life, lighting our way and providing us with focus and clarity of purpose, which is to love one another as essential and uniquely beautiful components of the Body of Christ. (This is, incidentally, as Adam points out, the precise purpose behind Catholic Majority.) “For the light of love,” Francis continues, “is born when our hearts are touched and we open ourselves to the interior presence of the beloved, who enables us to recognize his mystery.”
Christ, as God and man (the biggest mystery!), came to live, love, and enlighten, and by his death, redeem us from our sins so that we might become a new people, born spiritually from death, but inclined toward love. It is only when we have this faith in Christ, according to Francis, that we then have “the eyes needed to see him.” We then are predisposed to see that our love for one another contains a ray of the same light of God’s love for us. Francis writes that “each of us comes to the light because of love, and each of us is called to love in order to remain in the light.”
This light of faith is by no means restricted only to the spiritual plane or pertinent only in a philosophical sense. Pope Francis writes that this light also shines on the material world, trusts in the world’s “inherent order,” illumines the “gaze of science,” and lights “the path of all those who seek God.” This light calls all of us (scientists included) to “an ever widening path of harmony and understanding.” Francis paints a beautiful picture by way of example, referring to the light of the star that led the magi to Bethlehem, where they beheld the Lord. Stars are “a sign of God’s patience” with our human eyes, recognizing their need “grow accustomed to his brightness.”
This respect on God’s part for our human eyes shows us that when we draw near to God, our human lights are not dissolved in the immensity of his light, as a star is engulfed by the dawn, but shine all the more brightly the closer they approach the primordial fire, like a mirror which reflects light (page 46).
In Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis has tied together the rich history of all humankind with the symbol of light, and has illuminated the proper way of evangelization of people. From the recognition of ancient cultures’ worship of the sun, to Jesus Christ, “who is light from light, the only begotten Son of the Father” through whom we “come to know God and can thus kindle in others the desire to draw near to him.” Francis also affirms that the light of faith points us toward care for the environment, as it helps us find in nature “a grammar written by the hand of God and a dwelling place entrusted to our protection and care.”
But what of darkness? Francis does not ignore the darkness in our lives. Rather, he paints a picture of hope wherein the light of faith, while not “scatter[ing] all our darkness,” acts as “a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey.”
May the light of Christ guide your journey today and always.