Friday, when another priest takes the daily morning Mass, is the day I can ordinarily sleep later. On Friday, July 5, however, I got up earlier than normal at 4:45 am, showered, celebrated Mass in the rectory chapel and did my morning meditation. Then I returned to my study energized at 6 am, awoke my Mac laptop, typed www.vatican.va into my Safari browser and hoped that the Vatican was punctual in putting up as promised, at noon Rome time, Pope Francis’ first encyclical, entitled “The Light of Faith.”
I was not disappointed. As soon as I clicked on the English language tab it brought me directly to a window dedicated to the encyclical asking me whether I wanted to download it. I copied the text into a Word document, emailed it to my Kindle app on my iPad, and then downloaded it as Kindle book so that I could read it in my favorite format. I was in my comfortable chair reading at 6:04 am.
I’ve been engaging in this early morning ritual since the beginning of my priesthood, when thanks to the wonders of modern technology and the generosity of the Vatican in putting texts up for free on its website, I’ve been able to read papal encyclicals and exhortations as soon as they’re released. Since I never know ahead of time how long an encyclical will be and therefore how long it will take to read, I normally try to clear the calendar of everything except morning Mass and, when one comes in, a funeral.
Some of John Paul II’s encyclicals have taken me almost a full day to peruse. I was finished “The Light of Faith” by 7:30 am. That was the bird’s eye view, reading for the big picture of the pope’s message. Since I had anticipated I’d be reading at least through 9, I re-read the encyclical a second time focusing on the worm’s eye view, appreciating much more the individual insights and details. In the afternoon, I returned for the hat trick, this time doing a detailed outline on my Mac for use in articles, adult education sessions and upcoming retreat conferences.
I share all of these details because I think they give some evidence of the “joy of faith” that the new encyclical as well as Pope Benedict’s letter launching the Year of Faith emphasize needs to characterize Christian life. For those who love and live the Catholic faith, the day on which a Pope releases an encyclical or exhortation ought to feel a little like Christmas.
We all remember how we behaved on Christmas as youngsters. We would rise early, scamper toward the tree to discover our presents, open them up with relish and gratitude, and then proceed to spend much of the day rejoicing in our new toys and games. We ought to approach papal teaching documents with a similar childlike eagerness, faith and gratitude.
The reality is that many Catholics approach papal encyclicals, if not as coal in stockings, at least as useless and unwanted offerings. New papal documents are not even approached the way most of us receive Christmas cards, when, at least sometime during the holidays we’ll read in their entirety the notes and news our family and friends send us. The vast majority of Catholics never even open the letter sent by their holy father in faith.
My hope is that you will not let this happen with this encyclical. It’s truly worth the read. It will strengthen your faith and help you to strengthen others’. It’s a Christmas gift that will keep on giving.
I don’t want to provide a summary of the encyclical and potentially rob you of the joy of reading it yourself, but I would like to share a few thoughts that I’ve been sharing in interviews and articles since the encyclical was published.
The first is about faith and apostolic succession. In terms of promoting the encyclical’s message, it was absolutely idiotic for Pope Francis to announce the upcoming canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II on the day he published it. Everyone focused on the canonizations, almost no one on the encyclical. But at the same time, the canonizations of two of his predecessors illustrated one of the encyclical’s main points. Not only were John and John Paul real examples of the light of faith the encyclical was describing, but their canonization highlight that the living faith of the Church is passed along as a precious treasure from one pope to another.
Francis was underlining, I believe, the same truth when he dated the encyclical June 29, the feast of St. Peter, the first pope and the first to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Francis also emphasized it in saying the encyclical was written by “four hands,” his own and those of Benedict XVI, who had written an almost completed draft before his resignation.
“The assurance of continuity with the origins [of faith],” the encyclical writes, “is thus given by living persons, in a way consonant with the living faith that the Church is called to transmit.”
Francis’ decision to associate five popes — Peter, John, John Paul, Benedict and himself — with the publication of this encyclical exemplifies that living transmission perhaps better than any prose ever could.
The second thing I’d like to note is how comprehensive — and positive — the encyclical is in responding to contemporary challenges and questions about faith.
The text responds to critics who think the faith is illusory and outdated; relativists who think God and truth are irrelevant; scientific rationalists who reduce truth to technological and scientific know-how; seekers who are looking for a sure compass; Deists who think God is distant; Jews and Muslims who don’t accept Jesus as the fulfillment of all God’s promises throughout the Old Covenant; Protestants who think that Catholics believe we’re saved by works not by faith or who separate personal from ecclesial faith; catechists who reduce faith to the transmission of doctrine; public figures and others who try to separate faith from life, especially the moral life; theologians who want to prescind from faith in theology and Scripture studies; cafeteria Catholics who try to deny articles of faith they find hard to embrace; and secularists who claim that faith adds nothing to the common good.
The encyclical responds to all of these categories of challenges to faith very subtly, so subtly I didn’t even catch on to what it was doing until my third reading. Most often it doesn’t even name the challenge directly, but frames a beautiful exposition of the light of faith responding to the challenge in a way that no one will feel directly confronted, but rather invited to reexamine prior positions.
The third and last thing I will note is how much labor the encyclical takes to emphasize the role of love in faith. People can often understand faith as an arid assent to a list of truths. That’s the way, frankly, many Catholics pray the Creed, as a dry recitation. It’s also one reason why many think the faith is boring. The encyclical stresses, however, that faith is a drama of love between Someone who enters our history and experience, speaks to us, calls us to see things in the light of what he reveals, madly loves us, dies for us, and rises to show us that he is worthy of our trust. Faith is a response of love to love, and it’s in that relationship of mutual love that we come through faith to greater understanding of the content of the truths of faith, including suffering and death.
Father Roger Landry is the pastor of St. Anthony of Padua in New Bedford, MA and Executive Editor of The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, where this article first appeared.
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