THE first words of Sovereign Pontiff Francis’ encyclical, which is addressed to bishops, priests and deacons, men and women religious, and all the lay faithful, are dazzlingly luminous. They announce the underlying doctrinal programme of this new pastoral practice, this way of exercising the Petrine ministry that consists in resounding, eloquent acts intended to launch a reconquest. These acts, however, are supported by a Franciscan doctrine drawn from St. Bonaventura and then from Duns Scotus, a disciple of St. Francis, the Poverello of Assisi . It is a happening !
“ 1. The light of Faith (Lumen Fidei) : this is how the Church’s tradition speaks of the great gift brought by Jesus. In John’s Gospel, Christ says of Himself : ‘ I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in Me may not remain in darkness ’(Jn 12 :46). Saint Paul uses the same image : God Who said ‘ Let light shine out of darkness ’[God the Creator at the beginning of the history of the world], has shone in our hearts ’(2 Co 4 :6). The pagan world, which hungered for light, had seen the growth of the cult of the sun god, Sol Invictus [unvanquished, because it seems to be vanquished every evening but it reawakens every morning], invoked each day at sunrise. Yet though the sun was born anew each morning, it was clearly incapable of casting its light on all of human existence. The sun does not illumine all reality ; its rays cannot penetrate to the shadow of death, the place where men’s eyes are closed to its light. ‘ No one, ’ Saint Justin Martyr writes,‘ has ever been ready to die for his faith in the sun. ’ Conscious of the immense horizon which their faith opened before them, Christians invoked Jesus as the true sun ‘ whose rays bestow life ’[Tertullian]. To Martha, weeping for the death of her brother Lazarus, Jesus said : ‘ Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God ? ’ (Jn 11 :40). Those who believe, see ; they see with a light that illumines their entire journey, for it comes from the risen Christ, the morning star that never sets. ”
“ Those who believe, see ” : this formula summarises St. Bonaventura’s whole Franciscan philosophy. It constitutes an official acknowledgment by the Magisterium of what our Father wrote in his series on mystical aesthetics in February 1978, a few months before John Paul I’s accession (cf. CCR no. 106, December 1978) .
“ Faith has been too strongly opposed to vision, just as feeling has to intelligence. ” This impersonal structure conceals Cartesian, idealist and Kantian rationalism.
“ Are we to believe that what we know through the senses is unworthy of the spirit or that what the mind conceives is not to be found in the sensible world ? Is it true that what is seen can no longer be the object of faith simply because it is seen and that what is believed could not at the same time be both seen and believed ? ” How many times have I heard this same old story about the Holy Shroud : “ I do not need to see in order to believe. ” These people thus opposed faith to the sensible proof of Christ’s death and resurrection, a proof provided by the images and chemical tests attesting the presence of Jesus’ Blood on a fabric that can even be touched. This creates a separation between the realm of faith and the realm of science.
“ Such simplism is aberrant and pernicious for it is through the intelligence that sensible knowledge attains its object profoundly, and conversely without apprehending the sensible object the intelligence would be quite incapable of saying anything. ” On the contrary, Kant, who was dear to John Paul II and Benedict XVI, attributes to our mind a priori categories that are independent from the senses and phenomena :
“ Again it is by faith that the witness enters into a profound understanding of what he sees and he witnesses to what he sees and believes, thus enabling anyone who is willing to hear him to see, believe and share in the same vision.
“ Thus the vision of faith occupies the whole span and executes the whole movement that goes from the sight of things here below to the total and beautifying vision of these things in God, in life eternal. We have banished the object of faith, the divine mystery, the Christian mysteries from our known world, from our sensible universe and we are amazed that we should have reaped modern incredulity ! ” It was unavoidable since the realm of faith was separated from the realm of the sensible and intelligent knowledge of the universe.
“ For having said that God is neither this nor that, and that Christ is neither here nor there, we have made them totally inaccessible ; they have become unknowable, hence unbelievable and fantastic. ”
On the eve of John Paul II’s pontificate, Fr. de Nantes wrote : “ We must testify to the contrary. ” Twenty years later, during our pilgrimage to Turin, for the centenary of the revelation of the Holy Shroud by photography, he said in the Basilica Mary Help of Christians where he had been invited to speak : “ I want to see ; I believe and I want to see. ” He thus enabled our one thousand pilgrims to ‘ see ’ “ that God is everywhere and allows Himself to be seen in His creation ; that Christ is present and acting in His continued work of redemption, down to us. Therefore, what we believe is precisely what we see, that is, what we contemplate in the visible world is the invisible revealed to the eyes of those who open themselves to the light... ” When I look at my crucifix, I contemplate the mystery of the Redemption… ‘ with my eyes,’ as St. Bernadette used to say.
“ For though Christ on one occasion said to St. Thomas : ‘ Blessed are those who believe without seeing ’( Jn 20 :29), the entire Gospel proclaims that He allowed Himself to be seen, heard and grasped by all who believed in Him. ‘ We beheld His Glory ’ testifies St. John in his prologue, ‘ The Glory of the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth ’(1 :14).
“ Before even believing, before even being Christian, the mystery is there before us, captivating. ” Such is the affirmation ‘ of principle ’ of this encyclical.
“ It is the created world ; it is the fact of Jesus Christ, the history of the Church, the lives, examples and words of the saints… This whole paean of beauty assails our senses, touches our minds and invades our hearts with a powerful, incomparable, limitless aesthetic feeling and it brings with it a sense of decisive meaning laden with mystery.
“ God wishes to be and must be recognised as already present in this beauty, as already given for His people to behold in the Old Testament, even more clearly in the New Testament and in the times of the Church, although His total manifestation is reserved for the end of time.
“ Christ came ‘ to help men to see in order that they might believe. ’ In the words of the Evangelists, the object of faith has become so visible that to refuse to believe in the presence of such signs is necessarily to harden one’s heart. ” This is what Pope Francis is going to explain : love comes first.
“ Faith in its turn ‘ enables one to see and know ’ in an ‘ authentic Christian knowledge, science and wisdom, ’ ” of which our modern science itself is the fruit.
“ Faith engenders knowledge and knowledge engenders faith. The knowledge of faith does not seek to stabilise itself in a certitude of another order, in some rational systematisation, for example. Its sort of certitude develops according to its particular movement leading from the vision of the viator [that enlightens our way in this world] here below to the comprehensive vision in Heaven. ”This is “ the only aim of all our works ”, as little Thérèse – who is dear to Pope Francis – said.
Here is an example of the principle according to which believing makes one see more deeply as it might be applied by someone from the province of Champagne in France :
“ Let us develop the poem of the vine. Here it is all purple and gold of a joyous vine-harvest. How beautiful the vine is ! How much more is it appreciated by him who planted it, than it would be by the aesthete or by the tourist. The vinegrower regards the grapes not as they appear on the table but for the good wine they will give. He admires the hidden, subtle but wonderful harmony between this soil, this vine plant, the colour of these vine branches and the taste of the wine they foretell. All this beauty and goodness hold together. If the poem of our vine ended here, it would be short. When we think of the abundant wine then the poem springs to life again. ‘ Wine and music rejoice the heart : but the love of wisdom is above them both ! ’ (Si 40 :20.) That is a sacred word. Wine is joyous and its exhilaration is holy. For the man who is tired or chilled, the savour, the perfume, colour and delicate sugars, in fact the overall beauty of the wine, has a saving effect. Wine speaks to us of fraternal banquets, where its light sparkles from decanters and its vapours are an aid to joy, laughter, song and perhaps reconciliations.
“ Suddenly under the inspiration of my faith, my poem takes off and rises towards mystical peaks whilst my senses are still captivated by the golden presence of this particular vine. I think of the Wedding Feast of Cana when the miraculous wine flowed to the great joy of bride and bridegroom. Pressing still more out of the inner, mystical meaning of this miracle, I admire how the water changed into wine manifests the nobility of the wine in the soul of my Friend and then the much greater mystery of the wine changed into His Blood on the day of His mystical marriage with us His Church. Oh Precious Blood of My Beloved in the chalice, how You resemble this wine of our vine and how You express Yourself in its very qualities, which You make Your own, in order that I may taste and find it good, as You truly are, and exhilarating, You Who make the womb of virgins germinate and give eloquence to our tongues !
“ Thus throughout the length of the contemplative life, the Christian mystical poem is composed and recomposed. The gross, boisterous myths of Bacchus, Venus and Prosperine have long since disappeared, totally vanquished ; the Christian Revelation, in truth, remains the sole grammar, the only key, the ground of all the world’s beauty and goodness… ” The Pope precisely uses the word ‘ grammar ’ written by God to designate the “ nature ” that He created “ as a gift for which we are all indebted. ” (no. 5 ).
“ Looking up at the famous window in Troyes Cathedral, Fr. de Nantes continues, in the midst of the champagne vine country, I admire what I see : Christ, in the wine press of the Cross, pouring out His Blood as a new and eternal wine into the chalice of Holy Mass and in my exaltation I murmur the verse from the immortal Canticle : ‘ Your breasts are better than wine. ’ Wine is a very good and beautiful thing yet the Sulamitess prefers to it the Blood that runs from the wound in the side of her Spouse, from which she is purified and lovingly slakes her thirst !
“ The evening could still find us there contemplating this vine, our ears full of the word of Him Who is eternal Wisdom and Splendour of the Father, Who said : ‘ I am the vine, you are the branches and My Father is the husbandman.’ Looking at the vine, I see the vision of Christ !
“ For those who know how to have access in Christ to the vision of God’s Glory radiating from the heart of created beings still clothed in their original beauty, everything is a universal and divine poem. Each one constructs his own poem, and his poem will reflect what he sees and what he sees depends on the depth of his faith – an ardent living faith. In the end that is what Mysticism really is : the aesthetic impression and expression of a Christian faith lived intensely. ” (Georges de Nantes, CCR no. 106, December 1978, p. 20)
A LIGHT TO BE RECOVERED.
Let us come back to Pope Francis : “ There is an urgent need, then, to see once again that faith is a light, for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim. The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source : in a word, it must come from God. Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love that precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives. ”(no. 4)
We find the same thought in Fr. de Nantes’ writings, for example in the Letter to My Friends, no. 222 of February 1966 : “ Yes, dear friend, God exists, not because I wish it to be so, I think so, I demonstrate it from my knowledge of His works, and from my awareness of order or the good of things. God is, before all things, before my frail coming into existence. When I come into the world, You are already there, o my God, most certainly, most necessarily ! We only come afterwards, much later, and as a consequence of Your almighty and good Being. ”
According to the Pope, this sudden engendering of faith is born of“ a love that precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives. Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see ; we realise that it contains a great promise of fulfilment, and that a vision of the future opens up before us. Faith, received from God as a supernatural gift, becomes a light for our way, guiding our journey through time. ”
“ On the one hand, it is a light coming from the past, the light of the foundational memory of the life of Jesus that revealed His perfectly trustworthy love, a love capable of triumphing over death. Yet since Christ has risen and draws us beyond death, faith is also a light coming from the future and opening before us vast horizons that guide us beyond our isolated selves towards the breadth of communion.
The communion of saints, in order “ to build ” : edificare !
“ We come to see that faith does not dwell in shadow and gloom ; it is a light for our darkness. It is this light of faith that I would now like to consider, so that it can grow and enlighten the present, becoming a star to brighten the horizon of our journey at a time when mankind is particularly in need of light. ”
Here the Pope recalls the mission that Jesus entrusted to Peter : confessare !
“ 5. Christ, on the eve of His Passion, assured Peter : ‘ I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail ’(Lk 22 :32). He then told him to strengthen his brethren in that same faith. ”
Yes, but… ‘ Once you have turned back ’ ! St. Peter began by denying his Master. Likewise, we saw Peter momentarily cease to strengthen his brethren ; yet, by handing the sovereign pontificate over to Pope Francis, Benedict XVI did not fail in his office. From Benedict XVI to Francis, the words of Jesus continue to come true :
“ Conscious of the duty entrusted to the Successor of Peter, Benedict XVI proclaimed the present Year of Faith, a time of grace that is helping us to sense the great joy of believing and to renew our wonder at the vast horizons that faith opens up, so as then to profess that faith in its unity and integrity, faithful to the memory of the Lord and sustained by His presence and by the working of the Holy Spirit. The conviction born of a faith that brings grandeur and fulfilment to life, a faith centred on Christ and on the power of His grace, inspired the mission of the first Christians. In the Acts of the Martyrs, we read the following dialogue between the Roman prefect Rusticus and a Christian named Hierax : ‘ Where are your parents ? ’ the judge asked the martyr. ”
Pope Francis could have quoted St. Lawrence’s judge who asked him where his wealth was in order to steal it from him. The holy martyr showed him the poor.
“ ‘ Our true father is Christ, and our mother is faith in Him. ’ For those early Christians, faith, as an encounter with the living God revealed in Christ, was indeed a ‘ mother,’ for it had brought them to the light and given birth within them to divine life, a new experience and a luminous vision of existence for which they were prepared to bear public witness to the end. ”
The Pope continues by recalling that the Year of Faith began on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council : “ This is itself a clear indication that Vatican II was a Council on faith, inasmuch as it asked us to restore the primacy of God in Christ to the centre of our lives, both as a Church and as individuals. ”
The sad truth of the matter more than amply proven by Fr. de Nantes, who never received the slightest denial, is that the Second Vatican Council was a Council that ran counter to the Faith. All the more is this so because, as note no. 6 opportunely recalls, quoting Pope Paul VI, who declared at the General Audience on March 8, 1967 : “ The Council does not deal expressly with the Faith. ” Paul VI added that “ it talks about it on every page. ” The Council admittedly talked about the Faith, the better to contradict it and to place “ the cult of man without Christ ” at the centre of our life both as a Church and as individuals, according to Pope Paul VI’s own words in his Closing Address to the Council, on December 7, 1965.
“ The Church never takes faith for granted… ”
This, however, was the postulate that was ‘ taken for granted ’ in John XXIII’s Opening Address. He affirmed that since the Faith is an established fact, the objective was not to defend it against error but only to renew the way it is expressed.
“ 7. These considerations on faith – in continuity with all that the Church’s Magisterium has pronounced on this theological virtue – are meant to supplement what Benedict XVI had written in his encyclical letters on charity and hope. He himself had almost completed a first draft of an encyclical on faith. For this I am deeply grateful to him, and as his brother in Christ I make his fine work my own and add a few personal contributions. The Successor of Peter, yesterday, today and tomorrow, is always called ‘ to strengthen his brethren ’… ”
For this to be possible, however, it was necessary for Benedict XVI to resign and for Pope Francis to succeed him.
“ … In the priceless treasure of that faith which God has given as a light for humanity’s path.
“ In God’s gift of faith, a supernatural infused virtue, we realise that a great love has been offered us, a good Word has been spoken to us, and that when we welcome that Word, Jesus Christ the Word made flesh, the Holy Spirit transforms us, lights up our way to the future and enables us joyfully to advance along that way on wings of hope. Thus wonderfully interwoven, faith, hope and charity are the driving force of the Christian life as it advances towards full communion with God. Yet what is it like, this road that faith opens up before us ? What is the origin of this powerful light that brightens the journey of a successful and fruitful life ? ”