In the last couple of days, I have finally sat myself down and read through Pope Francis’ insightful and encouraging encyclical, Lumen Fidei. The seventh section informs the reader that not only is this treatise on faith meant to supplement Benedict XVI’s encyclicals on hope and love, but also that ‘…he himself had almost completed a first draft on an encyclical of faith. For this I am deeply grateful to him, and as his brother in Christ I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own.’ I.e.; the central thrust of the piece comes from the mind and heart of Benedict – this one can see clearly by comparison with Spe Salvi and Deus Caritas Est; there is the same combination of clear, calm consideration of the subject matter with a gently persuasive exhortation to re-examine and grasp the treasures that life in Christ has to offer.
Of course, one cannot determine where Benedict ends and Francis begins, and I for one am not surprised by this. I have written before that any dichotomy or opposition set up between the current and previous popes is illusory – a media construct built on misconceptions of what the Church is and teaches, and a lazy mischaracterisation of each pope for the purposes of engineering sensational headlines. The only real difference between Francis and Benedict is in their respective personalities – Francis is spontaneous and gregarious, whereas Benedict is more careful and reserved. But both, seen with unprejudiced eyes, are clearly filled with a deep love for Christ, His Church, and His world as a whole.
Anyway, what does all this have to do with Fulton Sheen? Well, I have also recently been listening to some talks (I think originally intended for catechesis) of his at the American Catholic Truth Society. Most recently, I listened to a talk on the Sacrament of Confirmation, and at the end of the lecture, he says this:
‘Because of the Sacrament of Confirmation, I have to love all mankind; because I am a priest, I have to identify myself with them. This identification you can carry over into your own life, if you keep before you the symbol of fire. Fire has two great qualities: light and heat. Light is the symbol of truth; heat is the symbol of love. Too often, we separate light and heat – we have the truth, but we have little zeal and love; the enemies have no truth, but they have zeal, and love for their cause. Confirmation would bid us to keep our truth and the love of truth together, and that’s what Our Lord meant when he said “I have come to cast fire, fire upon the earth, and what will I but that it be enkindled.” God love you.’
This image of fire, combining the light of truth and the heat of love, is a wonderful one – something to commit to memory and recall at times of strain or confusion. It also serves, I think, as a very useful symbol of the work of both Pope Francis and Benedict XVI – the two of them, each in their own manner and with their own particular style, is committed to the ideal of truth and love held together in harmony. Indeed, this is the message of the Church – that truth is real and can be known, and moreover that this truth is love. The two are bound together in God’s nature, and cannot be separated. Both Francis and Benedict, as true sons of the Church, know this, and it is at the heart of all their teaching and preaching.
The fire Fulton Sheen speaks of, the fire of the Holy Spirit, is always wishing to be enkindled and unleashed – it is only our hardness (and sometimes softness) of heart that prevents Him from flowing out through us into the world. Many of us are eager to protect the truths of the Faith, but lack the true charity that a broken world is crying out for; many of us are tender and merciful, but let our love devolve into an inclusivity that verges on indifference, and does not deliver to people the truth that can liberate them from their sins. The message of Pope Francis and Benedict XVI, is that both are needed – a fire must have light and heat, or it is no longer fire, and will not enlighten or warm anyone. But together, they can deliver the world from its sins, into happiness and holiness. To be bearers of this light and heat to a world that needs it more than ever, we ourselves need the gift of faith – the theme of Lumen Fidei. I shall therefore end here with its concluding prayer (which summarises the aspects of faith discussed in the encyclical) to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church:
Mother, help our faith!
Open our ears to hear God’s word and to recognize his voice and call.
Awaken in us a desire to follow in his footsteps, to go forth from our own land and to receive his promise.
Help us to be touched by his love, that we may touch him in faith.
Help us to entrust ourselves fully to him and to believe in his love, especially at times of trial, beneath the shadow of the cross, when our faith is called to mature.
Sow in our faith the joy of the Risen One.
Remind us that those who believe are never alone.
Teach us to see all things with the eyes of Jesus, that he may be light for our path. And may this light of faith always increase in us, until the dawn of that undying day which is Christ himself, your Son, our Lord!