Mysterium Fidei: The Year and the Encyclical

Both Benedict and Francis must see the need to stress the basic theological virtue of trusting in God for a reason at this point in time.

November brings the Year of Faith to an end.  And what a year it was.  The Year of Faith was inaugurated by Pope Benedict XVI and his apostolic letter, Porta Fidei.  The Year of Faith comes to a close with a new Pope now named “Francis,” and an encyclical that will bear his name in perpetuity, Lumen Fidei.  With such a shift, the Holy Spirit must have known this year was going to demand a lot of faith!

But why has the Magisterium emphasized faith so much now?  Obviously, Pope Emeritus Benedict wanted to complete his trilogy on the theological virtues: Deus Caritas Est on love (December 25, 2005), Spe Salvi on hope (November 30, 2007), and now this letter (Mysterium Fidei) on faith which is officially promulgated as a work of Francis since it appears during his pontificate (June 29, 2013).  Yet, there must be something more at work than Benedict’s Teutonic thoroughness.

Both Benedict and Francis must see the need to stress the basic theological virtue of trusting in God for a reason at this point in time.  Both must see that, as the modern human continues to displace God, and God’s directives for our life on earth, we begin to fracture and fail.  Without the virtue of faith guiding our intellect and providing us with the direction our souls crave, we end up stagnant, entertaining anything we meet as a possible “savior.”  Faith unites us, not only to God in heaven, but also informs our way on earth.

We do not truly know anything until we know its purpose. We may know the name of a thing, we may even know who made it, but if we do not know what it is for, we remain ignorant of its true meaning. The great Catholic apologist, Frank Sheed, illustrates the gift of faith with a homey example of a man who chances upon a razor for the first time (cf., A Map of Life: A Simple Study of the Catholic Faith, Ignatius Press).  Quickly realizing the blade’s ability to cut, the man begins to use it to hack wood; in short time, of course, the razor is ruined, and no longer good for anything.  Sheed goes on to note that only the Christian faith can tell us what the ultimate goal of human living is and, therefore, only the Christian faith can guide human persons fully and, thus, enable their true flourishing.

In Lumen Fidei, faith’s capacity to guide us through this life rightly is explained in very Augustinian terms. This is clearly the pen of Emeritus Benedict at work, translating the central insights of his much beloved Augustine of Hippo (354-430) into very modern terms:

Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the center of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands. Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants. Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another. Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth. Those who choose not to put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: “Put your trust in me!” Faith, tied as it is to conversion, is the opposite of idolatry; it breaks with idols to turn to the living God in a personal encounter. Believing means entrusting oneself to a merciful love which always accepts and pardons, which sustains and directs our lives, and which shows its power by its ability to make straight the crooked lines of our history. Faith consists in the willingness to let ourselves be constantly transformed and renewed by God’s call. Herein lies the paradox: by constantly turning towards the Lord, we discover a sure path which liberates us from the dissolution imposed upon us by idols (Lumen Fidei §13).

This is clearly the story of Augustine’s Confessions, where the great convert relates his life’s story in terms of wrongly chasing after pleasures. In so doing, Augustine came to realize that when we love creatures wrongly, we do not love them in and for God, but as ends in themselves.  When that happens, our loves become our demons.

It is in loving things perversely as ends in themselves that our hearts become as stony and as cold as the idols we just created. Faith, on the other hand, allows us to see God dwelling in all creatures. Faith is what makes every creature an icon unto God’s care and providence, transforming every activity and encounter in our life into the means by which we are united ever more closely to our Creator forever. The gift of faith does not mean the dismissal of this world, but its consecration as a window through which the Lord shines.

With Pope Francis’ Jesuit way of seeing the world, as the place where God is “present in all things,” we shall certainly receive more of this kind of spirituality. The Jesuit “way of proceeding” is to ask for the grace to see God dwelling in every creature and, then, to ask for the gift of self-knowledge to know where God, dwelling in those creatures, is calling us.

Contrasted with the “cardinal virtues” (coming from cardo, meaning “hinge” in Greek and Latin) which we expect all fully-functioning humans to have, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity are God’s gifts to us. The cardinal virtues (which first appear systematically in Plato’s Republic) are named such because they are the powers upon which the good life hinges: temperance, justice, fortitude, and prudence.  The Greeks thus argued that if one wishes to be happy, one must have self-mastery over his or her sensual desires, courage sustaining him in times of temptation and trial, justice ordering all of his activities aright, and the wisdom needed to govern the proper estimation of things.  These, too, we expect all to have.

Yet, to some, God gives extra virtues, the theological virtues.  These are not powers innate in the human psyche, but undeserved gifts of love. All virtues lead to love, “the bond of perfection” (Col 3:14), and faith is the first step in our “personal adherence to God and assent to his truth” enabling us “to entrust oneself wholly to God, and to believe absolutely what he says.  It would be futile and false to place such faith in a creature” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §150).  Faith, therefore, binds us to God, and to his Holy Church which instructs and raises up her children.

The letter that began the Year of Faith, Porta Fidei, ends with some beautiful lists of practical recommendations on how the Christian faith can better be lived out. Every pastor, priest, director of religious education, and teacher should be familiar with these. The final recommendation teaches that:

All of the faithful, called to renew the gift of faith, should try to communicate their own experience and charity to their brothers and sisters of other religions, with those who do not believe, and with those who are just indifferent.  In this way, it is hoped that the entire Christian people will begin a kind of mission toward those with whom they live and work, knowing that they “have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man” (Recommendation IV.9).

In God’s incessant humility, he has chosen to rely on each of us to invite others to receive these virtues, beginning with the gift of faith. The faith we have been given is manifested through love, and what could be more loving than evangelizing and sharing the Christ-life with all of those God has placed in our everyday lives?  Christ continues to bless his Church with wise leaders, and we should be thankful to Benedict for his theological vision, and to Francis for the way he is calling so many to live out their faith anew.  Faith is the first gift of the saints, the initial invite for each of us to trust the Lord Jesus Christ with our lives, and with all our loves.


David Vincent Meconi About David Vincent Meconi

David Meconi served as editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review from 2010 to 2022.


  1. This is a helpful synthesis! I never really understood the difference between the theological & cardinal virtues before.

  2. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    “The Greeks thus argued that if one wishes to be happy, one must have self-mastery over his or her sensual desires, courage sustaining him in times of temptation and trial, justice ordering all of his activities aright, and the wisdom needed to govern the proper estimation of things. These, too, we expect all to have.” This Greek notion has dominated Christianity. May it be possible that the Chinese and other cultural and philosophical synthesis will put less stress on self-mastery over and more emphasis on bringing into harmony all that makes us human?


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