Michael Kelly: Pope reaches out beyond the fold but no break with past
The first encyclical of Pope Francis offers a deeper insight into his papal priorities, and it's a mixture of reaching out in dialogue to non-believers, serving the vulnerable and asserting traditional Catholic values. At the same time, there is an urgent appeal for secularised societies to return to faith. "Once the flame of faith dies out," the Pope predicts, "all other lights begin to dim."
'Lumen Fidei' (Light of Faith), which was published yesterday at the Vatican, is unique as far as Pontifical teaching documents go. It is being described as a letter "written with four hands", a reference to the fact that the 84-page text was begun by his predecessor Benedict XVI and completed by the Argentine Pontiff.
It's being seen as a sign of Francis's respect for Benedict that he completed the document; normally a new Pope sets aside anything his predecessor was working on.
It's also clear that, while there is an obvious difference in style and approach between both Popes, there will be more continuity with the past than some observers believed, or perhaps wanted to believe.
Religious faith, Pope Francis insists, is not something that believers can relegate to their private lives, nor can it be deaf to the needs of the vulnerable.
Catholicism, he insists, must always be open to dialogue with the world around it and with non-believers.
But this does not lead to the church compromising or making its teaching more palatable to a sceptical world.
Anyone who thinks Pope Francis was offering a woolly form of Catholicism will be disappointed.
Catholicism, he writes, "must be professed in all its purity and integrity".
Denying one part of the faith, he writes, even "those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole".
The document is a tour de force of philosophy, literature and the arts. The pages are laced with references to the atheist thinker Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the inspiration of the French Revolution, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky and the great medieval architects of Europe. There are quotations from poets like TS Eliot as well as great religious thinkers.
Francis presents faith as a journey, even a pilgrimage, of self-discovery.
In relationship with the Divine, he writes, men and women find the deepest meaning of their lives and this allows them to reach out to others in charity and love.
Belief, he says, "does not draw us away from the world or prove irrelevant to the concrete concerns of the men and women of our times".
The Pontiff also sees the traditional family as a cornerstone of a just society. Referring to the family as an institution based "on the stable union of man and woman in marriage", he reasserts the traditional Catholic understanding of sexuality without wading into an overtly political debate about gay marriage.
The Pope uses the classical image of light to represent faith, but doesn't shy away from the fact that many people understand Catholicism as something burdensome rather than something that brings freedom. Faith "appeared to some as an illusory light, preventing mankind from boldly setting out in quest of knowledge". But the Pontiff sees faith in the Divine as the perfect antidote to what he sees as a materialistic vision of the world.
"Our culture has lost its sense of God's tangible presence and activity in our world," Francis says before going on to tackle those who see religion as something other-worldly. Catholicism, he says, "far from divorcing us from reality", calls believers "to live our lives in this world with ever greater commitment and integrity".
Francis also says that you can't have Christ without the church. Being part of the church, he says, is "necessarily" part of being a Catholic. He also has a warning to dissenting priests and theologians, insisting they can't set themselves up against the church's teaching authority.
Those familiar with the writing of Benedict XVI will see his hands all over this document; clearly, however, the fact that Pope Francis signed it and endorsed the content gives a clearer indication that both men think more in tandem than might've been obvious up to this point.
Michael Kelly is Editor of 'The Irish Catholic' newspaper