Pope Francis announced a few weeks back that his first encyclical would be “the work of four hands” – a characteristically vivid way of saying that he would be handing on and adding to the preparatory work realised by pope Benedict before he resigned.
As I began to read the text on the Vatican website, I was curious as to whether my exegetical skills would be able to tell apart the passages written by Francis from those of his predecessor. As it happens, there was not much call for the source criticism so beloved of the scripture scholars: Sandro Magister’s blog informs us that the great mass of the text is from Benedict’s pen and his style in evident throughout.
Francis tells us in the introduction that he had completed his predecessor’s work, and here and there are passages couched in a more familiar style (but Benedict, too, was not above using homely examples, so the adepts of redaktionsgeschichte should not be too confident!)
I will not try and summarise the letter; let me attempt rather to whet the readers’ appetite to tackle it themselves. The meditation on the first of the “theological virtues” is dense but accessible. Those nostalgic for the short encyclicals of pre-Wojtyła papacies will find it on the lengthy side, but perseverance brings rich rewards.
This is no mere rehashing of material commonplace from dogmatic treatises and previous magisterial teaching, but a lucid and original synthesis based on the vast erudition of the former pope. To the usual biblical reflections are added texts from theologians ranging from Justin Martyr and Augustine to Newman and the Jewish writer Martin Buber. Literature and philosophy have their contribution to make, too, with contributions from Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky and TS Eliot.
It is no small tribute to the humility of Pope Francis that he has chosen to make his own a work which owes so much to his predecessor. The reactions from the secular press seem to have picked up, above all, on the desire for continuity in teaching. The themes dear to Francis – I noticed the many references to faith as a journey, which chime in with his frequent use of the verb camminare in his homilies – are interwoven with Benedict’s panoramic vision to form a seamless whole.
Those whose interest in papal pronouncements is restricted to their treatment of sexual ethics will be disappointed. There is a chapter on the role of faith in building up the “city” of human society, in which the primordial role of marriage and the family is stressed. But the reader is left to make his or her own applications to the controversies of the day, in a manner which Francis seems to have adopted as his preferred strategy.
Above all, Francis’s hands have been at work here in handing on to us the completion of a magnificent trilogy of mediations on Faith, Hope and Charity conceived by his predecessor. The whole Church will be grateful to him, as he guides us in the years to come in deepening that legacy and making it our own.