Light for the People
The Church is the all-embracing context of Christian life and witness. Of all the councils held so far, the Second Vatican Council concentrated most heavily on the nature and meaning of the Church. For some, it therefore deserved to be called “The Council on the Church.” Two of its most frequently quoted documents, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, are concerned with the mystery of the Church.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the Dogmatic Constitution, also known by its Latin title, Lumen Gentium. Here the Council looked at the identity, nature and mission of the Church. In Chapter Two, three particular images of the Church are presented: the People of God, the Body of the Lord and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. What this teaches us is that the Church is not an abstraction or a mere human institution, but a relational reality in and with God. The new Body of Christ is made up of all the members of the family of faith who are blessed with gifts of the Spirit and are united as one body around the Apostles and their successors, with Christ as it head.
The Church is structured, visible and identifiable, and it has a specific mission. It carries on the unique work of Christ. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes Lumen Gentium: “The one mediator, Christ, established and ever sustains here on earth his holy Church, the community of faith, hope, and charity as a visible organization through which he communicates truth and grace to all men” (CCC 771; LG 8). Through preaching the Good News and calling people to an encounter with Christ in the sacraments, the Church welcomes all people into the fullness of the Christian life. As members of the body of Christ, renewed in the Spirit, we are a people called to share our story as witnesses of the new life we have found in Jesus and in his Church.
As a witness, the Church never tires of announcing the gift she has received from the Lord. As the Council Fathers emphasized, “The Church has received a solemn mandate of Christ to proclaim the saving truth from the apostles and to carry it out to the very ends of the earth” (LG 17).
Chapter Three of Lumen Gentium discusses the nature and role of those members of the Church who are endowed with special sacred authority and responsibility, namely the bishops and priests in communion with the Pope. However, the duty to announce the saving truth is not just the responsibility of clergy. On the contrary, the Council highlighted the universal call to holiness and the important role of every disciple of Christ in the mission of spreading the faith. The discussion accentuated the crucial and vital participation of every Catholic, through the eager dedication and gifts of the lay faithful to the mission of evangelization (Chapter Four) and the blessing to the Church that is consecrated religious life (Chapter Six).
The Council Fathers remind us that “[t]he Church, to which we are all called in Christ Jesus, and in which we acquire sanctity through the grace of God, will attain its full perfection only in the glory of heaven, when there will come the time of the restoration of all things” (LG 48). Until that time, the pilgrim Church here on earth is most faithful to our identity as the “People of God,” “Body of Christ,” and “Temple of the Holy Spirit,” when we gather for the celebration of the Mass on Sunday and when as clergy, consecrated women and men, and laity we are fulfilling our duty to live our lives in joyful witness to our faith. In this, Chapter Eight lifts up for us the Blessed Virgin Mary as our model in faith.
If you would like to reflect more on the nature of the Church and your relationship to it, I invite you to read my 2012 pastoral letter, The Church, Our Spiritual Home, which was written as we prepared for the start of our Archdiocesan Synod.