The 50th Anniversary of Gaudium et Spes
For many of us, what makes this part of year so special is the time that we spend with family. We share many family traditions as simple as gathering to bake Christmas cookies or decorate the Christmas tree, to traveling many miles to the family homestead for a multigenerational celebration.
Family gatherings are a most appropriate way to celebrate the birth of Our Lord and Savior. At the World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis linked the beauty of family with the Christmas feast and said, “Being with you makes me think of one of the most beautiful mysteries of our Christian faith. God did not want to come into the world other than through a family. God did not want to draw near to humanity other than through a home. God did not want any other name for himself than Emmanuel. He is ‘God with us’” (Address of September 26, 2015).
These words of Pope Francis echo the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, which was promulgated 50 years ago today. Noting the profound cultural and social changes in modern times, the Council Fathers in this document sought “to shed light on the mystery of man and to cooperate in finding the solution to the outstanding problems of our time” so as to defend and lift up the dignity of the human person (10).
The Council reminds us that we are not solitary beings – “by his innermost nature man is a social being, and unless he relates himself to others he can neither live nor develop his potential” (12). Moreover, “God, who has fatherly concern for everyone, has willed that all men should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (24). Accordingly, we should care for one another while those things that are opposed to human life or otherwise violate the integrity of the human person are infamies that poison human society and are a supreme dishonor to our Creator (27).
Of the myriad human activities and relationships, the natural family plays an especially important role in society and the mission of the Church said the Council Fathers, emphasizing that God is with us in a very particular way through marriage. “For as God of old made Himself present to His people through a covenant of love and fidelity, so now the Savior of men and the Spouse of the Church comes into the lives of married Christians through the sacrament of matrimony” (48).
Family is a deeply theological construct. The Christian family in particular is a “reflection of the loving covenant uniting Christ with the Church,” manifesting to all people “Christ’s living presence in the world” (48). At the same time, said the Council, the family is “a kind of school of deeper humanity” and “the foundation of society” so that “Christians, redeeming the present time and distinguishing eternal realities from their changing expressions, should actively promote the values of marriage and the family, both by the examples of their own lives and by cooperation with other men of good will” (52).
The legacy of Gaudium et Spes for both individuals and families is this call for all lay women and men to recognize and respond to the living presence of Jesus in the world by bearing the life of Christ to a world so desperate to experience God’s mercy and love. For us Christians, the way in which we live should make real and concrete the love of Jesus.
In this Year of Mercy, during this Advent and Christmas season, we are asked in a particular way to reflect on how we can carry out this mission of love. How can the love shared in our homes extend beyond the walls of our homes, out into the world? Can we pray for families who are experiencing anguish and fear? Can we participate in a Christmas food and gift collection for families who need our help? Can we make time to go to confession together as a family and as Pope Francis loves to say, to remember to say “‘please,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ a little more often?” (General Audience of May 13, 2015).
The Council concludes Gaudium et Spes by exhorting that we generously serve and love one another, seeing Christ in those around us. By this witness, we “share with others the mystery of the heavenly Father’s love” and people will be aroused to a lively hope of the peace, joy and glory of the Lord (93). As we now experience the closeness of Jesus born into a family, sharing his love and making him more present in the world is the perfect gift to give our families and everyone we meet.