We began last week our quick survey of the major documents of the Second Vatican Council, in recognition of the fact that this ‘Year of Faith’ is also a 50th-anniversary celebration of the Council, which is the greatest Council of the Church ever to be held: over 2000 bishops attended each of the 4 autumn sessions from 1962–1965. I’m not considering the documents in the order they were published, because, as we saw last time, it was the most fundamental one — the one on Divine Revelation — that actually gave rise to the greatest debate and longest preparation. I’m considering them in the order which seems most logical. So, today, we look at the document, the ‘Constitution’ on the Church, known by its first (Latin) words, Lumen Gentium (“the light of the nations”). Here are the opening words of the document:
“Christ is the Light of nations. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church. Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission.”
The Church begins, then, by describing herself as “the” sacrament: the sign and instrument of God’s union with mankind, and mankind’s unity as a race. The Church, then, is an essential part of God’s plan; in fact, in a sense, it is His plan: the Church is the new ‘people of God,’ the incarnation of His intention to draw all people to Himself for salvation. So, those who believe in Christ cannot say, “Jesus, yes; Church, no” — it doesn’t work like that: you can’t have one without the other. The Church is the very body that transmits the faith from age to age, to bring to the Lord new disciples. Just as God established the people of Israel through the 12 sons of Jacob, so Our Lord Jesus established the new ‘people of God’ through the 12 apostles. Jesus had every intention of founding a people, the Church. It was not an accident, or a by-product. The Church is willed by God to bring His light and life to the waiting world. The ‘Mystery of the Church’ is this ‘People of God’ which is also the ‘Body of Christ’ in the world, and a ‘Pilgrim People’ en route to the destiny God intends and prepares for us in heaven.
The Council tussled with how best to describe the Catholic Church’s exact relationship to Christ’s people: in the end, she stated that, “the Church subsists in the Catholic Church governed by the Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him.” What that means is that, whilst there can be valid elements of Christianity outside the visible bounds of the Catholic Church, yet the fullness of truth can only be found inside her. This is why, when non-Catholic Christians convert to the Catholic faith and are confirmed, they are described as being “received into full communion with the Catholic Church.”
The Council spends a long time in the document examining how the hierarchy of the Church is to function — the Pope, and the Bishops in symphony, exercising the teaching authority of Christ and so shepherding the faithful. And this is important, as we need our guides, and the mainstays of our faith. We need the ‘Rock’ that is Peter’s faith, so that we are anchored, assured that we are not drifting from the teaching of Christ. But more significant, in a sense, is the wonderful chapter (4) on the laity, the lay faithful, i.e. you! There are 5000 bishops in the world, and 400,000 priests … but there are 1.2bn Catholics! Most of the Church’s work has to be done by you! — most of the praying, most of the evangelizing, most of the charity and action! The apostolate of the laity is precisely to take the faith into the world: to homes, to the workplace, to the everyday relationships and friendships of daily life. This cannot be done by the bishops and priests! — it is meant to be carried out by the lay faithful, living out their Baptism and devotion to Christ.
Another chapter of Lumen Gentium reinforces this idea, dedicated to the theme, “The Universal Call to Holiness”: each and every member of the Church, without exception, is called by God to a life of faith and charity. For it is by holiness of life, a firm unwavering commitment to Gospel Values, to the commandments, and also a humility and gentleness of soul, that the Church is built up, and more members attracted to her life.
The final chapter (ch. 8) of Lumen Gentium is a beautiful meditation on Our Blessed Lady. Her inclusion in the document on the Church expresses the fact that she is the model Christian, the model disciple, a perfect example of what it means to follow Christ. In fact, she is the ‘Mother of the Church,’ the one who from the beginning exercised a unique rôle in the life of the Church, as intended by Jesus who, from the Cross, gave her to us: “Behold, your Mother.” By her prayers and example, we know that, where she has gone, assumed into heaven, we as the Church she loves can also follow. With her, we are the beloved of God’s plan to save humanity and bring it to holy happiness.