Pope Paul VI promulgated the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, known by its first words Lumen Gentium (“The Light of the Nations”) on November 21, 1964 —51 years ago. What did it say?

“Christ is the Light of nations.” —First words of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964 during the Second Vatican Council

“The attempts made through the ages to extinguish the light of God, to replace it with the glare of illusion and deceit, have heralded episodes of tragic violence against mankind.” —Pope Benedict XVI, Vatican City, December 14, 2012

Many are wondering what the Church is. Is she a pretty museum? A corrupt, intrigue-filled institution needing to be purified? A “field hospital” to care for wounded sinners in need of forgiveness? Amid these questions, it seems fitting to consider what the last Ecumenical Council of the Church (the highest teaching authority of the Church), the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) had to say on the matter. At a time when the bishops of Germany are saying one thing, the bishops of Africa another, conservative Catholics one thing, liberal Catholics another, where is our unity? Perhaps we may find it in the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (“The Light of the Nations”).

Robert Moynihan

Robert Moynihan

The first chapter of Lumen Gentium is entitled “The Mystery of the Church.” The very first Latin word of the document is “Lumen,” that is, “Light.” So the first, quite simple thing we can say about this document is that it desires to shed “light” on that mystery which is the Church. The second thing we can say is that it identifies the light it wishes to shed with… Christ. (The first sentence in English actually puts Christ at the beginning, instead of the word “lumen”: “Christ is the Light of nations.”) The document then continues: “Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires… to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church.

This is the point: the Council desires “to bring the light of Christ to all men.” This “light of Christ” is… the Church herself.

These words can seem almost shocking. After all, don’t we all know of the accusations (and the realities) of sexual abuse of children by priests? The Church has come to be seen as something very different from Christ himself. Many seem to say “Christ, sure… but not the Catholic Church. No way!” That is the predicament we are in.

Still, when the Church lives her life, when she carries out her mission and ministry, when she worships and when she performs works out of love for others, she does bring light into the world — she does bring Christ to the world. We know this, in fact. This is our faith. But we have half-forgotten it as the thrust of modern history has been against this identification of Christ with the Church. So one great task of our time is to rediscover, through reflection, individual repentance and communal reform, the link between Christ and the Church, the identity of Christ with “Holy Mother Church.” We need to rediscover and proclaim this because “the Church is in Christ like a sacrament.

Lumen Gentium then spends considerable time recounting the story of salvation history. “The eternal Father, by a free and hidden plan of His own wisdom and goodness, created the whole world. His plan was to raise men to a participation of the divine life… In the present era of time the Church was constituted and, by the outpouring of the Spirit, was made manifest. At the end of time it will glor­iously achieve completion.

The document then speaks of the work of Jesus. “To carry out the will of the Father, Christ inaugurated the Kingdom of heaven on earth and revealed to us the mystery of that kingdom…

Then it links the Church to that work: “The Church, or, in other words, the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery, grows visibly through the power of God in the world… As often as the sacrifice of the cross in which Christ our Passover was sacrificed, is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried on… All men are called to this union with Christ, who is the light of the world, from whom we go forth, through whom we live, and toward whom our whole life strains.

This means that, when we work in the Church, for the Church, we are not working for a human institution, or for a set of moral principles, or to promote a certain “Christian humanism” in culture, but to “advance the kingdom of Christ,” a kingdom which offers dignity in this world and eternal life in the next to all who will receive it.

This is summed up in these astonishing words: “When the work which the Father gave the Son to do on earth was accomplished, the Holy Spirit was sent on the day of Pentecost… He is the Spirit of Life, a fountain of water springing up to life eternal. To men, dead in sin, the Father gives life through Him, until, in Christ, He brings to life their mortal bodies. The Spirit dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful, as in a temple… By the power of the Gospel He makes the Church keep the freshness of youth. Uninterruptedly He renews it and leads it to perfect union with its Spouse. The Spirit and the Bride both say to Jesus, the Lord, ‘Come!’

And it continues: “The Church is a piece of land to be cultivated, the tillage of God. On that land the ancient olive tree grows whose holy roots were the Prophets and in which the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles has been brought about and will be brought about. That land, like a choice vineyard, has been planted by the heavenly Husbandman. The true vine is Christ who gives life and the power to bear abundant fruit to the branches, that is, to us, who through the Church remain in Christ, without whom we can do nothing.

For these reasons, especially today when the Church is under ceaseless attack, we must look within to find strength so that we can make a commitment to the Church, as we would commit ourselves to defend our own mother, or Christ himself. For: “The Church… is also called ‘our mother’… The Church, while on earth it journeys in a foreign land away from the Lord, is like in exile. It seeks and experiences those things which are above, where Christ is seated at the right-hand of God, where the life of the Church is hidden with Christ in God until it appears in glory with its Spouse.

These words struck me particularly: “We learn the meaning of our terrestrial life through our faith, while we perform with hope in the future the work committed to us in this world by the Father, and thus work out our salvation.” For these reasons, let us “perform the work committed to us in this world,” a work for the unity of the Church, and for the holiness of the Church, at all times and with all our strength.

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