Circular Letter: Lent/Easter 2013

Vatican II & the Church: Unity in Diversity

In this Year of Faith proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI, we want to continue our mediations on the documents of Vatican II. The second major Constitution of the Council was the Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. Pope John Paul II calls this document the “key to the Council”: “The conciliar view of the Church…was meant to give the Christian community a new pulse of vitality, a renewed spirit of communion and participation. The Church in our time must increasingly resemble the family, in which no one feels marginalized or merely part of the herd” (Angelus, Oct. 22, 1995).

In this document, all the members – clerics, laity and religious alike – were given insight in their complementary roles and new impulse, that working together as one united family of faith, they might present the Gospel more effectively to the world, bringing all men to Christ, to the glory of the Triune God. Together, all the members, each according to his own state of life, are encouraged to strive for that holiness of life and union with Christ which orders all their strength, hopes and desires towards the eschatological fulfillment of the Kingdom of God and “to be united in glory with its King” (Lumen Gentium – hereafter, LG – 5).

The Constitution on the Church begins with the words, Lumen gentium—the Light of the nations. “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” (LG – 1). Apart from Christ, the Church has no meaning, no purpose. The Church exists in order to bring God to men and men to God in and through Christ, to bring all men into communion with Christ, and in Him, into communion with the Triune God and one another. It 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” (LG, 1).

The Church can be seen in many different aspects: it is the new “People of God”, chosen by the Father now not from believers of only the Jewish nation, but from all nations, and bound with the Father by a new and eternal Covenant, in Christ and through His Blood. It is “the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery” (LG, 3), having been born of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. The Church is also the temple of the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies her, thus giving “all those who believe…access through Christ in one Spirit to the Father” (LG, 4). The Holy Spirit guides the Church in the way of all truth, fills her with gifts and charisms, and leads her to her final goal, the union of God with men, that “God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). “Thus, the Church has been seen as ‘a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (cf. Eph 1:4-5, 10)” (LG, 4).

The Mystical Body of Christ: Communion

Certainly, among all the concepts of the Church, the one richest in meaning and the one most dwelt upon in the document is the Church as the Body of Christ: “By communicating His Spirit, Christ made His brothers, called together from all nations, mystically the components of His own Body” (LG, 7). Christ is the Head of His Body, the Church, and men receive His divine life and become members of His Body through the Sacraments. In Baptism we are incorporated into Christ and conformed to His death, from which we hope to share also in His Resurrection. But it is especially in the Eucharist that the members attain to full communion with their Head and one another: “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, and, in the sacrament of the Eucharistic bread, the unity of all believers who form one Body in Christ is both expressed and brought about” (LG, 3). The Council’s vision of the Church is essentially a Eucharistic vision. “Really partaking of the body of the Lord in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread, we are taken up into communion with Him and with one another. ‘Because the bread is one, we though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread’ (1 Cor 10:17)” (LG, 7). In fact, according to Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), the idea of communio – communion, though this vocabulary is not specifically used by the Council Fathers, is one of the best expressions of their view of the Church.

It is a result of the Council that the concept of communion came more and more to be the expression of the Church’s essence, communion in its different dimensions: communion with the Trinitarian God – who is Himself communion between Father, Son and the Holy Spirit – sacramental communion, and concrete communion in the episcopate and in the life of the Church. (Card. Ratzinger, Ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium)

Expressed in the idea of communion is unity in multiplicity, that is, many different members with very different gifts and ministries form one single unity in Christ through faith, and this is the Church. Each of the members, seeking to be ever more conformed to Christ, “are taken up into the mysteries of His life” (LG, 7) and grow together into a dwelling place for God. Christ gives to each of the members a share in His Spirit who “gives life to, unifies and moves through the whole body”, much like the soul which vivifies and unites the organs of the human body, coordinating the functioning of each individual part.

Divine and Human Elements of the Church

Through the Church, His Bride on earth, Christ transmits saving grace. “Christ, the one Mediator, established and continually sustains here on earth His holy Church, the community of faith, hope and charity, as an entity with visible delineation through which He communicates truth and grace to all” (LG, 8). This visible institution with hierarchical structure and the Mystical Body of Christ “form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element” (LG, 8). The Church is much like the mystery of the Incarnation: just as the humanity of Christ serves the Second Divine Person as an instrument for the salvation of men, “in a similar way, does the visible social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it, in the building up of the Body (cf. Eph 4:16)” (LG, 8). This is the Church which we profess in the Creed to be “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”, over which He gave authority to Peter and the Apostles.

“This Church,” the Council declares solemnly, “constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the Successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him” (LG, 8). “The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of [the same] faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a ‘bodily’ manner and not ‘in his heart'” (LG, 14). Though the Church recognizes many elements of sanctification and truth outside the visible structure of the Catholic Church – for example, some other Christian faiths do validly administer the Sacrament of Baptism and profess many truths of the faith, and even men without faith in God or Jesus can through natural reason find and live by the truth – nevertheless, “these elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward Catholic unity” (LG, 8). That is to say, all truth and grace come through Christ and His Church, though they are sometimes found outside the visible structures of the Church; and further, all truth and grace are ordered to bringing men into union with the visible Church on earth.

All Men Can Be Saved

The Church believes that all men who live the truth as they know it can be saved by the grace of Christ, even outside the visible structures of the Church, that is, those… who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. (LG, 16).

Nevertheless, it is difficult without the special aids we have within the Church, especially the Sacraments, to avoid being deceived by the devil or, living without explicit knowledge of God, not to end their lives in final despair. In order that all men may come to the fullness of truth and receive the full benefit of the Sacraments and the means of salvation within the Catholic Church, therefore, the Church in all of her members enjoys an essentially missionary mandate:

The Church, equipped with the gifts of its Founder and faithfully guarding His precepts of charity, humility and self-sacrifice, receives the mission to proclaim and to spread among all peoples the Kingdom of Christ and of God and to be, on earth, the initial budding forth of that Kingdom. (LG, 5)
Rather than destroying other cultures, the good in the hearts of men and in other religions and cultures is purified, elevated and perfected by the missionary work of the Church. Out of charity the Church is missionary, conscious that faith is an unmerited gift, she seeks to bring all to the fullness of truth and grace found in the Catholic Church.

The first Vatican Council began its teaching on the Church by proclaiming the infallibility and universal authority of the Papacy. Being interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war, the Council could never finish its teaching on the Church. The Second Vatican Council therefore took up this topic and laid out the various roles and duties of the other members of the Church, beginning with her pastors, the bishops, so that all, clerics and laity alike, may work more harmoniously together, each seeing and respecting the gifts and charisms of the other and in relation to the whole.

Bishops, Good Shepherds of the Flock

The bishops, after the model of the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep, “with their helpers, the priests and deacons, have taken up the service of the community, presiding in place of God over the flock, whose shepherds they are, as teachers for doctrine, priests for sacred worship, and ministers for governing” (LG, 20). As we have seen, the visible bonds which unite the members to Christ and the Church are the same faith, the same Sacraments, and the same government and communion. The bishops serve to reinforce these bonds of unity through the authority given him by Christ. Standing in the place of Christ the prophet, he professes and teaches the true faith of the Church as taught by the college of bishops under the Pope. As representative of Christ the High Priest, he offers due worship and regulates the Sacraments within his diocese, taking great care especially for the Eucharist. And with the authority given him by Christ the King, he governs the flock entrusted to him with the love of the Good Shepherd, leading, correcting and guiding in the spirit of service.

Whereas the authority of the Pope extends over the universal Church, bishops and faithful alike, bishops, as true vicars of Christ and vested with His power, exercise their authority over that part of the flock entrusted to him. “But each of them, as a member of the episcopal college and legitimate successor of the apostles, is obliged by Christ’s institution and command to be solicitous for the whole Church, and this solicitude, though it is not exercised by an act of jurisdiction, contributes greatly to the advantage of the universal Church” (LG, 23). Priests, religious and laity, for their part, owe their bishop due reverence and docility as the representative of Christ, and should pray for him as he carries out his very burdensome ministry. “The faithful must cling to their bishop, as the Church does to Christ, and Jesus Christ to the Father, so that all may be of one mind through unity, and abound to the glory of God” (LG, 27). And just as the bishops minister to the faithful, so “these in their turn should enthusiastically lend their joint assistance to their pastors and teachers. Thus in their diversity all bear witness to the wonderful unity in the Body of Christ'” (LG, 32).

The Role of the Laity

The laity, though not part of the hierarchical structure of the Church, have their own dignity and share in the mission of the Church in the temporal sphere. “Whoever they are they are called upon, as living members, to expend all their energy for the growth of the Church and its continuous sanctification, since this very energy is a gift of the Creator and a blessing of the Redeemer” (LG, 32). Through Baptism and Confirmation they are all commissioned to the lay apostolate. While priests and religious can reach those who come to Church or read certain Catholic journals, normally only the laity can reach those in the factories or offices, in the university classrooms or at the football stadium. Nourished in charity towards God and man by the Eucharist, the laity “are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth” (LG, 33).

While bishops and priests act in the name of Christ the head, through their baptismal consecration the laity also share in the three munera of Christ, priest, prophet and king, as members of His Body. In the measure that the laity are bound to Christ in faith, hope and charity, always seeking renewal through conversion and penance, they bear witness by their words and good deeds to Jesus and His Gospel message, thus sharing in the prophetic office of Christ. Now this does not mean that every lay person should be out preaching on the street corners or in the office. Though some may be called to collaborate more closely with their priests and bishops in certain ecclesiastical ministries or in the public forum, in general, however, the lay apostolate is lived out in daily life, or much more, through daily life. Husbands and wives, for example, bear witness to one another and to their children, bringing them up in the faith and giving them an example of Christian virtue. “The laity go forth as powerful proclaimers of a faith in things to be hoped for, when they courageously join to their profession of faith a life springing from faith. This evangelization, that is, this announcing of Christ by a living testimony as well as by the spoken word, takes on a specific quality and a special force in that it is carried out in the ordinary surroundings of the world” (LG, 35).

Especially in the political and social spheres, the voice of the faithful laity serves as the voice of the Church. In our culture which is becoming so deeply and aggressively secularized, Pope Benedict calls especially upon the laity to stand up for religious freedom and to represent the teaching and moral values of the Church:

The evangelization of culture is all the more important in our times, when a dictatorship of relativism threatens to obscure an unchanging truth about man’s nature, his destiny and his ultimate good. There are some who now seek to exclude religious belief from public discourse, to privatize it or even to paint it as a threat to equality and liberty…. For this reason, I appeal in particular to you, the lay faithful, in accordance with your baptismal calling and mission, not only to be examples of faith in public, but also to put the case for the promotion of faith’s wisdom and vision in the public forum. Society today needs clear voices which propose our right to live not in a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms, but in a society which works for the true welfare of its citizens… Do not be afraid to take up this service to your brothers and sisters, and to the future of your beloved country. (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, Sept 16, 2010 Glascow)

Jesus also “gives them a sharing in His priestly function of offering spiritual worship for the glory of God and the salvation of men” (LG, 34). Along with and united to the Sacrifice of the Eucharist, they can offer their own sacrifice of daily life. “For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become ‘spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’ (Pet 2:5)” (LG, 34). Wherever they adore God in “holy activity, the laity consecrate the world itself to God” (LG, 34), lifting it up from its banal pursuits and giving praise to the Creator.

The laity also share in the kingly office of Christ when they “reign over themselves” by rejecting the slavery of sin, and when they serve Christ in others, especially the poor and the needy, the sick, the lonely and the suffering. “Now Christ has communicated this royal power to His disciples that they might be constituted in royal freedom and that by true penance and a holy life they might conquer the reign of sin in themselves. Further, He has shared this power so that serving Christ in their fellow men they might by humility and patience lead their brethren to that King for whom to serve is to reign” (LG, 36).

Holiness And the Blessed Virgin Mary

Because they are consecrated to the service of God and the Church, all the faithful, not only the Bishops, priests, and religious, are called to strive for holiness, the perfection of charity in accordance with their state of life. “Indeed, they have the obligation to so strive” (LG, 42). What is holiness? It is listening to God and by His grace conforming oneself to His will. Holiness is making room for God in our lives and making use of the Sacraments and all the means of drawing nearer to Him; it is dedicating ourselves to His service and the building up His kingdom here on earth. With each individual who strives for holiness and the perfection of Christian virtue, the whole Church moves forward towards her eschatological end, where the Body of Christ will be the dwelling place for God in the world, where God will be all in all.

The Church has already reached the perfection of holiness in her “preeminent and singular member”, the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Council, by including a chapter on Mary in the document on the Church, in a certain sense identifies her with the Church. Embracing the Cross, Mary became the Mother of souls and the Mother of the Church. At the same time, as virgin and mother, Mary is also the model and type of the Church, who keeps a virginal faith in her Lord and is mother of souls. For every disciple Mary is a model for listening for the word of God and obeying, becoming the preferred dwelling place of God on earth and His obedient instrument in the work of saving souls. “Embracing God’s salvific will with a full heart and impeded by no sin, she devoted herself totally as a handmaid of the Lord to the person and work of her Son, under Him and with Him, by the grace of almighty God, serving the mystery of Redemption. Rightly therefore the holy Fathers see her as used by God not merely in a passive way, but as freely cooperating in the work of human salvation through faith and obedience” (LG, 56).

In these Lenten and Easter seasons, let us set out with Mary on the way of holiness. The Year of Faith gives us fresh impetus to see our lives with the eyes of faith, our purpose and goal in life, our special gifts and calling from God, as well as our failings and shortcomings. Each of us is called to make room for God, to purify our hearts ever more for Him, and to dedicate our whole being to His service. Let us never forget that we are the Church, that her mission is our mission. In prayer, therefore, may we walk with the holy angels along the paths God leads us, listening for His word and fulfilling by His grace the task He sets before us, to His glory and for the salvation of souls.

The texts of the Circular Letters are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without written permission.

©2021 Opus Sanctorum Angelorum Inc.