In my last Missio Dei reflection entitled Understanding and Celebrating Vatican II in the Midst of Liturgical Debate published on February 28, 2022 I reflected on Sacrosanctum Concilium, this Sacred Council, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy promulgated by Vatican II. In this reflection I would like to continue reflecting on the work and significance of Vatican II for our twenty-first century Church in exploring the dogmatic constitution of the Church entitled Lumen Gentium, Light of the Nations.
By way of succinct background, I noted in the earlier reflection on Missio Dei some basic details concerning Vatican II:
The Church’s twenty first Ecumenical Council, Vatican II, was the first Council since Vatican I convened a century earlier (1869-1870). Vatican II opened on October 11, 1962, after almost four years of preparatory work. The Council met in Saint Peter's Basilica during four time periods which each lasted between eight to twelve weeks, in the autumn months between 1962 and 1965. In the almost two millennia that preceded Vatican II, under the ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Church through its magisterium and communion of saints developed, interpreted, debated, and promulgated its sacred theology. As a culmination of explicating much of that which preceded it in context of contemporary times it not surprising that Vatican II produced sixteen major texts and 992 footnotes, comprising in total a sum of 103,014 words.
Lumen Gentium was promulgated by Pope Saint Paul VI on November 21, 1964. This dogmatic constitution has been referred to as “the keystone” of the Council’s magisterium, the Church visible as well as its inwardly divine elements:
By her relationship with Christ, the Church is a kind of sacrament or sign of intimate union with God, and of the unity of all mankind. She is also an instrument for the achievement of such union and unity. For this reason, following in the path laid out by its predecessors, this Council wishes to set forth more precisely to the faithful and to the entire world the nature and encompassing mission of the Church. The conditions of this age lend special urgency to the Church’s task of bringing all men to full union with Christ, since mankind today is joined together more closely than ever before by social, technical, and cultural bonds.
Unlike its conciliar predecessors, Vatican II sought through this major document to promulgate central tenets of Church doctrine. As such, the breadth and depth of Church tradition is articulated to the world; the mystery of the Church rooted in a Trinitarian life, as articulated by the great Church Fathers, and as footnoted attributed to Saints Augustine, Cyprian, and John of Damascus as examples of this tradition within the Church. Lumen Gentium relies heavily upon both Sacred Scripture and the magnitude of Church traditions which followed to lay out the foundation that Christ has gathered all the peoples of the earth into a new Covenant with God, as the Body of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
In essence, Lumen Gentium is a modern treatise on the entire history of Church salvation through both the divine and human Person of Jesus Christ, as we the communion of saints look to the second coming of the Lord. It cannot be emphasized enough that Lumen Gentium – while tracing and reaffirming Church tradition through the centuries – also seeks to apply these sacred traditions to the present:
This conciliar vision of the Church, faithful to the Word of God and to the most ancient tradition, 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. This requires us to grow in docility to the voice of the Spirit, in order to discern and to accept the charisms He bestows on us and to promote and make the most of the range of different ministries. Within this framework, the exercise of ecclesiastical authority is called to be increasingly distinguished by its style of service; the consecrated life is finding fresh enthusiasm, and an age of new initiative and responsibility has dawned for the laity.
We see in Lumen Gentium a conciliar proclamation of the central doctrinal, theological tenets and exposition of the subsequent history of the Church and its traditions, contained in both analysis of the Sacred Scripture as well as the writings of the Church Fathers through the long succession of the magisterium of the Church. As MacKenzie (1966) noted, it is the interplay of the traditions of the Church, expressed in her “writings transmitted in a living community, from one generation to another” that form a cornerstone of the theology of the Church. However, it is a tradition that ultimately finds its validation in the ongoing work of the Church’s magisterium, “which, however much exposed to human vagaries and mistakes in secondary matters, is preserved from going wrong in essentials by the indwelling presence of Christ’s Spirit.”
As such Lumen Gentium is a roadmap through the history of Church tradition from the apostolic age, through the post-apostolic, patristic periods and beyond. This central message as well as mission of the Church through her long history could not be stated better or more directly than it is in this rich and divinely inspired Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution, amply referencing many sources of Church tradition and exegesis:
Just as the Son was sent by the Father, so He too sent the apostles (cf. Jn. 20:21), saying: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you all days even unto the consummation of the world” (Mt. 28: 18-20). The Church has received from the apostles as a task to be discharged even to the ends of the earth this solemn mandate of Christ to proclaim the saving truth (cf. Acts 1 :8).61 Hence she makes the words of the Apostle her own: “Woe to me, if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16), and continues unceasingly to send heralds of the gospel until such time as the infant churches are fully established and can themselves carry on the work of evangelizing. For the Church is compelled by the Holy Spirit to do her part towards the full realization of the will of God, who has established Christ as the source of salvation for the whole world.
Abbott, W.M. (1966). The documents of Vatican II with notes and comments by Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox authorities. America Press, Inc.
MacKenzie, R.A.F. (1966). “Revelation.” In Abbott, W.M. The documents of Vatican II with notes and comments by Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox authorities. America Press, Inc.
All of Dr. Plaud’s Missio Dei writings and reflections can be accessed here.