Reflections on Vatican II – Light of the nations

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Reflections on Vatican II – Light of the nations

In preparation for the Jubilee Year of 2025, Pope Francis encouraged a return to the documents of Vatican II, refreshing awareness of the fruits of that Council. To encourage your own study of those documents, Fr Peter Wygnański here continues a short series of articles about the four major constitutions.

Reflecting on the Constitutions of Vatican II: 2 – Lumen Gentium and The Church.

Not One way to think about the Church is considering what life was like without one, before the good news of the Gospel was shared. Along this journey, a particular milestone stands out: Alexandria, on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, in the centuries immediately before Christ.

This great city was a cultural melting pot where, for the first time, the faith of Israel came together with Greek philosophy. Great thinkers in Athens had called pagan religions into question but had deciphered the signature of one, truly divine, God. There were those in Alexandria who, in light of these ideas from their west, recognised the wisdom contained in the ancient texts from their east, the scriptures of Israel. Here was a faith that could connect the world with the divine.

Last month’s article explored the gift of a God who speaks to us, a relationship begun in the history of Israel and the testimony of the prophets. It was a faith in which the heart heard the voice of God and the head could rationally believe in. This is why, in Alexandria, there arose this community of ‘God-fearers’, who attached themselves to the faith of Israel as best they could.

However, true worship was bound to the Temple of Jerusalem and being part of the Jewish community was as much a question of nationality as it was of faith. These ‘God-fearers’, then, lived in hope of a citizenship of God’s people which did not depend on birth, on laws, or on place, but rather on belief. The stage was set for Christ’s coming, when the ‘light of the nations’ (Lumen Gentium), shone upon the world. (§1)

Vatican II’s document on the Church rests on this idea: Christ is the light of the world, and the Church is like a sacrament, a manifestation of the closeness of God to the whole of humanity which gathers to receive that light. The Church has a hierarchy, but is so much more than a hierarchy; it has laws but is so much more than an enforcer. The Roman Catholic Church is the greatest enterprise human history has ever known, but it is so much more than that.

Jesus Christ became truly man while remaining truly God, no part of divinity or humanity is lost. In the same way that Jesus took up human nature for our salvation, the Spirit of Christ gives life to the visible structure of the Church which serves God. (§8) This is why there is no contradiction in speaking about a Church that is both institutional and spiritual, a structure and the spiritual citizenship that the ‘God-fearers’ of Alexandria longed for, and where we now make our home.

One way to think about the Church is in reference to God the Father, as the People of God. The Lord set up a covenant with the people of Israel as a preparation for gathering together all His children, for He does not save and make us holy as individuals but as one people on a shared pilgrimage to the Father’s heavenly home. (§9) We can also think of the Church in reference to God the Son, as the Mystical Body of Christ. God pours the life of Christ into believers, uniting them in a hidden and real way to Christ the head who, sharing his spirit, calls people from every nation together into mystical components of His own body. (§7)

This of course reminds us of the unity that comes from the Body of Christ in the Eucharist: 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. (§7)

Finally, we can think of the Church as the Temple of the Holy Spirit in which all believers share a royal dignity as they are sanctified through the sacraments entrusted to the Church.

In this way Lumen Gentium reminds us how all the faithful share the vocation to holiness of life, possessing in common one salvation, one hope and one undivided charity. (§32)

Even if the Church were to become small in number, it will always be a lasting beacon of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race, (§9) because God’s light shines through its members living like Christ in prayer and sanctity, particularly in service of the poor. (§8)

In this way the Church both prays and labours in order that the entire world may become the People of God, the Body of the Lord and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and that in Christ, the Head of all, all honour and glory may be rendered to the Creator and Father of the Universe. (§17)

Ptolemy II talking with Jewish scholars in Alexandria, by Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne at the Palace of Versailles. Picture from Wikipedia.