10 Lumen Gentium – Rector’s Conference for the Year of Faith, 2012

We are a people living in the middle of the Church. What does that mean? For many in our secularizing culture today, the Church and Church membership are, at best, peripheral ideals. Many people belong to a church community. Many Catholics are nominal members of our Church. Statistics tell us that there are more ex-Catholics than there are members of any other mainline denomination.

For many within the Catholic Church, approaching a document such as Lumen Gentium is an opportunity to find out additional information about the constituency of the Church to which they belong. They approach the document as anything else in life, to take it up or to put it down, or perhaps more insidiously to partly take it up and partly put it down, according to how well it fulfills their individual needs.

The approach is illegitimate. What we find in Lumen Gentium is nothing less than a ground plan for our existence. The Church is not merely a part of who we are. The Church is who we are. Our need is to be conformed to its principals, its ideals. Lumen Gentium defines the Church as a constitution; therefore it defines her followers in a constitutive way. What is the Church? Who are we? In today’s world, these are critical questions.

The document begins with a thorough consideration of the mystery of the Church and the Church as mystery. It also begins with an important evangelical assertion, something that should be of primary interest to us in the age of the new evangelization.

This Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, (1) to bring the light of Christ to all people, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church. (LG, 1)

The message of universality is a difficult one to swallow in our day. We live in a time in which universality is misunderstood. We live in an age in which personal appropriations of the truth are seen as normative. But the Council asserts that “eternal Father, by a free and hidden plan of His own wisdom and goodness, created the whole world,” and furthermore, “His plan was to raise us to a participation of the divine life” (LG, 2).

This is a mighty charge in our age. We have just experienced the turmoil of a national election. The outcome of this pivotal social and political event must be viewed as something essential to our lives. And yet, in the aftermath of the election, we (I truly believe) have to ask ourselves: what does the outcome of the election have to do with the divine plan? How does the recent election act to further the evangelical mission of the Church so that we may all be raised to a participation in the divine life?

Universality is compromised in light of local concerns. If you doubt it, read the blogs. Read the comments section of news stories. Do you find the message of the Gospel there? Or if it is found there, is it not soon reduced to ridicule by the Church’s free critics? Do we live in a Christian culture or a secular culture? Are we all trying to maintain allegiances to both when (at least at some level) they may prove contradictory?

One thing I do know from the teachings of the Council: “The mystery of the Holy Church is already brought to light in the manner of its foundation” (LG, 5). This is the centrality of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. There can be no authentic life in the world that is not modeled on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Do we need to be apologetic about that assertion? I think not.

What does Lumen Gentium tell us?

The Church, “like a stranger in a foreign land, presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God” (14*), announcing the cross and death of the Lord until He comes. (84) By the power of the risen Lord it is given strength that it might, in patience and in love, overcome its sorrows and its challenges, both within itself and from without, and that it might reveal to the world, faithfully though darkly, the mystery of its Lord until, in the end, it will be manifested in full light. (LG, 8)

The split in the reality of individuals, particularly perhaps in this culture, is evident even here. We would like to say that we are immune to the cultural wars. We would like to assert that we are agents of change. To some extent, it may be true. But all of us, even the monks, are inundated in the cultural reality in which we are raised and formed. Even we find it difficult to understand those whose faith is seen as “too much” or as “too radical.” But I have a question: If the universality of the Church’s faith is ever to be truly realized, does it not demand a radical move from us?

When Jesus, who had suffered the death of the cross for mankind, had risen, He appeared as the one constituted as Lord, Christ and eternal Priest, (24) and He poured out on His disciples the Spirit promised by the Father. (25) From this source 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. While it slowly grows, the Church strains toward the completed Kingdom and, with all its strength, hopes and desires to be united in glory with its King. (LG, 5)

Moving toward that completed Kingdom must begin somewhere. I say it must begin here. And yet the cult of particularity remains. It remains in our inability to turn over our wills to the will of the almighty Father. It remains in our stubbornness, our necessity of not uniting our minds and hearts, much less our bodies, to the universal Church, but rather continuing to live in the morass of relativism.

How can it be so when so great a gift as the Church’s history, mission and not to mention the very Body of Christ, has been entrusted to our care? If we expect to ever be effective evangelists for the Kingdom, then we must fully examine ourselves and see what in our spiritual personalities needs to be retained and what needs to be sacrificed on the altar.

Lumen Gentium, in a way quite potent, asks us to consider this unity in the context of universalism and in the context of diversity. The constitution points to three images of the Church that give us insight into the way to this new universalism. The first is the sheepfold. The Church, we are told, is a flock. That also applies here. We look to the unity found in the True Shepherd, that is Jesus Christ, but we acknowledge the individualism of the sheep. And yet, under the guidance of the Shepherd, we are one flock, gathered into unity.

The Church is also seen as God’s field. “That land, like a choice vineyard, has been planted by the heavenly Gardener” (LG, 6). That field, although composed of unique trees, has a communal identity, a common understanding of itself because of the farmer.

Finally, the Church is called God’s building. Made up of many stones, each stone uniquely placed and shaped, it is nevertheless a common edifice. We make up a common edifice.

This edifice has many names to describe it: the house of God (37) in which dwells His family; the household of God in the Spirit; (38) the dwelling place of God among men; (39) and, especially, the holy temple. This Temple, symbolized in places of worship built out of stone, is praised by the Holy Fathers and, not without reason, is compared in the liturgy to the Holy City, the New Jerusalem (5*). As living stones we here on earth are built into it. (40) John contemplates this holy city coming down from heaven at the renewal of the world as a bride made ready and adorned for her husband (LG, 6).

All of these images of the Church point to the same reality: We can be truly unique and, at the same time, primarily understood as part of a whole. We see that here, of course. One of the mainstays of our formation philosophy is the cultivation of each one here as a unique personality. Then, in that uniqueness, we seek the mortar that makes us the common edifice; our individualism, then, is not the mark of our personhood, but our means of gaining access to the larger reality of the others.

In some houses of formation, there is a project to make each one into a representation of something ideal. In looking like some ideal of the priest, uniqueness is sacrificed. Here we seek to bond the uniqueness of each one with a common purpose of building the edifice, planting the field and gathering the flock. This seems to be the distinctive vision of the Church found in Lumen Gentium.

As all the members of the human body, though they are many, form one body, so also are the faithful in Christ. (56) Also, in the building up of Christ’s Body various members and functions have their part to play. There is only one Spirit who, according to His own richness and the needs of the ministries, gives His different gifts for the welfare of the Church. (57) (LG, 7).

In the Church, we also experience the fullness of the central mystery of Christianity, the mystery of the Incarnation. We find in the Church the curious admixture that stands at the crux of our ecclesial self-understanding. Just as Christ shared in humanity and divinity, so in his body the Church shares the same.

The Church is human and divine, as Christ is human and divine. Yet, unlike Christ, the Church shares an essential element of our humanity, simul justus et peccator, at the same time, justified and sinful. It becomes, then, the central image of the Church in Vatican II, a pilgrim Church, a Church on the way. The Church is already chosen by Christ; now we are called in the moment of having been chosen to live up to what we have received.

Already the final age of the world has come upon us (242) and the renovation of the world is irrevocably decreed and is already anticipated in some kind of a real way; for the Church already on this earth is signed with a sanctity which is real although imperfect. However, until there shall be new heavens and a new earth in which justice dwells, (243) the pilgrim Church in her sacraments and institutions, which pertain to this present time, has the appearance of this world which is passing and she herself dwells among creatures who groan and travail in pain until now and await the revelation of the sons of God. (244)  (LG, 48)

Lumen Gentium begins with a rather bold assertion. Reversing the hierarchical initiatives of the usual modality of ecclesiology for the time, the document imposes a new model of Church at the onset. It is the image of the People of God. The document tells us:

Christ instituted this new covenant, the new testament, that is to say, in His Blood, (87) calling together a people made up of Jew and gentile, making them one, not according to the flesh but in the Spirit. This was to be the new People of God. (LG, 9)

What does this powerful image of the Church have to say about our life here? I think it says that we are called to realize, yet again, that this is not about me. We are called to suspend our judgments about how things are or should be in order to make ourselves available for the corporate, for the common good. We talk the talk of counter-culturalism, but if we wish to walk the walk, we might begin by realizing this ideal of the people of God.

It calls me to love my brothers, not superficially and not in name, but in the very faults that in the natural order make them unlovable.

Realizing the People of God calls me to realize the beauty, the profound beauty of brokenness, not only in the other but in myself. Our brokenness unites us to the reality of the crucified Lord, who engaged the brokenness of body and spirit to achieve the glory of the resurrection. While there is no virtue in being slumlords of our own debilitated real estate, there is no shame in recognizing my need to get better, and then getting better.

It calls me to accept in peace my sinfulness in the full knowledge of my reconciliation in Christ. Those who have never experienced the power of God’s forgiveness can hardly expect to be effective proclaimers of that forgiveness in the sacrament.

It calls me to see in others, not what commonly places them in the forefront, but what, behind the scenes, they offer to humanity.

It calls me to realize that the good of the priesthood does not consist in dramatic and heroic acts, but in heroically supporting the ordinary, the daily, the commonplace. The priesthood, in this sense, calls me to find drama in the lives of shut-ins, to find excitement in the forgotten, to find meaning in what everything in the world asserts as meaningless. Then, I am a hero.

It calls me to sacrifice, really sacrifice, myself for the good of the whole. How can I do this in a world that insists on a scrupulous care for my own values, my own ideals, my own views, as the only thing that can be right?

I cannot truly offer myself in that way, that is in the way of Christ, until I turn my back on secularism, on an overindulgence of technology, on a unhealthy attention to my physical desires, on a destructive path that leads to the denigration, not of my body, but of the temple of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the true tabernacle.

The Church, indeed the whole world, is calling for us, pleading with us, to become involved in an eschatological drama. There is no room in this endeavor for half-heartedness, or preciousness, or guile. This is an intensely human pursuit, one that is critical for the future of humankind. And it is an intensely divine pursuit. That is, it is a pursuit for Christ who is the origin and center of all that we are.

In chapter three of Lumen Gentium, we find the fully counter-cultural assertion boldly laid out for us that: The Church is hierarchical. How can it be so in a fully egalitarian social order? The problem of this thought in American culture is we do not observe hierarchy. We do not believe that there are some who, by their office and not their personality, are called to serve through leadership. We do not believe that Christ, the eternal pastor, “willed that the bishops should be the shepherds of his Church until the end of the world.” (LG, 18)

Rather than offering willing obedience, we reserve judgment, waiting to see if a bishop will meet my criteria for success, and that criterion is, of course, agreeing with me. Could the holy apostles have passed that scrutiny? Could any pastor? Christ is the head. He speaks through the apostles, the bishops. The bishops, with priests and deacons, take this ministry to the community, presiding in God’s place over the flock of which they are the pastors, as teachers of doctrine, priests for sacred worship and ministers of government (LG, 20).

We are informed, in a radical way, that Christ Himself is present in the midst of believers in the person of the bishop, assisted by the priest (LG, 21). The documents of Vatican II explore the many varied relationships between bishops and priests and the clergy and the laity in many places. Three documents are given completely to the priesthood. The Second Vatican Council opened the way for a new understanding of the diaconate as more than a transitional ministry, but as a permanent vocation in the Church. Bishops, priests and deacons. These clerical distinctions are essential to understanding the nature of the Church.

Lumen Gentium also deals fully with the ideals of the priesthood in this context. “In virtue of their sacred ordination and of their common mission, all priests are united together in the bonds of intimate brotherhood.” (LG, 28) This is a bold assertion, particularly in a time when so many presbyterates are fragmented by various ideological battles. I often state that when charity breaks down in ideological pursuits, then the pursuit is unworthy. Likewise in the priesthood.

Lumen Gentium tells us we are united as fathers in Christ. We become examples for the flock, and “we should preside over and serve the local community in such a way that we may deserve the name.” (LG, 28) There is no ideological pursuit worth maintaining when charity is destroyed, particularly between those whom Christ has called to be examples of his charity to the world.

Because the human race today is joining more and more into a civic, economic and social unity, it is that much the more necessary that priests, by combined effort and aid, under the leadership of the bishops and the Supreme Pontiff, wipe out every kind of separateness, so that the whole human race may be brought into the unity of the family of God.

Unity must begin at home. And, I might add, it must begin here. If you are here to break down the bonds of communion in this community by the pursuit of esoteric ideological concerns, you have no place here. You have no place in Christ’s priestly service if you are only a minister of division. Lumen Gentium goes on to explore how the Church is constituted, the role of clergy, and laity, the faithful, the role of married couples, the role of sanctification in the world.

Lumen Gentium calls all of us, no matter our place in the Church, for one thing and one thing only – witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are called to be witnesses to the Gospel, not as a sideline, not in good times, not in bad times. We are called to be witnesses to the Gospel at all times, with every fiber of our being, with ever crumb of our subsistence, with every aspect of our talents.

We are called to represent Christ in a world, a secularizing world, that I believe is desperate, indeed is dying, to hear Good News. Brothers and sisters, we can only make sense of what we do here if we believe that. But if we believe that, if we believe that with every fiber of our being, then we are well on the way to transforming the entirety of creation.

We recently celebrated the Solemnity of All Saints. In my homily on that day, I said this:

And each day as we gather in prayer, as we pause in our rooms, as we catch our reflections in the mirrors, as we take a walk in these waning days filled with browning grass and burning leaves and gentle chills.

They walk with us.

They pray with us.

They sing songs with us.

They ask us to be with them.

This last line, I will repeat. They ask us to be with them in a common mission, a common purpose, a common telos. Brothers and sisters, this is the Church we engage. This is the only vocation to which we can truly aspire. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church ends with a consideration of Our Lady. She is extolled as mother of the Church and rightly so.

Just as the Mother of Jesus, glorified in body and soul in heaven, is the image and beginning of the Church as it is to be perfected is the world to come, so too does she shine forth on earth, until the day of the Lord shall come, (304) as a sign of sure hope and solace to the people of God during its sojourn on earth. (LG, 68)

Our Lady, the mother of the Church, teaches us everything we need to know. Obey God. Follow his plan. Leave no room for your own map of the universe. Aim patiently, but firmly, toward the eternal city of God, the new Jerusalem.

She is first among us but always one of us.

She leads the way.

We follow her path.

Some will insist that there is an aspect of this talk that is roundabout, that is contradictory, that is convoluted. Welcome to the wildness of the Church. It is a wildness brought about in the source of her life, the Incarnation, an ideal balancing on the edge of a sharp ideological knife.

There is a wildness in the Church.

A wildness that rushes in upon our classes and our conferences, our ministries, our time of study and recreation.

A wildness that invades our bones like the thrill of a quickening autumn wind.

This same wildness calls its ministers to a kind of wildness. It is not the wildness of normlessness, but the wildness of possibility, of constantly realizing that there is more here than meets the eye. It is the wildness of mystery and the openness to mystery. If we are not open to possibility, to mystery, to unfolding, then we have already created the space in life, the narrow space, for an observance of faith that borders on idolatry.

If we wish to live idolatrous lives, please walk away. If you can sustain in your hearts the adventure of faith so desperately needed in our world, you have arrived. Let us begin. In that sense we, as Church, can truly be the light of the nations.

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