Today in our series on the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), we turn to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). As the focus of Vatican II was on the nature, composition, and mission of the Church, it should come as no surprise that this document on the Church would be considered the central document of the Council. As we will see over the next couple posts in this series, Lumen Gentium has largely shaped our generation’s understanding of what it means to be “Church.”
Today I want to focus on what I consider to be one of the most significant passages from Lumen Gentium, taken from paragraph 9:
“At all times and in every race, anyone who fears God and does what is right has been acceptable to him (cf. Acts 10:35). He has, however, willed to make men holy and save them, not as individuals without any bond or link between them, but rather to make them into a people who might acknowledge him and serve him in holiness.”
God does not desire to save us as isolated individuals, as if salvation were ever simply a “me and Jesus” thing. Rather, He desires to save us as His holy, beloved people (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9-10). This beautiful insight has led to “People of God” becoming one of the most popular titles or descriptions of the Church in recent decades.
Yet to modern ears “people” can sound a little generic and impersonal. Therefore, “People of God” can sound so big that our personal commitment to Christ and the irreplaceable value and contribution of the individual believer can seemingly get lost in the shuffle. That’s why I think there has been more of an emphasis in recent years on the Church as the “family of God.” It’s the same idea as the “People of God,” but in my opinion the word “family” captures the reality better for our culture, which sadly tends to think of the Church more as a bureaucracy than as a family.
The best analogy I can think of to describe our relationship to the Church is marriage. When Maureen married me, it definitely was—and is—a personal commitment. Yet, it has never been simply a “me and Leon” thing for her. Before I married her, she knew some members of my family, but she wasn’t a part of it. She was on the outside looking in. But when she married me, she didn’t just get a husband. My nephews and nieces became her nephews and nieces. My siblings became her siblings. My mother became her mother. She entered into the reality of my family. And then together with me, we have welcomed children and even a grandchild into our expanding family, which incidentally Vatican II called a “domestic Church.”
Similarly, when we are baptized, we not only become God’s children by adoption (cf. Gal. 4:4-7), but through what we call the “communion of saints,” we become part of a much larger familial reality known as the Church. We are united to our brothers and sisters in the Lord with ties that are stronger than flesh and blood–ties that will last for eternity. We are connected with those who have gone before us, but also with all our fellow Christians, with whom we share profound bonds of fraternity and solidarity. Because of the overflowing love and goodness of our supernatural family, we desire that all men and women may share this family unity with us (cf. 2 Cor. 5:14). That surely was at the heart of Christ’s prayer:
“I pray . . . that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn. 17:20-21).
So during this Year of Faith, as we seek to nourish and strengthen our faith, the Holy Father calls us to a greater awareness that our faith is necessarily ecclesial, which is Churchspeak for “familial.” The Church is not some faceless institution that gets in the way of our relationship with Christ, but rather is our home–our family–where we are always welcome, and where our faith is celebrated, lived, and shared.
Thanks be to God.
For more on the Church as “family of God,” check out the “Catholic for a Reason” series which I co-edited with Scott Hahn.