‘Lumen Gentium’ clarified the nature, mission, of the church
by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Before Pope John XXIII could open the Second Vatican Council in 1962, he had to clear the table of a little unfinished business.
Namely, he had to officially close the First Vatican Council.
Vatican I opened on Dec. 8, 1869, and ended on Oct. 20, 1870. That’s ended — not closed.
That council was never brought to an official close because it was interrupted by two wars: the Franco-Prussian War, and the invasion of the Papal States by the Piedmontese Army.
This is significant, because one of the unfinished documents of Vatican I was a planned, 15-chapter constitution on the church. The Council Fathers only managed to finish four chapters relating to the papacy before the Piedmontese decided to make Pope Pius IX (and his successors) the “prisoner of the Vatican.”
“Both [successive pontiffs] Pope Pius XI and Pius XII pondered whether or not to call the First Vatican Council back into session or call a new council,” said Msgr. Ray Burger, now retired and living in Overland Park. “But they, too, were faced with world problems that did not permit this.”
The unfinished business of Vatican I became the finished business of Vatican II — “Lumen Gentium” (“Light of the Nations”), or the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, promulgated on Nov. 21, 1964.
“‘Lumen Gentium’ might be said to be a continuation of the ideas flowing from papal infallibility,” said Msgr. Burger, “for this document takes a close look at the church and its constituent parts.”
These parts dealt with in the document relate to the bishops, priests, religious and the laity.
The constitution also includes a chapter (its last) on the Blessed Virgin Mary. Originally it was a separate document, but for a variety of reasons ended up as part of “Lumen Gentium.”
It might seem odd that after so many centuries the church felt the need to issue an important document defining its own nature and organization, but the Council Fathers felt this was needed.
“The church was being more and more challenged by a world too affected by secular culture,” said Msgr. Burger.
So for the church to more effectively engage that culture, he said, it first had to have a strong sense of its own mission and identity, and it “must clearly delineate each church member’s role in the church.”
Msgr. Vince Krische, senior associate at Corpus Christi Parish in Lawrence, was an assistant pastor at St. Agnes Parish in Roeland Park when Vatican II closed.
“‘Lumen Gentium’ clarifies the nature and mission of the church in the world,” said Msgr. Krische. “We are not sideliners in the human condition, but we are called to active participation in sharing our gift of the Gospel, which God entrusted to us, to society.”
The document urged Catholics to take a new look at themselves as “the people of God,” and to understand that God wishes not only to save us individually, but as a people. The laity possesses a “priesthood of the faithful,” says the document, and are called to respond to the “universal call to holiness” — not just priests and religious.
“In that sense, it places a greater responsibility on Catholics,” said Msgr. Krische. “I think that’s why a lot of people are confused about the council.”
“When I was growing up in the pre-Vatican II church, the church was there for what I needed,” he continued. “It was there just to serve me, and I didn’t realize my role in the church, and that the church has called me to personal responsibility for carrying on the mission of Christ.”
One word in the document that became part of the vocabulary of the postconciliar church is “collegiality.” This completes the interrupted work of Vatican I, which only got as far as looking at the papacy.
“In Vatican II, it shows how the bishops participate in that [papal] authority,” said Msgr. Krische. “It’s not that there’s another level of authority, but they participate in papal authority. That’s why they always have to teach in union with that authority.”
“Lumen Gentium” also promoted a new, more ecumenical, perspective of other religions. Rather than repeat earlier condemnations of other faith traditions, this document expressed a different regard for the Protestants and the Reformed ecclesial communities, saying “many elements of sanctification and truth can be found outside of [the Catholic Church’s] visible structure.”
And yet, the document also states that the church founded by Christ is the “pillar and mainstay of truth,” which “subsists in the Catholic Church.”
This key word in the document — subsists — has an interesting connection to the archdiocese, said Msgr. Burger.
The noted catechist Father John Hardon, SJ, used the word “subsist” in his 1951 doctoral thesis when referring to the Catholic Church. His thesis director, Father Sebastian Tromp, SJ, would wind up on the committee for “Lumen Gentium,” and he introduced the word “subsist” into the document.
And who gave the imprimatur to Father Hardon’s thesis? It was Bishop Paul Schulte, former bishop of the Diocese of Leavenworth (now the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas).
“Lumen Gentium” had and continues to have a big impact on the church and the world, said Msgr. Krische.
“We’re a more active and dynamic church [as a result of it],” he said. “We speak more directly to the world in bringing the light of the Gospel to the issues that confront the human family. You can’t turn on the TV without some news about what the Catholic Church is saying, and in contrast to what secular society is saying.”
“I believe this constitution says there should be no division between religion and life,” he continued. “We don’t have religion and church and then our daily life. We need to see how our faith impacts our professions and whatever we do in life.”