Reflections on Lumen Gentium, Part 1


Lumen Gentium

21 November, 1964

Chapter 1


1. Christ is the Light of nations. Because this is so, 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. Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission. This it intends to do following faithfully the teaching of previous councils. The present-day conditions of the world add greater urgency to this work of the Church so that all people, joined more closely today by various social, technical and cultural ties, might also attain fuller unity in Christ

1 Cf. Mk. 16:15.


This is the opening paragraph of Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Several things strike me about it. First and foremost is the universal nature of the document. This is a document written by Catholic bishops gathered in a Council of the Catholic Church. Yet, they make it clear that the purpose of the document is to describe the nature and universal mission of the Church to the whole world. They don’t intend to limit their audience to Catholics. Rather, they intend their audience to be all of humanity.

Why? Because, as the Council Fathers say, the Church is “the light to the nations” (which is what lumen gentium means). Why is the Church the light to the nations? Because the Church is keeper of the mysteries of God (Eph 3:8-10), specifically of the good news of Jesus Christ. Christ is the light, and the Church desires to bring the light of Christ to all by proclamation of the Gospel. This mission is to the entire world, not just those who are already Catholic, who are already baptized, who already are dedicated to Christ and members of His Body. The Church possesses in the rich deposit of faith (2 Tim 1:14) the mystery of God’s plan of salvation and has been charged by God to proclaim God’s grace for our salvation to all (Mt 28:19-20; Mk 16:15).

This is why the effort to describe the nature and mission of the Church is for the benefit of the faithful and of the entire world. Because the Church is the instrument of God’s revelation and that revelation is His plan for our salvation. Because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23), all are in need of His grace for redemption. So, the mission of the Church is to all humanity.

The Council Fathers describe the Church as a sacrament. Is this the first time the Church has been identified as a sacrament? It may be, for David G. Bonagura, Jr., in a 2010 article on The Catholic Thing website, says that the image of the Church as a sacrament is “a great contribution to ecclesiology” by the Council.

What is a sacrament? Those who recall their Baltimore Catechism know that a sacrament is, “a visible sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.” That is exactly what the Church is, according to the Council Fathers. Another element of a sacrament is that it achieves what is symbolizes. The sacrament of Baptism symbolizes the washing away of sin. So it achieves the washing away of sin. The Church, as Lumen Gentium says, is a sign and instrument of communion with God and the unity of the entire human race. The Church is sign: it points to communion with God and the unity of the entire human race. The Church is instrument: it achieves communion with God and the unity of the entire human race.

Lumen Gentium, in defining the nature and mission of the Church, also makes clear why we need the Church. As sign and instrument of communion with God and the unity of the entire human race, the Church is the instrument of our salvation. Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the Church today is the presumption that we don’t need the Church, that the Church is optional in our relationship with Christ. We see this in the emphasis Evangelical Christians place on Christ as our “personal Lord and Savior,” and also in the habit, even of Catholics, to regard the teachings of the Church, even her core teachings, as merely the opinions of one source among many as regards our relationship with God. When I was in college, this was expressed in the phrase, “I’m a Catholic, but a Christian first,” as if there were some dichotomy between Christ and His Church.

But Christ Himself and St. Paul make clear that there can be no division between Christ and His Church. Christ identified Himself with His Church (Jn 15:4-5; Acts 9:4-5), and St. Paul says the Church is the Body of Christ and Christ is the Head the Church (1 Cor 12:12-27). One cannot have a relationship with Christ the Head and not have a relationship with the Church, His Body, just as one cannot have a relationship with anyone’s head without having a relationship with his body. Not only is it impossible, it’s gross!

Indeed, one’s relationship with Christ is one’s relationship with the Church. And, one’s relationship with the Church is one’s relationship with Christ. St. Paul uses the image of marriage to describe the relationship between Christ, the bridegroom, and the Church, His bride. And, what do the Scriptures say about marriage?: “the two shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24; Eph 5:31).

The Council Fathers say that the present situation makes it all the more urgent that the Church define her nature and mission, her nature as the light to the nations and her mission of bringing the light of Christ to all. People are drawn more closely together by our social, technical, and cultural bonds. This is even more true today than it was in 1964, with the advent of social media and the 24/7/365 news cycle. Within moments, people at any point on the globe are aware of events all around the globe. The world has grown smaller in this sense, and while people are more aware of events effecting others, we at the same time feel less connected, because our technologies allow us to create pseudo-relationships that exist only “online” and not in real time and space. As we lose a sense of connectedness with each other, we risk losing our communion with God.

The purpose of Lumen Gentium, then, is to describe the nature and mission of the Church to all, so that the Church may bring the light of Christ to all, so that all individually and together, may achieve full unity in Christ.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.


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