In 1959, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council. Unlike previous Church councils, this one was not convened in order to combat a heresy in the Church. Rather John XXIII believed it necessary for the Church to face the challenges of the modern world. Little did he know how challenging that modern world would become in the next few decades.
Many scholars believe that, out of all the documents produced by the Council, Lumen Gentium (Light for the Nations) is likely one of the most important. One thing to keep in mind when studying church documents such as this, is that the Church, with its 2000 year history, tends to move slowly. That is, even 50+ years later, Catholic (both religious and lay) are still mining the riches of Vatican II, including Lumen Gentium.
Douglas Bushman says that the document has four clear areas of theological interest:
1) As Christ is light for all the nations, so the Church is called to bring that light to all of mankind.
2) “Light for the nations” is a theme that links the Old and New Testaments. Jesus, the light of the world (Jn 8:12), fulfills Israel’s vocation to be light for the nations (Is 42:6 and 49:6), as Simeon proclaimed (Lk 2:32). This highlights the unity of God’s plan of salvation, Israel’s privileged place, and the fulfillment of the plan in Christ.
3) The Church relates to Christ as John the Baptist to Jesus. John is not the light; his mission is to bear witness to the light (Jn 1:7-9). So too, the Church exists in order to bear witness to Christ. The Church makes her own the spirituality of the Baptist, who said, referring to Jesus: “He must grow greater, I must grow less” (Jn 3:30).
4) The preaching and life of the Baptist caused the religious leaders to ask him: “What do you say of yourself” (Jn 1:22). This is precisely the question that the Church responded to at Vatican II: Ecclesia, quid dicis de te ipsa(“Church, what do you say of yourself?”). As John defined himself in relation to Christ, so does the Church.
Let’s face it: reading Church documents like this can be intimidating. They are full of theological and philosophical language that most of us haven’t encountered since college, if ever. These documents have boatloads of references and footnotes. They are definitely not “lite” reading.
However, these documents are not just meant for priests or bishops. They are not musty, dusty writings hidden in deep Vatican corridors. They are meant for all of us. Again, when Pope XXIII convened Vatican II, he knew the Church was going to face many challenges. And he was right! As Catholics living in a time in history where Christians are heavily persecuted around the world, where the practice of the Catholic faith must go “underground” in many places, and where our most basic understanding of humanity, sexuality, Scripture and faith are challenged on a daily basis, all Catholics need to know what the Church teaches and how to convey that when necessary.
The opening paragraph of Lumen Gentium reads:
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 men, 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 men, joined more closely today by various social, technical and cultural ties, might also attain fuller unity in Christ.
This is what we are meant to do: bring the Gospel and the light of Christ to all nations. You and me: the ordinary folks who sit in the pew. This is not a document written for a bunch of cardinals; it’s meant for us. We MUST show the whole human race the light of Christ: with great urgency.
Maybe you’re not going to sit down tonight and read Lumen Gentium from one end to the other. But you should and can read it. Take it a paragraph at a time. Ask yourself, “How is God speaking to me here? What am I meant to do with this? If I truly believe that Christ is the light of the world, what can I do to make His light shine even brighter in my little corner of that world?”