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Lumen Gentium: A New Understanding of the Church

By Amanda Thompson, Director of Catholic Campus Ministry

When I was asked to share my thoughts on the main points of Vatican II’s central document, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium), I was struck by two things.  

The first was how relevant this document is to my own understanding of the Church today.  Lumen Gentium was the first Church document that presented “church” in several different ways: as a mystery, as a communion of baptized believers, as the people of God, as the body of Christ, and as a pilgrim moving toward fulfillment in Heaven but marked on earth with “a sanctity that is real, although imperfect.” In other words, this document asserts that the word “church” should be understood as the faithful of the whole world; not as just a building, or an institution, or a moral voice (although it is all of these at any given time), but as complex and multi-layered experience.

As I prayed about this understanding of the Church, I was reminded that this definition includes all of those who are living and deceased: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles–anyone who was close to us and shared their love of God with each one of us in our lives. This document states quite clearly that if Christ is a light to all nations, our communion of saints — small “s” – is an integral part of our faith community. We are a community of faith.

The second major point for me was the Church’s renewed understanding of itself as a church of the poor and for the poor, which has a direct connection to our Vincentian spirituality here at DePaul.  We, as a Church, can only chose to be poor if we rely entirely on God, as Christ himself did (remember the Beatitude “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” from Matthew 5:3). Jesus was born poor, yet He was also sent to bring the good news to the poor, to share with his kindred spirits an understanding that God is our hope, the beginnings of our identity. He became poor to be like us, but also to transform us.  I believe St. Vincent de Paul lived this throughout his life as well, and that this is one of the reasons that his priestly vow of poverty was at the core of his spiritual understanding of the world.

As I searched the Web for commentaries on Lumen gentium, I also found this: Doug Bushman, who holds the Pope St. John Paul II Chair of Theology for the New Evangelization at the Augustine Institute, observed that, as a dogmatic constitution, “Lumen gentium’s teaching on the Church was above all geared to giving Catholics a greater sense of identity.”  The thought was that faith-filled action, or concrete achievements, would flow naturally from deeper awareness of the Church’s nature and mission of each person’s vocation, he explained. Again, a wonderful reminder of how the corporal acts of mercy are at the heart to Vincentian spirituality.

“We see this,” Bushman noted, “in an increased sense of personal participation in the Church’s life and mission on the part of the lay faithful; a greater awareness that the Eucharist is the center of the Church’s life; in increased devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary; in a strong sense of identity among clergy, who see themselves as servants entrusted with the ministry of activating the common priesthood of the faithful.”