A Catholic school teacher recently shared a story with me about preparing the children for the final school-Mass of the academic year. As they approached the church entrance she asked her students: “Why must we keep quiet in the church?” One enthusiastic neophyte offered the answer: “Because people are sleeping!”

Some have suggested that the bishops must have slept during the first phase of the Second Vatican Council because the third major document of the Council, Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), did not emerge until November 21, 1964, almost one year after the first two documents were published. Even Pope John Paul II, a Council Father himself, is said to have described the Second Vatican Council as an extended retreat for bishops.

Of course, the bishops did not sleep through the Council. Nor did they have the luxury of being on a perpetual retreat. The “Council Daybooks,” which recorded the day to day events of the Council, detail a very busy, time intensive schedule of preparing and debating several lengthy drafts, many of which were excluded from the final, official Council documents.

The busy schedule continued at the Vatican on the third Saturday in November, 1964 when a total of three new documents were promulgated by Pope Paul VI including one constitution: Lumen Gentium and two decrees: Orientalium Ecclesiarum (the Decree On the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite) and Unitatis Redintegratio (the Decree on Ecumenism). Almost 1/3 of the 16 documents that came out of the Second Vatican Council were now available for public review.

The “dogmatic” Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (which means “light to the nations”), is often confused with another significant “pastoral” Constitution on the Church called Gaudium et Spes, that came one year later on December 7, 1965. A third Council document on the Church, a decree called Ad Gentes (On the Mission Activity of the Church), was also promulgated on December 7, 1965.

Although all 16 council documents focus on ecclesiology (the study of the church) in varying degrees, Lumen Gentium highlights the nature, role and guidelines of the Church. It is this document that introduces us to familiar themes like “People of God,” “Pilgrim Church” and “Universal Call to Holiness.” This document also talks about the “Mystery of the Church” on earth and in heaven, the hierarchy of the Church, consecrated religious and the laity. It concludes with an entire chapter on the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Although the Church is described in Lumen Gentium as above all else, a mystery, (cf. article 5) more scripturally based images are also employed including a sheepfold, land to be cultivated, household of God, Holy City, New Jerusalem, Mother, spotless spouse, Body of Christ, bride of Christ, community of faith, hope and charity, and People of God. (Cf. article 6).

The Council’s shift in emphasis with a deeper appreciation for the apostolate of the laity is apparent in Lumen Gentium. Closing one era for the Church and opening another, this dogmatic constitution reaffirms the best of the past while looking forward with joyful hope and optimism from within a community defined by the best of Her virtues. Unlike the Council of Trent which offered a response to the Protestant reformation and signaled a re-centralization of the Church, Vatican II opened the Church to the possibility of better communication with other faith communities and, to a degree, offered a perspective that pointed to de-centralization of the Church. While affirming the teaching of previous councils, Vatican II not only completed the work left unfinished by the First Vatican Council in 1870 but moved beyond it. Lumen Gentium affirmed, for example, collegiality of the bishops as being of divine origin and the authority of the bishops as being the second pillar of the Church. This became the beginning of a process to re-evaluate the role of the local churches.

While the ecclesiology of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) left the laity in a clearly secondary position without any meaningful leadership roles of responsibility, Lumen Gentium by identifying the Church as the People of God, opened the way for lay leadership in the Church. In particular, the special focus on the common priesthood of the faithful changed not only the image of the laity but gave recognition to their legitimate role by virtue of baptism.

Problems arose, however, when some in the Church tried to implement the principles of Lumen Gentium in a manner never intended by the Church Fathers. One example I recall is when I served as the youth representative on our local Parish Council. Even as a teenager I was flabbergasted to learn that the image of the Church as the People of God was being employed to suggest an “us against them” approach. The “us” were the laity and the “them” were the clergy (priests, bishops, pope). The members of the parish council were told by the presiding pastor that this was the new paradigm outlined by Vatican II. As “Church” we were now empowered with the same authority as the clergy in all matters related to the life of the Church.

Curiously, several years later in November, 2000, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who would later become Pope Benedict XVI) addressed this theme in a presentation he gave on Lumen Gentium. The Cardinal explained that “the Church is not an apparatus, nor a social institution, nor one social institution among many others. It is a person. It is a woman. It is a Mother. It is alive … We cannot make the Church, we must be the Church.” Toward the end of his presentation the Cardinal further explained: “The crisis of the Church as it is reflected in the concept of People of God, is a ‘crisis of God’; it is the consequence of abandoning the essential. What remains is merely a struggle for power. There is enough of this elsewhere in the world, there is no need of the Church for this.”

This language of Cardinal Ratzinger reflects the ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium including the image of the Church as the People of God. This concept is not meant as a power struggle or an “us versus them” mentality. As an ordained priest, for example, I continue to enjoy my place among the People of God. Why? Because the term “People of God” expresses a relationship with God, something that Cardinal Ratzinger describes as a “vertical orientation” as a opposed to, what I would call, the “horizontal orientation” that we have with one another. The “People of God” are not a counterpart to the clergy because the clergy come forth from the “People of God” and retain their membership within the “People of God.”

How prophetic Cardinal Ratzinger’s words were on that crisp fall day in Rome in November, 2000. If the People of God (laity and clergy) seek positions of authority and power for all the wrong reasons, their once holy desire to be servants of Christ, will be left in the fast overflowing receptacle of good intentions that can never be reclaimed.

Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves in the diocesan Chancery Office.