“Follow me” (Mt 8:22) is Jesus’ invitation to people of every generation. His words encourage all people to live faithfully as His disciples.
We “follow Christ” faithfully when we allow Him to embrace us as His children — as members of the “new People of God” (Lumen Gentium, chapter 2), following the path of the Gospel in the direction of a better world. The foundation of this perspective is found in Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. This Latin title means “light to the nations.” Each of us as God’s people is called to be that light as we fulfill our “obligation of spreading the faith” (article 17).
The concept of the Church as the “People of God” is discussed at great length in articles 9-17 of Lumen Gentium. This image, according to some experts, replaced the image made popular by Pope Pius XII twenty-one years earlier in his 1943 encyclical On the Mystical Body of Christ. Here, the ancient concept of the Church as the Body of Christ discussed by St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians (1:24) is given special attention.
In fact, the image of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ is not replaced by the “People of God” image but rather is complemented by it. Following the lead of St. Paul, Pope Pius XII conveyed that we are all members of Christ’s Body in a mystical or mysterious way. In other words, the Church as the People of God exists as the Mystical Body of Christ. As God’s People and members of His Mystical Body, we are universally called to greater holiness, both individually and as a people (articles 39-42).
The image of the Church as the People of God played a pivotal role in shifting the exaggerated view of the laity as second-class citizens, i.e. doing whatever the clergy asked of them, to taking their rightly place among the People of God by virtue of having been consecrated in baptism and thus sharing in the common priesthood of the baptized. This theme is developed later in the 1965 Vatican II decree Apostolicam Actuositatem on the Apostolate of the Laity where the laity are encouraged to engage in the apostolate for the good of souls and the renewal of the temporal order. In Chapter 7 of Lumen Gentium we are told, “in a word: what the soul is in the body, let Christians be in the world” (article 38). Imagine how better our world would be have if all the laity took seriously their vocation of becoming “the light of the world and the salt of the earth!” (article 9)
By developing the concept of the Church as People of God, the Council Fathers showed its relationship with, and continuity in, salvation history. The chosen People of God, Israel, in the Old Testament, become the “new People of God,” the Church, in the New Testament, “consecrated to be a spiritual house and a holy priesthood” (article 10). This image identifies the Church as God’s pilgrim people — chapter 7 — looking forward to a perfect identity in the end times when “at the end of the world … those who have done good, (will go forth) to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (article 48).
Within this context of discussing the “new people of God” (article 13), the Council Fathers explain the Church’s teaching on salvation. In article 14 they explicitly state that those “who know that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, (and) refuse either to enter it, or to remain in it” cannot be saved. After explaining the privileged and grace-filled reality that Catholics enjoy by virtue of having been “born again” through the waters of baptism, they remind those who remain “in the bosom of the Church, in body not in heart (and do not) persevere in charity” toward others are not saved. A few sentences later they use even stronger language stating: “All children of the Church should nevertheless remember that their exalted condition results, not from their own merits but from the grace of Christ. If they fail to respond in thought, word and deed to that grace, not only shall they not be saved, but they will be more severely judged.”
Then in article 16 the Council Fathers explain that those who “try in their actions” to do God’s will, even if they do not “know the Gospel of Christ or his Church,” such as the Muslims, and others “without any fault of theirs have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God” (like atheists), may still “attain eternal salvation.”
We realize, of course, that only God knows the human heart and, in the end, He is the final judge as to who is saved. For our part, we are expected to use the best resources that God gives us and to do the best we can to “work out our salvation” (cf. Phil 2:12), as St. Paul advises.
Those familiar with Church documents that deal with doctrine will notice immediately that Lumen Gentium affirms theological themes previously considered by other councils and offers ways to explore new ideas as well. (cf. article 1) Like a good mother, the Church, through Lumen Gentium, seeks to be all-embracing, helping people in their search for truth and offering charity in every new encounter as exemplified by Christ.
Article 8 of Lumen Gentium explains that the Church of Christ “constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.” This passage captures a perspective seldom considered in previous Church teaching and therefore becomes the subject of much discussion following the Council. The word “subsists” is the key that unlocks the door to help understand the shift in terminology from past treatises that focused exclusively on the teaching about “no salvation outside the Catholic Church” and this new paradigm that acknowledges circumstances by which salvation is “deemed possible outside the Catholic Church.”
While introducing the idea that the Church of Christ exists beyond the Catholic Church, the Council Fathers are quick to point out that everything the Church of Christ is, is found in the Catholic Church. They also introduce the notion that “elements” of truth, albeit incomplete, can be found in non-Catholic churches or “ecclesial communities.” This is explored more thoroughly in another Vatican II document called Unitatis Redintegratio which was promulgated on the same day as Lumen Gentium, Nov. 21, 1964, and dedicated to the theme of Ecumenism.
“Follow me” (Mt 8:22) says Jesus to people of every generation. As we continue to follow Christ and to learn more about our precious Catholic faith during this present Year of Faith, may we likewise seek ways to more fervently live our precious faith.
Another help that the Church gives us in this regard is the newly-released encyclical on the supernatural gift of faith, Lumen Fidei, that was started by Pope Benedict and completed by Pope Francis.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop.