Constitution on the Church affirms ‘The People of God’

carville    On June 3, 1963 Pentecost Sunday, the seminarians at the North American College were just sitting down to “cena” or dinner at 6 p.m. when the bells at St. Peter’s, the dome of which we could see two blocks away through the northern glass wall of our refectory, began to toll.
    Without a word, everyone simply got up and started walking – through the front  gate, down the Janiculum hill, to the left, past the Jesuit General House, through Bernini’s colonnade and into the Piazza San Pietro. Under the far colonnade the Swiss Guard was closing the great bronze doors of the papal palace. After painful stomach cancer, Pope John XXIII had died.
    The cardinals of the Catholic Church throughout the world began arriving in Rome, and almost a week later the funeral was held. The pope’s body was placed on a platform of boards and carried in procession around St. Peter’s Square, while Gregorian chant from the liturgy of the dead was sung in Latin, and the Italian faithful cried copiously. He truly was loved.
    Two weeks later, white smoke erupted from a corner roof-top of the Sistine Chapel. We didn’t walk this time – we ran – accompanied by all of Rome pouring into the piazza yelling, “C’e bianca, c’e bianca” (it’s white, it’s white).
    A new pope had been elected. He was Giovanni Battista Montini, Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, who chose Paul VI for his papal name.
    Cardinal Montini was no stranger to Rome. He had been Vatican Secretary of State under Pius XII until he was forced out by other members of the curia for being too progressive.
    Many asked the question after John XXIII’s death, “Would the Second Vatican Council called by Pope John continue?”
    While commemorating the newly deceased pope in Milan, Cardinal Montini had said, “Could we really abandon a path that has been so masterfully marked out by John XXIII, even into the future? There is reason to believe that we couldn’t.”
Continued the momentum
    Knowing his publicly stated position, the cardinals of the conclave voted for the continuation of the council when they voted for Cardinal Montini. As Pope Paul VI, he immediately announced in his first message: “The most substantial portion of my pontificate will be occupied by the continuation of the Ecumenical Council Vatican II.”
    Pope Paul VI had a difficult task facing him. The final six assemblies of the council’s first year had been devoted to examining the project concerning the Church. Constitution of the Church was the council’s most important document. The preparatory schema written by the Curia’s Theological Commission comprised 11 chapters and 80 pages.
    Serious objections were raised concerning both the manner of its development and the point of view that inspired it. The Theological Commission had ignored the writing of recent theologians and imaged the Church as a perfect society that needed to be defined and governed by juridical norms. It was an institution, not a people mysteriously bound by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
    They also ignored any sense of ecumenism, especially the crucial question of just who are the members of Christ’s Church (all the baptized – Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants – or only those baptized into Catholicism)?
    Also, the bishop’s office was still being presented as subordinate to the prerogatives of the papacy to the extent that each bishop was “a mere executive officer of the pope” (Ladislas Orsy, America magazine) or as critics of Vatican I put it, “mere lackeys.”
New schema endorsed
    A new schema was needed, and its outline was proposed within a larger plan for the council by Belgian Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens. He proposed organizing the council around the theme of the Church. The documents would be developed in two steps: the Church within itself, and the Church in relation to others.
    The first part would explain the Church as the mystery of Christ living within his faithful, the People of God. (Thus, the philosophy of the Church as a perfect juridical society was definitively abandoned.)
    The second part would address the Church’s mission to humanity and include human rights, social justice, the evangelization of the poor, peace and war.
    A joint commission was formed from members of the Theological Commission and the Commission on Christian Unity to write a new schema on the Church. It took as its starting point an outline produced by a Belgian theologian of the University of Louvain, Gerard Philips.
    The outline began with the words “Light of the Nations” (Lumen Gentium). During the second assembly of the fall of 1963, a vote was taken to replace the preparatory commission’s schema with the “Philips schema.” It passed 2,231 to 43. It was clear that a new way of understanding the Church had been manifested, that a new ecclesiology was beginning to appear at the council.
How to define ‘Church’
    The debate began on the definition of the Church. With due attention to the Holy Father’s request that the council give special attention to the pastoral and ecumenical character of its work, many bishops insisted that the definition of the Church be expressed more in biblical terms than in terms of scholastic theology. A minority of others were concerned, however, that vague expression in theological matters could be heretical. One bishop was so disturbed by the substitution of biblical terms that he asked sarcastically, “And what is the theme song of the council going to be: “Should auld Aquinas be forgot and never brought to mind?”
    Nevertheless, there was strong expression in favor of the more pastoral and more ecumenical terminology as well as for expression that would make clear to non-Catholics that we do recognize the many links they have with the Church and that these links are respected by us.
    Those fighting for a mystical and spiritual definition of the Church as opposed to a juridical definition won out. They also made the point that the Church as a mystery of grace can only be described by multiple images. The primary image which defines the Church, however, is the “People of God.” Jesuit Father Walter Abbot, editor of “The Documents of Vatican II,” notes that “the Constitution on the Church devotes an entire chapter to the description of the Church as the ‘new People of God.’ This title, solidly founded in Scripture, met a profound desire of the council to put greater emphasis on the human and communal side of the Church rather than on the institutional and hierarchical aspects, which have sometimes been overstressed in the past for polemical reasons. While everything said about the People of God as a whole is applicable to the laity, it should not be forgotten that the term ‘People of God’ refers to the total community of the Church, including the pastors as well as the other faithful.”
All share baptismal roles
    What is so important to us today is that, with its emphasis on the People of God, the council made clear that through baptism all, from pope to layperson, share in the Church’s mission. All share responsibility and are called to holiness. Through passing on the faith by teaching and witnessing, the laity share in the prophetic mission of the Church. Through offering the Mass together with their priests, they share the Church’s priestly mission. And through working in the ministries of the Church, and as people of faith in the secular world, they share in the kingly or governing mission of the Church. There is a substantial unity and equality of all members of the Church rooted in baptism.
    The bishops, too, wanted a little more equality vis-a-vis the Roman congregations. The majority of bishops were eager to balance the ecclesial edifice with the concept of collegiality. This means that together with the pope they share leadership for the Church universal. They got the concept into the Constitution on the Church. However, they have lost ground recently with the Vatican ruling that their national conferences have no legislative power without the members’ unanimous vote.
    Nevertheless, the laity and our church parishes and dioceses have benefited from a trickle-down collegiality from the Constitution on the Church in the form of parish councils, finance councils and diocesan pastoral councils. In Catholic schools, on parish staffs and in foreign missions, the laity do most of the work. In the U.S. there are nearly 40,000 lay ecclesial ministers (Catholic Update, September 2012). The People of God do exercise some governing or kingly voice in today’s church.
    Father Carville is a retired priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge and writes on current topics for The Catholic Commentator.

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