Vatican II on the Church: Eschatological Identity
I can see now that it was a mistake not to include Chapter 6 of Lumen Gentium, on “Religious”, in the previous entry (as I had done in my preparatory notes), because the chapter really covers that form of consecration which represents the universal call to holiness (Chapter 5) in a particularly fruitful way. In contrast, Chapter 7 (“The Eschatological Nature of the Pilgrim Church and Its Union with the Church in Heaven”) and Chapter 8 (“The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God in the Mystery of Christ and the Church”) take up new themes, but I have decided to cover only chapters 6 and 7 here so that, like the Council Fathers themselves, I can reserve Mary for an unplanned separate and final entry.
The chapter on Religious, precisely because it is a special extension of the previous chapter, is the briefest in the document. It explores religious life as a special application of the evangelical counsels which, leading to charity, “join their followers to the Church and its mystery in a special way” (44). Through the profession of the evangelical counsels, the Christian intends “to free himself from those obstacles which might draw him away from the fervor of charity and the perfection of divine worship”, becoming “more intimately consecrated to divine service.” It is the duty of the hierarchy “to regulate the practice of the evangelical counsels by law” to see that they foster “the perfection of love of God and love of neighbor in an outstanding manner and that this profession is strengthened by vows” (45). To locate religious life properly within the Church, the Council notes:
From the point of view of the divine and hierarchical structure of the Church, the religious life is not an intermediate state between the clerical and lay states. But, rather, the faithful of Christ are called by God from both these states of life so that they might enjoy this particular gift in the life of the Church and thus each in one’s own way, may be of some advantage to the salvific mission of the Church. (43)
Chapter 7, “The Eschatological Nature of the Pilgrim Church and Its Union with the Church in Heaven”, is well summarized in its title. While Chapter 6 (Religious) is best understood as a supplement to Chapter 5 (Holiness), it is still true that the perfection of the consecrated life luminously expresses and looks forward to the eschatological nature of the Church treated in Chapter 7. This chapter explains that the Church “will attain its full perfection only in the glory of heaven” when “the human race as well as the entire world, which is intimately related to man and attains to its end through him, will be perfectly reestablished in Christ” (48). The governing principle and force of the Church’s eschatological identity is the fact that “Christ, having been lifted up from the earth, has drawn all to Himself.” Until the new heavens and new earth come about, however, the “pilgrim Church in her sacraments and institutions, which pertain to this present time, has the appearance of this world which is passing and she herself dwells among creatures who groan and travail in pain until now and await the revelation of the sons of God” (48).
Meanwhile we must be constantly vigilant in order to “merit to enter the marriage feast with Him and to be numbered among the blessed, and that we may not be ordered to go into eternal fire”, for “before we reign with Christ in glory, all of us will be made manifest before the tribunal of Christ”(48). Even so, the faithful, whether living or dead, “all in various ways and degrees are in communion in the same charity of God and neighbor and all sing the same hymn of glory to our God. For all who are in Christ, having His Spirit, form one Church and cleave together in Him” (49). The Council teaches that “our union with the Church in heaven is put into effect in its noblest manner especially in the sacred Liturgy” and that, as a result of the Church’s consciousness of the communion of the whole Mystical Body, she has always cultivated both prayers for the dead and the intercession of the saints (50).
Near the end of this chapter, there is a passage which, while applying specifically to popular devotion to the saints, clearly shows the method of renewal adopted by the Council Fathers throughout the rest of their pastoral program. For this reason it is worth quoting at length:
This Sacred Council accepts with great devotion this venerable faith of our ancestors regarding this vital fellowship with our brethren who are in heavenly glory or who having died are still being purified; and it proposes again the decrees of the Second Council of Nicea, the Council of Florence and the Council of Trent. And at the same time, in conformity with our own pastoral interests, we urge all concerned, if any abuses, excesses or defects have crept in here or there, to do what is in their power to remove or correct them, and to restore all things to a fuller praise of Christ and of God. Let them therefore teach the faithful that the authentic cult of the saints consists not so much in the multiplying of external acts, but rather in the greater intensity of our love, whereby, for our own greater good and that of the whole Church, we seek from the saints “example in their way of life, fellowship in their communion, and aid by their intercession.” On the other hand, let them teach the faithful that our communion with those in heaven, provided that it is understood in the fuller light of faith according to its genuine nature, in no way weakens, but conversely, more thoroughly enriches the latreutic worship we give to God the Father, through Christ, in the Spirit. (51)
I leave the profoundly inspiring last paragraph of this chapter for the reader to discover on his own, but I will remark in closing that this second-last paragraph quoted above once again raises the question of how so many persons, in many of the trends which have plagued the Church for the past fifty years, could have taken such extreme positions on the question of reform with so little attention to what the Council actually said.
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