Saints, Sinners, and the Perspective of Eternity

Vatican II’s "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" is full of riches, if we just take the time to read the text.

“Beloved: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are.” — 1 John 3:1 (from the Epistle reading for All Saints)

Almost ten years ago, I co-founded a men’s reading group that meets monthly to discuss books about Catholic theology and spirituality, Church history, and related topics. During that time, we’ve read books by Augustine and Aquinas, Newman and de Lubac, Benedict XVI and Belloc, Pieper and Shakespeare. A few months ago, we began reading some of the sixteen documents of the Second Vatican Council, beginning with Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Many of the men—all of them serious, practicing Catholics—had not read the documents, at least not from start to finish. Several remarked on how surprised they were by the clarity, beauty, and depth of Lumen Gentium. A couple of them even admitted that the document was not at all what they expected. “Why,” one asked, “didn’t I read this years ago?”

Years ago, a friend who worked for a small diocese told me of a seminar he and the other employees in the chancellery office had to attend. At different times, he told me, the guest speaker would hold a copy of the documents of the Council and say, “And, as the Council explained…” and then, closing the book, would proceed to say things that were, in many cases, quite contrary to what the documents actually state. Or that badly skewed what was actually put to paper. No one seemed to notice, and when he spoke to co-workers later, none shared his concern. In fact, they were apparently oblivious to what the texts state and what the Council intended to communicate about a host of topics.

On this, the Solemnity of All Saints, followed by All Souls tomorrow, I want to highlight just three passages from Lumen Gentium that pertain directly to being saints here on earth and in the life to come.

The second paragraph of Lumen Gentium provides an overview of salvation history that is echoed in the opening paragraph of the Catechism; it is also fleshed out, in more detail, in the opening of Chapter II of the document (par 9, especially). The emphasis is, first, on God’s initiative: as Creator, Father, and Savior. Great stress is placed on the invitation to man to participate in God’s divine life, something stressed in today’s Epistle reading from 1 John. The Council fathers wrote:

The eternal Father, by a free and hidden plan of His own wisdom and goodness, created the whole world. His plan was to raise men to a participation of the divine life. Fallen in Adam, God the Father did not leave men to themselves, but ceaselessly offered helps to salvation, in view of Christ, the Redeemer “who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature”. All the elect, before time began, the Father “foreknew and pre- destined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that he should be the firstborn among many brethren”.

The second part of this paragraph is about the Church, the household of God, foreshadowed in the Old Testament before finally being established, birthed, and revealed at Pentecost:

He planned to assemble in the holy Church all those who would believe in Christ. Already from the beginning of the world the foreshadowing of the Church took place. It was prepared in a remarkable way throughout the history of the people of Israel and by means of the Old Covenant. In the present era of time the Church was constituted and, by the outpouring of the Spirit, was made manifest. At the end of time it will gloriously achieve completion, when, as is read in the Fathers, all the just, from Adam and “from Abel, the just one, to the last of the elect,” will be gathered together with the Father in the universal Church.

The Church, put another way, is the communion of saints, the dwelling of all those souls who have gone before us, in a state of grace, and are united to us through the bonds of God’s life and love. The Church was not only the focal point of Lumen Gentium, but was very much a focal point for the entire Council, which issued documents, for example, about the Church’s relationship with the modern world, non-Christians, the State, and so forth.

The second passage is paragraph 14, which effectively puts a hole in the widespread but incorrect notion that the Council never bothered to speak with firmness and bluntness about the duties and obligations of the faithful, or about the uniqueness of the Catholic Church in the plan of salvation:

This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.

As one of the men in our reading group exclaimed, “I don’t know how much clearer the Council could be!” Of course, that assumes people actually read the texts. Otherwise, you end up with stories of dissenting Catholics who blather about “the egalitarian spirit of Vatican II” and reject Church teaching on all the usual faddish points (ordination of women, contraception, homosexuality, etc.). It is easy to write blank checks of heresy and schism when you think the deposit of faith is up for grabs. It doesn’t help that the Church, following the Council, often failed miserably to properly catechize, instruct, exhort, and explain. Many Catholics blame this failure on the documents themselves. But one doesn’t have to believe each conciliar text is a work of perfect literary and theological art to see that a far bigger problem was a failure of both leadership and discipleship. Put another way, if you are going to put all of the blame on bishops, you really should spread the poverty and give many of the laity their proper due (or un-due, as it were). And Lumen Gentium, rather prophetically, warned the laity of the grave danger of being a visible member of the Church while being, in soul and spirit and mind, a child of the world:

They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged. (par 14)

The true disciple of Christ is marked by humility, holiness, and fidelity. Lumen Gentium dedicated an entire chapter (V), to the “Universal Call to Holiness in the Church”. A saint, of course, is a “holy one”, a person who has been transformed, sanctified, and vivified by the life of God. The goal of life is to be a saint, for the goal of life is to return to the One who created us and to enjoy full communion—the beatific vision—with Him forever. The third passage, beginning with paragraph 40, unpacks this foundational truth. “The Lord Jesus, the divine Teacher and Model of all perfection,” it states, “preached holiness of life to each and everyone of His disciples of every condition. He Himself stands as the author and consumator of this holiness of life: ‘Be you therefore perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect’.” It again emphasizes the call to share in the divine nature (cf. 2 Pet 1:4):

Indeed He sent the Holy Spirit upon all men that He might move them inwardly to love God with their whole heart and their whole soul, with all their mind and all their strength and that they might love each other as Christ loves them. The followers of Christ are called by God, not because of their works, but according to His own purpose and grace. They are justified in the Lord Jesus, because in the baptism of faith they truly become sons of God and sharers in the divine nature. In this way they are really made holy. Then too, by God’s gift, they must hold on to and complete in their lives this holiness they have received. They are warned by the Apostle to live “as becomes saints”, and to put on “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience”, and to possess the fruit of the Spirit in holiness. Since truly we all offend in many things we all need God’s mercies continually and we all must daily pray: “Forgive us our debts”

Holiness, then, is not just for bishops and priests, but for all Catholics (yes, even for politicians, journalists, and bloggers). On earth, this holiness should result in “a more human manner of living” that seeks both the “glory of God and the service of [our] neighbor”, and in doing so, should take inspiration from “the life of so many saints in Church history.”

A couple of paragraphs later, the Council fathers again insisted on the “obligation” of “all the faithful of Christ … to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state.” And another warning is given: “Let neither the use of the things of this world nor attachment to riches, which is against the spirit of evangelical poverty, hinder them in their quest for perfect love. Let them heed the admonition of the Apostle to those who use this world; let them not come to terms with this world; for this world, as we see it, is passing away” (par 42).

The world is passing away. Administrations come and go. A massive storm erupts and homes are washed away. Economies fluctuate and shudder. Governments convulse and stumble. Leaders fail and markets wobble and plans evaporate. Technology improves, then hiccups, then distracts—to what end? Entertainment pleases for a moment and then turns to ashes in a quarter hour. “The one peculiar and characteristic sin of the world is this,” wrote Ven. John Henry Newman, “that whereas God would have us live for the life to come, the world would make us live for this life.”

This is not, of course, to make light of earthly realities, but to shed some actual light on matters that are all too often packaged by politicians, spun by networks, manipulated by ideologies, and sold by institutions that have no care or concern for man as creature, but only man as consumer. The saints help us put it all in perspective. Those who have gone before have a thing or two to tell us about what they left behind, and with Whom they now dwell.

Political candidates want to be our friends, but what if we had no vote? Businesses want to be our partners, but what if we had no money? Governments want to be our family, but what if we have no voice? Lumen Gentium, again, provides wisdom and perspective:

For just as Christian communion among wayfarers brings us closer to Christ, so our companionship with the saints joins us to Christ, from Whom as from its Fountain and Head issues every grace and the very life of the people of God. It is supremely fitting, therefore, that we love those friends and coheirs of Jesus Christ, who are also our brothers and extraordinary benefactors, that we render due thanks to God for them and “suppliantly invoke them and have recourse to their prayers, their power and help in obtaining benefits from God through His Son, Jesus Christ, who is our Redeemer and Saviour.” For every genuine testimony of love shown by us to those in heaven, by its very nature tends toward and terminates in Christ who is the “crown of all saints,” and through Him, in God Who is wonderful in his saints and is magnified in them. (par 50)

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About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.