Light for the Nations: Themes of “Lumen gentium”, Fifty Years Later

A retrospective on Vatican II’s "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" ought to place the primacy on the Church as end, and particularly on holiness

November 21, 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of Vatican II’s central document, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. If the articles that this occasions reflect a strain of theological commentary on this text that narrowly focused on the issue of collegiality of bishops, then one can expect a chorus of writers to lament the fact that Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI resisted accepting and implementing what the Council taught about the relationship of pope and bishops.

The importance of Chapter Three of Lumen gentium, where this subject is treated, is incontestable. At the time of the Council, everyone was aware of the need to provide a complement to the teaching of Vatican I on papal primacy and infallibility. Cut short by political and military disruptions of the time, that Council’s full agenda was left unfinished. Nevertheless, Vatican II recognized that apostolic authority is a divinely instituted means, not an end in itself. It is totally at the service of the Church’s unity, holiness, and catholicity. Since the value of a means derives from the end to which it is ordered, a fifty-year retrospective on Lumen gentium ought to place the primacy on the Church as end, and particularly on holiness, as the best way to be faithful to the authentic spirit of Vatican II

The Christ-centeredness (Christocentricity) of Lumen gentium

Taking its name from first two Latin words, Lumen gentium—which means “light for the nations”—the constitution’s first assertion is about Christ. “Christ is the light for nations.” Fully developed, the theological content of this could fill a small book. Some of the more relevant aspects of a theology of ‘light for the nations’ are: 

1) As Christ is light for all the nations, so the Church is called to bring that light to all of mankind.

2) “Light for the nations” is a theme that links the Old and New Testaments. Jesus, the light of the world (Jn 8:12), fulfills Israel’s vocation to be light for the nations (Is 42:6 and 49:6), as Simeon proclaimed (Lk 2:32). This highlights the unity of God’s plan of salvation, Israel’s privileged place, and the fulfillment of the plan in Christ.

3) The Church relates to Christ as John the Baptist to Jesus. John is not the light; his mission is to bear witness to the light (Jn 1:7-9). So too, the Church exists in order to bear witness to Christ. The Church makes her own the spirituality of the Baptist, who said, referring to Jesus: “He must grow greater, I must grow less” (Jn 3:30).

4) The preaching and life of the Baptist caused the religious leaders to ask him: “What do you say of yourself” (Jn 1:22). This is precisely the question that the Church responded to at Vatican II: Ecclesia, quid dicis de te ipsa (“Church, what do you say of yourself?”). As John defined himself in relation to Christ, so does the Church.

Underscoring this Christocentricity, The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops of 1985 proclaimed: “The Church makes herself more credible if she speaks less of herself and ever more preaches Christ crucified (see 1 Cor 2:2) and witnesses with her own life… The whole importance of the Church derives from her connection with Christ.”

The Church Speaks of Herself Only to Speak of Christ

An attentive reader might object that there is a contradiction here. The Church says that she should grow less and speak only of Christ. Yet, Vatican II was focused on the Church and the Catholic Church seems to speak a great deal of herself. The answer is that there is a way of speaking about oneself that is entirely focused on Christ. The Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Paul show us (emphasis added):

For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name (Lk 1:48-49).

I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me (Gal 2:19-20).

Mary and Paul are evidence of, witnesses to, God’s efficacious love. The Father sent His Son to accomplish a mission, and the Church is His mission’s goal. One cannot speak of Christ without speaking of the Church, anymore than one can speak of Christ as Bridegroom or a Head without speaking of His Bride or His Body. Moreover, the way that Mary and Paul speak of Christ mirrors how He speaks of the Father. Christ’s identity is entirely, substantially, relational. His favorite subjects are His Father and His Father’s kingdom. Yet, since the Father sent Him in order to establish this kingdom, He cannot fully reveal the Father without speaking of Himself as Son, entrusted with this mission, and the Church.

It would be a false humility to attempt to speak of Christ while omitting to draw attention to what the power of His love accomplishes in us. The Church is the lowly handmaid who becomes a mother by the election and grace of God. With St. Paul, her witness is: “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective” (1 Cor 15:10).

The Christocentricity of Lumen gentium’s Eight Chapters

Lumen gentium’s Christocentric ecclesiology is the foundation for the constitution’s treatment of the four notes of the Church. Chapter One takes up the Church’s supernatural unity. Because Christ is the eternal Son, communion with Him is communion with the entire Trinity. At the same time, this communion has a horizontal dimension. All who are united with Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body, are thereby united among themselves.

The Church’s catholicity is the subject of Chapter Two. Because Christ’s love and mission are universal, so the Church’s missionary love extends to all men. Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah, and the fruit of His mission is the establishment of a messianic people, the Church. In union with Him, the members of this people share in His anointing and thus in His mission. Baptism confers the dignity of being prophet, priest, and king in Christ.

Chapter Three sets forth the Church’s apostolicity. Again, everything is grounded in Christ. Vatican II employed the most solemn formula (“This Sacred Council … teaches and declares …”) to teach that Christ established His Church by commissioning the apostles, sending them as the Father sent Him (Jn 20:21), and that “He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world” (LG, 18). Just as Christ came to serve rather than to be served, so the participation in His mission conferred by the Sacrament of Holy Orders constitutes a vocation to lay down one’s life for the sanctification of the faithful.

The Church’s holiness is the subject of Chapter Five. The Church is holy because it is made holy by the love of Christ, the holy one, Who unites Himself to her as His Bride. Charity is the essence of holiness. By living in communion with the Father, fulfilling His mission, embracing a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and making the supreme gift of love on the Cross—by all of this, Christ is the supreme Model of the perfection of charity. In addition, He sends the Holy Spirit, the fruit of His sacrifice, so that His words and example will be fully internalized, written in the hearts of the faithful. The light of Christ becomes light for the nations by reflecting on the Church through the holiness of Christ’s disciples. The transformation of sinners is the greatest sign of the efficacy of God’s love.

Chapter Four, on the lay faithful, underscores that Christ continues His threefold messianic mission through the laity as well as the hierarchy.

The supreme and eternal Priest, Christ Jesus, since he wills to continue his witness and service also through the laity, vivifies them in this Spirit and increasingly urges them on to every good and perfect work (LG, 34).

The opening lines of articles 35 and 36 likewise emphasize that Christ is the acting subject when the lay faithful exercise their priestly and kingly offices. This correlates to the document’s opening assertion that in Christ the Church is His sacrament of salvation. The Church and her members are, using the language of the Catechism, associates in His work of compassion and salvation (CCC, 2575). This means that to encounter the Church through her members is to encounter God’s love, which is “at work within us” so that “to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus” (Eph 3:20-21).

Christocentricity is the key to the final three chapters as well. Chapter Six, on religious, is based on the model of Christ’s life and the orientation of His life and mission to the Kingdom of heaven. Chapter Seven, on the Church’s eschatological nature, tells us that because we are in communion with Christ, Who is in heaven, heaven is our true homeland and the saints our true peer group. The Church is a communion of saints. Finally, Chapter Eight is on the Blessed Virgin Mary. As mother and unique associate in Christ’s mission, she has a unique role in the fulfillment of God’s plan of love. In her we discover God’s regard for human dignity by making us His associates in the mission of mercy, and His power at work in lowly human beings.

In its two final chapters, Lumen gentium teaches that true veneration of Mary and the saints consists in imitating their virtues. This is another way to underscore the central importance of the call to holiness. Saints are not self-made men and women. They are what they are by the transforming power of God’s love and grace. They teach us what it means to be fully alive in Christ.

Several Especially Relevant Highlights of Lumen gentium

The Call to Holiness and a Fully Human Life

When we think of the Church, we should not think first and foremost of her hierarchical structure and sacraments, which are just means, but of the reality that they exist to serve, namely, interpersonal communion with God in faith, hope, and charity. This primacy of holiness-communion does not diminish Lumen gentium’s teaching on the means to holiness. Christ instituted the seven sacraments and established the apostles and their successors to represent Him as Head of the Church. Through them Christ continues to teach, to sanctify, and to rule over the Church. The Church, Vatican II teaches, possesses the fullness of the means of sanctification.

But the Church is not just the sum total of these means of sanctification. She is also the realization of the end to which these means are ordered. The Church is both means and end. This integral vision represents a challenge to Catholics who think of the Church primarily or solely in terms of her visible, human structure and institutions. The Church is also the Bride that Christ loved unto death. Everyone is called to love the Church as Christ loved her. The Church is also our mother, who gives birth to us, through Baptism. Everyone is called to reverence this mother and to thank her for the gift of new life in Christ. It is rather difficult to love an institution. In order to advance the renewal of Vatican II, it is necessary to rediscover her interior mystery as communion, bride, and mother.

Holiness, and all the acts of Christian virtue that emanate from it, is the conspicuous sign to the world that God’s love is effective (or performative, as Pope Benedict XVI put it). The holiness of the Church’s members is a gift of grace that comes from Jesus Christ, especially His sacrificial love fully revealed in the Paschal Mystery. This is why the true nature of the Church is most manifest in the liturgy. The Church’s vocation to be the light for the nations entails the duty on the part of the all the faithful to open themselves to Christ’s transforming love so that the world can see what humanity looks like when its full potentiality is realized in communion with God in Christ.

“[B]y this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society” (LG, 40). This assertion directly contradicts the accusation of a culture of science, relativism, and secularism that Christianity is at odds with human dignity, the opiate of the people, a crutch, or a flight from reality. Au contraire, it is the definitive realization of all that is genuinely human because as image of God man is made for communion with Holiness itself. Saints are man fully alive. Gaudium et spes will take up this theme by identifying Christ as the perfect man and stating that all who follow Him thereby become more fully human (GS, 22, 38, 41). Catholics do not have to choose between being scientifically and technologically with it, on one hand, and living their Christian faith, on the other. This either-or alternative comes from a secular culture’s dismissive relegation of faith to pre-scientific myth or superstition. The real alternative is between being fully human and settling for an incomplete vision of what it means to be a human person.

The Messianic Offices and the Liturgy

One of the great challenges remaining in implementing Lumen gentium is to impart to the lay faithful the sense of identity that comes with being conformed to Christ and entrusted to be His associates in mission. St. John Paul II tirelessly showed how each of the three messianic offices of Christ—prophet, priest, and king—actualizes the human capacity for and vocation to truth, prayer, and service. Active participation in Christ’s mission is the fruit of encountering God’s merciful love in Him, which occurs in the liturgy, where the nature of the Church as sacrament, through which Christ is at work, is most fully manifest (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 2 and 41). The Council’s re-centering on Christ must entail a re-centering on the liturgy, where the transforming love of Christ is experienced. Those who are liturgically renewed in Christ’s love become aware of their mission as prophets, priests, and kings, and this bears the fruit of active participation in the New Evangelization.


Closely related to the preceding is what Lumen gentium teaches about charisms. While the liturgy, especially the Eucharist, is the source and summit of the Church’s life, the fulfillment of each person’s vocation and participation in Christ’s mission is fostered by the various charisms that the Holy Spirit distributes in order to build up the Church. Most who have heard of charisms might think of the extraordinary gifts, such as miraculous healing the sick. For Lumen gentium, charisms are gifts of grace for the sake of completing a mission of service. A greater awareness of mission and charism among the faithful would go far in advancing the New Evangelization.

A Church of the Poor and for the Poor, and the Eschatological Nature of the Church

By making poverty a theme of his pontificate, Pope Francis draws our attention to the end Chapter One. “Just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and persecution, so the Church is called to follow the same route that it might communicate the fruits of salvation to men.” Just as Christ became poor for our sakes (2 Cor 8:9) and was sent “to bring good news to the poor” (Lk 4:18), so “the Church encompasses with love all who are afflicted with human suffering and in the poor and afflicted sees the image of its poor and suffering Founder. It does all it can to relieve their need and in them it strives to serve Christ” (LG, 8).

In loving the poor, the Church practices the Lord’s admonition to love those who are unable to make kind of return (Lk 6:32-34). This, after all, is how Christ has loved us!

To be poor like Christ means to rely entirely on God. It means to recognize that worldly power and means can only produce worldly effects. For the poor it is inescapably obvious that “the world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31). The poor are not likely to place their hopes in a worldly happiness. This links Lumen gentium’s teaching on poverty to the Church’s eschatological nature, that is, its orientation to the fulfillment of God’s plan in heaven. The charity that constitutes the Church’s holiness draws us heavenward, toward definitive communion with God, the angels, and saints.

Too few Catholics exhibit the longing for heaven that typifies the saints. Too many seek an earthly happiness, forgetting that the world is passing away. Influenced more by a secular culture than by the Gospel, their hierarchy of values correlates to earthly rather than heavenly fulfillment. They do not “conduct themselves as children of the promise … with patience await[ing] the glory that is to come” (LG, 35). The light of Christ does not reflect on those who, like Israel of old, desire to be like the nations around them (1 Sam 8:20). A major task of the New Evangelization is to instill in the faithful a lively sense of their eternal destiny, which is never an escape from this world but rather a call to more challenging engagement in shaping history.

Mary, Model of the Church and of the New Evangelization

In Mary we discover the paradigm of the Church’s twofold nature of end and means. With Mary, the notion of ‘means’ differs essentially from that of apostolic authority, even as the baptismal priesthood differs in essence from the ordained priesthood (LG, 10). God loves Mary for her own sake, as a personal subject, and draws her into communion with Himself. He thereby makes her His unique associate in accomplishing His plan of love. He works with her, never apart from the apostles, to bring Christ into the world. This is true for all of us. God loves us and makes us participants in His own life of truth and love, and for this very reason He assigns us a task, a place in His plan. By loving each of us, He also loves those He desires to reach through us.

The teaching on Mary also sheds light on the New Evangelization, which, as the popes have told us, began with Vatican II. Lumen gentium speaks of Mary’s maternal solicitude for and closeness to mankind in all of its needs. In this she personifies the Church. In her we discover our vocation to draw close to mankind as God Himself did by becoming a man, and as Mary did, as we see in her concern for the bride and groom at the wedding at Cana. With Mary, we turn to Jesus as the only one who can provide the wine of divine life for a world that lacks it. With Mary, we intercede for a world deprived of the love of God, which is the true Bread from heaven. And with Mary, we are called to present Christ to the world as in a perpetual Epiphany. This we do through the witness of a holy life—a life of unity, reconciliation, service, sacrifice, and worship of the true God—which is an irrefutable sign that the divine light has come into the world and through His transforming love has made the Church the light of the nations.

Brief Concluding Thought

All men, even those who are unaware of it, are made in God’s image and naturally desire to see God. But who is able to cast the light by which God can be seen? Jesus is the light for the world that seeks God. By His words and deeds, people were drawn to Jesus because they thought He could lead them to God: “We wish to see Jesus” (Jn 12:21).

In his first address to the Council after becoming pope, Paul VI drew a parallel between seeing God the Father in Christ and seeing Christ in the Church. As God’s love more and more transforms Christ’s disciples so that His light reflects on them, the world encounters Him in its encounter with the Church.

It is only after this work of internal sanctification has been accomplished that the Church will be able to show herself to the whole world and say: “Who sees me, sees Christ,” as Christ said of Himself: “He who sees me sees also the Father” (John 14:9).

The message of Lumen gentium is that in Christ, the Church becomes light for the world and this light shines more brightly to the extent that her members open themselves to the transforming power of Christ’s love. To open ourselves to His transforming power, we must first acquire a complete and mature vision of the Church—God’s own vision—as both the end that Christ died to realize, and the means He chose to accomplish this end.

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About Douglas Bushman 19 Articles
Douglas Bushman is Director of Parish Formation and Mission at the Church of St. Joseph in West St. Paul, MN. He is well-known as past director of the Institute for Pastoral Theology at Ave Maria University and the University of Dallas and for his courses on Ecclesiology, Catholic Spirituality, John Paul II, Vatican II, Pastoral Theology, and the New Evangelization. He is the author of The Theology of Renewal for His Church: The Logic of Vatican II’s Renewal In Paul VI’s Encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, and Its Reception In John Paul II and Benedict XVI(Wipf and Stock, forthcoming).