December 9, 2012
By Father J. Daniel Atkins, Holy Family Catholic Church, New Albany, Indiana
The Dogmatic constitution, “Lumen Gentium” or “Light of the Nations”, was solemnly promulgated on November 21, 1964, by Pope Paul VI. Because it was written and approved by the bishops of the world together with the Holy Father it expresses official teaching about the nature and the mission of the Church founded by Christ while he was personally present among us.
One of the most important qualities of the Church stressed in “Lumen Gentium” is that she is a community – a community of sinners being guided toward and formed for holiness. Here is what the charter says: “God…does not make (men and women) holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased him to bring them together as one people, a people who acknowledges him in truth and serves him in holiness” (LG, 9). The bishops at the Council reminded us that the Church of Jesus Christ is first and foremost a People of God; “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people…who in times past were not a people, but are now the people of God.”
Our forebears were the ancient Israelites, with whom God made many covenants; the Chosen People whom God watched over and protected and led into freedom. We stand on their shoulders. We are the wild branch grafted on to the original vine. Lumen Gentium further states Moreover, like the Israelites of old, who wandered in exile through the desert in search of their promised land, and were already called the Church of God; so too, we the new Israel, “while in this present age goes in search of a future and abiding city, is called the Church of Christ” (LG, 9).
Sisters and brothers, in our day the Church is beset with many challenges. Chief among these is the cultural temptation to cut ties with community and go it alone. This movement has been called by some “expressive individualism.” Doing one’s own thing has become more important than working together. When applied to spirituality “expressive individualism” causes many people to say, “I am a spiritual person but I am not religious. I can have a relationship with God without belonging to a church community. I have my own beliefs and they do not fit into any creed.”
Bishop Charles Thompson of Evansville, who came to speak with us about being Catholic in a culture of choice, told us that because of the unraveling of commitments to community today America is a wilderness for many people. Without the ties and support of community we feel alone and abandoned. Bishop Thompson spoke about how Catholics who insist on defining themselves as liberals and conservative, progressives or traditional are weakening the message of Christ’s gospel of the unity of humankind.
It seems to me that the message of John the Baptist is more meaningful today than ever. The ministry of John the Baptist was centered on calling Israel back to community at a time when Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and other splinter groups were threatening to tear apart Israel apart. John was a voice in the wilderness for the scattered people of God. “Come home,” he cried. “Get beyond your factions and theological differences. Repent the damage you have done to the People of God; admit that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy. Build a highway of trust and charity and God will come.” John’s message is one we should take to heart. We need the Church, broken and human as she is. If we did not need to be saved together Jesus would not have founded his Church.
I would like to close with a passage from “Habits of the Heart”, a study of why people do and do not make commitments in America today. It echoes the truth of “Lumen Gentium.”
“There are truths we do not see when we adopt the language of radical individualism. We do not find ourselves independently of other people and institutions but rather through them. We never get to the bottom of our selves on our own. We discover who we are face to face and side by side with others in work, love, and learning. We are not simply ends in ourselves, either as individuals or as a society. We are parts of a larger whole that we can neither forget nor imagine in our own image without paying a high price. If we are not to have a self that hangs in the void, slowly twisting in the wind, these are issues we cannot ignore.”