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from issue no. 07/08 - 2011


The perception of the Church as ‘reflected light’ that unites the Fathers of the first millennium and Vatican Council II

The last Council recognizes that  the wellspring of the Church is not the Church itself, but the living presence of Christ Himself who personally builds the Church. The light that is Christ reflects itself in the Church as in a mirror

by Cardinal Georges Cottier, OP

Cardinal Georges Cottier

Cardinal Georges Cottier


In 2012, which is close upon us, there will be the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican Council II. Half a century later, what has been a major event in the life of the Church continues to provoke debate – which probably will intensify in the coming months – on the most suitable interpretation to give to that Council assembly.

Disputes of a hermeneutical nature, important though they be, risk becoming controversies among experts. Whereas it may be of interest to everyone, especially in the present moment, to rediscover what the source was of the inspiration that animated Vatican Council II.
The most common response acknowledges that the event was motivated by the desire to renew the inner life of the Church and also to adapt its discipline to the new exigencies so as to repropose with renewed vigor the requirements of its mission in the modern world, alert in the faith to the ‘signs of the times’. But to get to the root, we need to grasp the inner countenance of the Church that the Council sought to recognize and re-present to the world in its effort to come up to date.
The title and the first lines of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, devoted to the Church, are here illuminating in their clarity and simplicity: “Christ is the Light of nations. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church”. At the start of its most important document, the last Council recognizes that the wellspring of the Church is not the Church itself, but the living presence of Christ Himself who personally builds the Church. The light that is Christ reflects itself in the Church as in a mirror.
The consciousness of this elementary given (the Church in the world is a reflection of the presence and action of Christ) illuminates all that the last Council said about the Church. The Belgian theologian Gérard Philips, who was chief drafter of the Constitution Lumen gentium, emphasized precisely this datum at the beginning of his monumental commentary on the Council text. According to him, “the Constitution on the Church adopts from the very beginning the Christocentric perspective, a perspective which is insistently affirmed throughout the development. The Church is profoundly convinced of it: the light of the Gentiles radiates not from her but from her divine Founder: yet, the Church well knows, that being reflected on her countenance, this irradiation reaches the whole of humanity” (La Chiesa e il suo mistero nel Concilio Vaticano II: storia, testo e commento della costituzione Lumen gentium [The Church and its mystery in Vatican Council II: history, text and commentary on the Constitution Lumen gentium], Jaca Book, Milan 1975, vol. I, p. 69). A perspective taken through to the last lines of the same commentary, in which Philips repeated that “it is not for us to prophesy the future of the Church, its setbacks and developments. The future of this Church, of which God decided to make a reflection of Christ, Light of the Gentiles, is in His hands” (ibid., vol. II, p. 314).
The perception of the Church as reflection of the light of Christ unites Vatican Council II to the Fathers of the Church, who from the early centuries made use of the image of the mysterium lunae, the mystery of the moon, to suggest the nature of the Church and the behavior that befits it. Like the moon, ‘the Church does not shine by its own light but by that of Christ’ (‘fulget Ecclesia non suo sed Christi lumine’), says Saint Ambrose. While for Cyril of Alexandria ‘the Church is bathed in the divine light of Christ, which is the only light in the realm of souls. Thus there is one single light: in this single light, however, the Church also shines, but it is not Christ himself however’.
On this point, the evaluation recently offered by the historian Enrico Morini in a discourse hosted on the site www.chiesa.espressonline.it, edited by Sandro Magister, deserves attention.
According to Morini – professor of the History of Christianity and the Churches at the University of Bologna – Vatican Council II set itself ‘in the perspective of absolute continuity with the tradition of the first millennium, following a periodization not purely mathematical, but essential, since the first millennium of the history of the Church is that of the Church of the seven councils, still undivided... Encouraging the renewal of the Church, the Council did not intend to introduce something new – as progressives and conservatives respectively desire and fear – but to get back to what had been lost’.
The observation might create misunderstanding, if confused with the historiographic myth that sees the history of the Church as a progressive decline and a growing estrangement from Christ and the Gospel. Nor can one pay heed to artificial criticisms such as that the dogmatic development of the second millennium does not conform to the Tradition shared during the first millennium of the undivided Church. As Cardinal Charles Journet highlighted, in reference to the Blessed John Henry Newman and his essay on the development of dogma, the depositum we have received is not a dead deposit, but a living deposit. And everything alive remains so by growing.
At the same time, the correspondence between the perception of the Church as expressed in Lumen gentium and that already shared in the early centuries of Christianity must be understood as an objective fact. That is, the Church is not assumed as a subject in itself, as pre-established. The Church keeps to the fact that its presence in the world flourishes and perdures as a recognition of the presence and action of Christ.

<I>The Transfiguration</I>, a mosaic from the first half of the eleventh century in the monastery of Hosios Loukas, Chaidari, Athens

The Transfiguration, a mosaic from the first half of the eleventh century in the monastery of Hosios Loukas, Chaidari, Athens

Sometimes, even in the most recent happenings in the Church, this perception of the wellspring of the Church seems to become blurred for many Christians, and a sort of reversal seems to occur: from reflection of the presence of Christ (who by the gift of His Spirit builds the Church) there is a shift to perceiving the Church as a body materially and conceptually committed to attesting and establishing its presence in history by itself.

This second model of perception of the nature of the Church, which does not conform to the faith, leads to real consequences.

If, as it must, the Church perceives itself in the world as a reflection of the presence of Christ, the preaching of the Gospel can only be done through dialogue and freedom, in the abandonment of all means of coercion, both material and spiritual. This is the path indicated by Paul VI in his first encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, published in 1964, which perfectly expresses the Council’s view of the Church. The survey that the Council also made of the divisions between Christians and then of believers of other religions, reflected the same perception of the Church. Thus the plea for forgiveness for the sins of Christians, which shocked and caused debate within the body of the Church when it was presented by John Paul II, is also perfectly consonant with the consciousness of the Church described so far. The Church asks forgiveness not in line with the logic of worldly honor, but because it recognizes that the sins of its sons dim the light of Christ that it is called to reflect in its countenance. All its sons are sinners called to holiness by the workings of grace. A sanctification that is always a gift of God’s mercy, for He desires that no sinner – however horrendous the sin –­ be snatched by the evil one on the road to perdition. So one sees the point of Cardinal Journet’s formulation: the Church is without sin, but not without sinners.
The reference to the true nature of the Church as a reflection of the light of Christ also has immediate pastoral implications. Unfortunately, in the present context, there is the tendency on the part of bishops to exercise their magisterium through pronouncements in the media, in which they often provide instructions and guidance on what Christians should or should not do. As if the presence of Christians in the world were the outcome of strategies and prescriptions and did not spring from faith, that is from the recognition of the presence of Christ and His message. Perhaps, in today’s world, it would be easier and more comforting for everyone to listen to pastors who speak to everyone without presupposing the faith. As Benedict XVI recognized during his homily in Lisbon on 11 May, 2010, “Often we are anxiously preoccupied with the social, cultural and political consequences of the faith, taking for granted that faith is present, which unfortunately is less and less realistic”.

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