The People of God and the Pilgrim Church:
Vatican II Images of the Church
This paper will examine and explain the use of the People of God and the Pilgrim Church as images of the Church, according to the teaching of The Second Vatican Council. These images are foundational to Lumen Gentium.[i] We will discuss the roots of these images sprouting in the rich soil of Pope John XXIII’s revolutionary papacy and the resourcement approach of the Council Fathers; reveal the essence of the People of God as the Body of Christ and a people ‘groaning inwardly’ on pilgrimage; and illumine the inspiringly balanced, scriptural and Christ-centric view of the Church set forth by Vatican II.
Rich Soil of Renewal
The significance of the images of the People of God and the Pilgrim Church becomes clearer when one understands a little about the situation of the Church coming into Vatican II, which ostensibly seemed in good health.[ii] However, the Church was also living and moving amidst the swiftly changing and modernizing world. The most recent Ecumenical Councils, Trent (ended 1563) and Vatican I (1870) occurred in an era when the Church was responding to serious schism and attack. The latter council especially anathematized various aspects of modernism, but most notably declared the doctrine of Papal Infallibility as dogma.[iii] Against this background, the humble Pope John XXIII emerges as a revolutionary pope, who announced Vatican II, and whose simple, yet deep spirituality revealed a relentless optimism and desire for aggiornamento, or updating, of the Church … a spiritual renewal.[iv] Vatican II would thus be a pastoral council, assuming all Church doctrine and dogma as accepted but focusing on living the Church’s teaching and the People of God applying them in the life of the Church in the modern world.[v] It is amidst this renewal approach, inspired by John XXIII and carried on by Paul VI, that the theological trend, sometimes called resourcement, flourished among many Council Fathers. The Council Fathers essentially focused on “getting back to our origins [and]… a renewed emphasis on the Bible”, asking: ‘What does Scripture say about the Church?’[vi] The resourcement approach strongly influenced the concepts embedded in the images of “People of God” and “Pilgrim Church”. Heretofore, the images of the Church were articulated to the faithful along the lines of scholastic theology (viz. St. Thomas Aquinas) and defined from a more organizational, authoritative standpoint.[vii] The Council Fathers departed from this prior approach by articulating the Church instead as a “sheepfold”, a “cultivated field”, the “Body of Christ”, and other similar biblical images[viii] – not in an antithetical manner, but in a complimentary, balancing manner alongside the scholastic methodology.[ix] The idea here is that Scripture moves people, unlike the more abstract, technical (yet still very necessary) approach of scholastic theology.[x] Thus, ‘moving’ the diversely gifted People of God to apostolic activity and bearing witness to Christ while always ‘on the way’ as a Pilgrim Church towards Christ’s heavenly kingdom, is a key exhortation that emerges in Lumen Gentium. The Council focused intently in the new text of Lumen Gentium on an authentic, positive and Scripturally-based articulation of the mystery of the Church as the People of God and the Body of Christ, especially noting that everything said of the People of God, “is addressed equally to laity, religious and clergy.”[xi]
The People of God on Pilgrimage Comprise the Body of Christ, the Church
It is significant that the Council Fathers defined “People of God” to include the laity alongside the clergy and religious equally, as the latter two bespeak of clearly defined hierarchy and organization, while the laity has heretofore run the risk of being overlooked as a passive body.[xii] Pope Paul VI already had a different...
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