At its very heart, the Church is not a structure, but a mystery. The Church is not of human origin, but rather originates within the Holy Trinity.
Much has been made of the fact that the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) placed its chapter on the People of God before the chapter on the hierarchy. That is indeed important and it shows a certain priority.
At least as important, however, is the council's first chapter, The Mystery of the Church. To understand the notion of the People of God properly one needs to understand it in the light of the Trinity, the core of the Church's mystery.
Seen in that light, there should be no illusions about the Church being fundamentally similar to any political institution whether it be a democracy, a monarchy or some other human structure.
In its second sentence, Lumen Gentium calls the Church a sacrament – "a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race."
Then, in its next three articles, the document describes the Church successively in light of each of the three persons of the Trinity. Just as the Trinity is a communion so is the Church.
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The Church is a spiritual reality with all three persons of the Trinity active in its flourishing.
The Church is a mystery because it is the instrument of God's plan to share his own life with men and women. Through the Church, we are drawn into the very nature of God.
The Church was part of God's mysterious design from the moment of creation. God prepared the Church "in marvelous fashion" through the history of the people of Israel, manifested it in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and will bring it "to glorious completion at the end of time" (LG 2).
Then, in turning to the Son, it is significant that Lumen Gentium does not mention Jesus' commissioning of the apostles or of his giving the keys to Peter. Rather, it says, "The origin and growth of the Church are symbolized by the blood and water which issued from the open side of the crucified Jesus" (LG 3).
The sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist nourish our life in Christ, and it is through them that we begin to share in divine life. The unity of believers is expressed and achieved through the Eucharist.
The council fathers are driving home the point that the Church is not primarily an institution, but a sacrament – "the universal sacrament of salvation," it later states (LG 48). The council's ardent desire is to bring "the light of Christ which is resplendent on the face of the Church" to all of humanity (LG 1).
Likewise, the Holy Spirit "dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful, as in a temple, prays and bears witness in them that they are his adopted children. . . . By the power of the Gospel he rejuvenates the Church, constantly renewing it and leading it to perfect union with its spouse" (LG 4).
The council's emphasis on the Holy Spirit is one of its remarkable features, something that had been largely missing in the neoscholastic theology that at that time dominated seminary textbooks.
Lumen Gentium shows the Church as a spiritual reality with all three persons of the Trinity active in its flourishing and ensuring the efficacy of its mission.
Fifty years after Vatican II, there is still a tendency to talk of the Church as an institution that dispenses joyless rules and regulations. That tendency can be seen among the critics of the Church, but even many faithful Catholics see the Church more as an institution than as a communion.
As well, it is also more difficult – for many reasons – to pass on the faith to the next generation. One reason is that being an active member of the Church is no longer something that can be easily accomplished by the rote following of a set of well-defined practices.
We now realize that the Church demands more of the faithful and offers more to the faithful than membership in a religious club. Being a full member of the Church requires more than showing up for Mass once a week. It requires giving your whole life to God.
But we also realize that a life fully active in the Church means receiving life in abundance, an unfathomable abundance of sharing in the nature of God. It is a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5.22).
When the Church is conceived of more as a mystery than as an institution, the vistas change radically. The rules do not disappear, but become secondary in comparison with a life lived in communion with God.