Where is the Church of God to be found? If the Church that brings salvation is a mystery, can it actually be found in the world, is it an invisible entity or is it simply a pious hope?
The Second Vatican Council is unequivocal in answering this question. "The Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him" (LG 8).
That funny word "subsists" has a history. The original proposal at Vatican II was to use the word "is" in order to say something like, "The one true Church is the Catholic Church." Some bishops, however, argued successfully that such a formulation would appear to deny that other Christian churches are instruments of sanctification.
So the formulation was changed to "The one true Church is present in the Catholic Church." But there were problems with this approach as well. It implied that the true Church was some entity greater than the Catholic Church. It seemed also to deny that all salvation comes through the Catholic Church - a basic tenet of doctrine from the Church's early days.
So the council fathers settled on "subsist." It made clear that the Mystical Body is fully present in the Catholic Church and that such fullness is found nowhere else.
There was perhaps a time when such an assertion might have been followed by trumpet-blowing and chest-thumping. But not at Vatican II.
Lumen Gentium went on immediately to assert that "many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside (the Catholic Church's) visible confines." This assertion provided much of the foundation for the post-Vatican II ecumenical movement.
CNS PHOTO | L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO VIA REUTERS
Pope Francis kisses the foot of a prison inmate during the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper at Rome's Casal del Marmo prison for minors March 28.
The document then proceeded to assert that the Church must follow Christ's example of ministering in the midst of poverty and oppression. It noted that Christ "emptied himself, taking the nature of a slave" (Philippians 2.7) and that the Church should do likewise.
The Church, it said, needs earthly resources to proclaim its mission, but its main proclamation is through "humility and self-denial."
This is an astounding statement, one which has only begun to be realized in a few small corners of the Church, such as the corner occupied by the current bishop of Rome. Pope Francis embodies the council's teaching that the Church should take the same path as that taken by Jesus Christ. How novel!
In the poor and suffering, the Church recognizes the face of Christ, Lumen Gentium continued. The Church itself is "at once holy and always in need of purification."
People sometimes talk about the spirit of Vatican II in such a way that it supersedes the actual text of the Vatican II documents. This is a dubious claim. But here we see the spirit of Vatican II written right into perhaps its most important document.
Yes, the fullness of the means of salvation is to be found in the Catholic Church, but that is no cause for triumphalism, Lumen Gentium seems to be saying.
The Church ought to be a humble Church, one that repents for its sins, one that relies on Christ for its power. The Church evangelizes, not with a long list of its strengths and accomplishments, but with empty hands.
This is one of the most astonishing little sections in the Vatican II documents. The council remains true to the faith it has received, but it adds a twist at the end, one that has the power to transform how the Church perceives itself and how it presents itself to the world.
Pope Francis has clearly taken that section of Lumen Gentium to heart. He has no time for the religious "leader" who, he says, is "self-sufficient, has all the answers to every question."
Some say the Church would draw more people to itself if it had grand expansive ceremonies, lots of showmanship and a touting of its many accomplishments.
But in this section, the Vatican II fathers suggest that that is not the true face of the Church. The Church is most true to itself when it walks hand-in-hand with the poor, the suffering and the dying.
The Catholic Church will always offer the fullness of the Christian faith. Equally important, however, is that it offer that fullness to the world in a spirit of humility and poverty.