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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Why Call Ourselves the "People of God”?

Matthew Vetter

In Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church in the documents of Vatican II, the image of “People of God” is employed to describe the Church. Throughout salvation history, from the Old Testament to the New Testament, the People of God are people that God called out to be His people as examples to all of mankind. The People of God live out their relationship with God through the universal call to holiness.

An Idea That Goes Way Back

Through salvation history, God instructed people in the way in which they ought to live. He began with Adam. The People of God expanded through a series of covenants in the Old Testament to all of Israel. The people of Israel on Mount Sinai are called the People of God using the word from which we get the word "church." “The word ‘Church’...means convocation or an assembly.” God formed Israel as the People of God to teach all the nations His statues and ways. “All things...happened as a preparation and figure of that new and perfect covenant which was to be ratified in Christ.”

Jesus Christ is the fullest of revelation of God to man. Christ expands the covenant to all who believe and serve God. Christ’s new covenant established the Catholic Church to bring salvation to all of mankind. Christ “called a race made up of Jews and Gentiles which would be one, not according to the flesh, but in the Spirit, and this race would be the new People of God.” The People of God expanded to all who believe in God and are born anew through the waters of baptism.

The People of God are members of the Body of Christ through baptism, and they have Christ as their head. “That messianic people has as its head Christ.” Lumen Gentium uses the image of the People of God within the framework of the image of the Church as the Body of Christ. “’The Church’ is the People that God gathers in the whole world.... She draws her life from the word and the Body of Christ and so herself becomes Christ’s Body.” The People of God are present in liturgy, in local community, and together in common bond to God throughout the world. “All those...God has gathered together and established as the Church, that it may be for each and everyone the visible sacrament of this saving unity.”

A Necessary Balance

The Church exists as the People of God to be a visible sign that displays God’s plan of salvation to all people of the world. The People of God “should everywhere on earth bear witness to Christ and give an answer to everyone who asks a reason for the hope of an eternal life which is theirs.” The People of God are called to imitate Christ and to bring Christ to all people of the world (cf. Mt 28:19-20). By being called to imitate Christ, everyone in the People of God has the universal call to holiness. The way in which they live their universal call to holiness depends on their vocation.

The universal call to holiness is lived out by the People of God mainly through three vocations: the married state, the clerical state, and the consecrated religious state. In order to draw attention to the call to holiness for everyone in the Church, the Second Vatican Council chose specifically to emphasize the image of the Church as the People of God. “The idea of the Church as People of God was a necessary balance to a purely hierarchical approach.... The emphasis on the People of God in the Council was not intended in any way to downgrade the existence of the hierarchical Church.” The use of the image of the Church as the People of God was meant as a complementary view that also is an expression of Church.

In the past, heavy emphasis was placed on the hierarchical structure of the Church. This led to the mistaken notion for some that only priests and religious are called to be holy. The use of the image of the People of God is done to emphasis that all people in the Church, regardless of their vocation, are People of God and all have the universal call to holiness that everyone needs to live out according to his or her state in life.

Making God Real to the World

The People of God manifest the reality of God to the world through their vocation in which they serve in God’s plan of salvation. Those who are married are called to live holy lives by imaging Christ in their married state. “Christian married couples help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in the rearing of their children. Hence by reason of their state in life and of their position they have their own gifts in the People of God.”

The image of the People of God reflects how they live their lives in the service of God. For most people, it is in the married state. The People of God in the married state image the Church. “In what might be regarded as the domestic Church, the parents, by word and example, are the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children.” The People of God proclaim to the world and to each other the full reality of God. They are to model appropriate behavior to their children in order to teach them what is expected of them as children of God. All persons belonging to the People of God are to shine forth the splendid reality of God through their states in life. Everything that a Christian does should be in accordance with his or her call to holiness. Holiness is to permeate married love, the raising of children, and contact with all the people they meet. “Worshipping everywhere by their holy actions, the laity consecrate the world itself to God.” It is through the laity that the world encounters Christ. The laity are a critical part of the People of God to be the light of Christ to the nations.

People with vocations to the clerical state and the consecrated religious life also reflect the universal call to holiness. Their call is lived out according to their states. Those in the clerical state are called to be shepherds of the People of God. The Roman Pontiff has supreme authority to teach and guide the universal Church. He exercises his role in confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32).

The bishops of the Church are successors of the Apostles. They live out their vocations as pastors of the People of God under them. Likewise, priests as deacons live out their vocations in service of the People of God at the parish level.

The hierarchical structure gives governance and guidance to the People of God to assist them on their journeys towards God in heaven. Those in the consecrated religious life live their vocations according to the prescribed rules of their order. They also serve as an example of total submission to God in service of their fellow men. The vocation to the clerical state or the consecrated religious life is not superior to the married vocation. Rather, it is a different calling by God for a person to achieve holiness. The three vocations are not in competition with each other. They are different calls to assist the other members of the People of God on their journeys.

  • © Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange

    Matthew Vetter graduated from West Point and serves in the Army. He is currently working on a Master's Degree in Theology. He and his wife Jennifer are certified teachers in Natural Family Planning through the Couple to Couple League.

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