The People of God is the communion of the baptized on pilgrimage in the Holy Spirit towards the fullness of salvation.
One of the most unique – and most misinterpreted – emphases to come out of the Second Vatican Council was that on the People of God.
As I noted in an earlier article, the original draft for the council’s document on the Church had a heavily hierarchical taint, viewing the Church in the light of a mediaeval monarchy with the laity as its passive “subjects” whose main virtue was obedience.
The Vatican II fathers wanted a much different emphasis. They wanted, first, to present the Church as the latest and next-to-last development in God’s plan of salvation. Its origins lay in God’s very reason for creating the universe, and its precursor was God’s chosen people, Israel.
The document approved by the council fathers, Lumen Gentium (LG), said, “Already present in figure at the beginning of the world, this Church was prepared in marvellous fashion in the history of the people of Israel and in the Old Alliance” (LG 2). From the beginning of time, God was forming, not an institution, but a people.
As the document developed during the discussions at Vatican II, the notion of having a chapter on the People of God arose. At first, it was to be the third chapter of the document, coming after one on the hierarchy.
But the bishops decided that the basic reality of what God was creating in the Church was a people. The hierarchy, while essential, was secondary. So the People of God became chapter two, the hierarchy chapter three and the laity chapter four.
God has, the bishops wrote, “willed to make women and men holy and to save them, not as individuals without any bond between them, but rather to make them into a people who might acknowledge him and serve him in holiness” (LG 9).
The Church is the new People of God “in whose hearts the Holy Spirit dwells as in a temple.” The basic reality of the Church is not its institutional structure, but rather that it is a communion of the baptized.
Moreover, there is continuity, not opposition, between the people of Israel and the new People of God. This realization opened the door to a greater respect for the Jewish people and for improved relations between Catholics and Jews.
The Church, however, cannot be seen simply as an extension of the Old Testament People of God. The Church is a sign and instrument of the universality of salvation, a communion that is formed, not from the bonds of nation or race, but from water and the Holy Spirit.
In the Old Testament, priests, prophets and kings mediated between God and his people, but in an imperfect way. Jesus Christ is the perfect priest, the perfect prophet and the perfect king. His faithful people share in these offices of priest, prophet and king. (In next week’s article, I will examine this in more detail.)
The notion of the People of God has sometimes been interpreted as a “sociological” concept, as though the council fathers intended to turn governance in the Church into a democracy. Collaborative decision-making could be much more in evidence in the Church. But the People of God is a concept related to salvation, not governance.
Just as all people are called to salvation, “All men and women are called to belong to the new People of God” (LG 13). The People of God is a dynamic missionary concept of the Church, not a static, business-as-usual notion.
The primary reality in the Church is the communion of the baptized on pilgrimage toward the fullness of salvation. But this does not mean the hierarchy is abolished. Christ chose the apostles, charged them with a mission and gave them sacramental powers and authority for carrying out that mission.
The notion of the People of God needs to be supplemented by the notion of the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation. The Church is the Body of Christ, a community that lives and breathes because it has order.
There is a diversity of members and of gifts, but structure within that diversity. “Among these gifts, the primacy belongs to the grace of the apostles to whose authority the Spirit himself subjects even those who are endowed with charisms” (LG 7).
It is through the Church that the baptized receive eternal life. The hierarchical priesthood is given to the Church, not for the glorification and personal power of the clergy, but for service to the people in God’s plan of salvation.
Vatican II’s new emphasis on the People of God did not push aside earlier Church teaching. But it surely did give a different tone and texture to the relations between clergy and laity. No more could one legitimately see them as two different castes. Both are, at their core, equal members of God’s people.
Moreover, the notion of the People of God has given great importance to another key Vatican II concept that we will meet in a few weeks – the universal call to holiness.