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The Second Vatican Council brought about new understanding of discipleship and what it means to imitate Jesus. Learn how to be a disciple in the modern world by being a servant to humanity, seeking union with Christ, showing concern for the poor, struggling to build peace and believing in God's love.

Vatican 2 Today

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Jesus Christ:
The Model for All Humanity

by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

For Christians, the importance of being a disciple of Jesus is quite obvious. Jesus is our source of life and salvation. Scripture passages attesting to this readily come to mind. Peter says of Jesus, for example, "There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved" (Acts 4:12).

The Second Vatican Council, too, reminds us what we already know: that Jesus won salvation for us "by his blood which he freely shed" (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, #22) and "sent the apostles into the whole world, commanding them: 'Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit'" (Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity, #5). Each of us who has become a disciple of Christ and member of the Church through Baptism is called to play a part in the saving mission of Christ and the Church.

Beyond these familiar truths, Vatican II also takes us to new ground in our understanding of discipleship. Especially in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, we are introduced to the engaging idea of Christ as the model for all humanity. It's not only baptized Christians who are to find meaning in embracing Christ as a model. The Council invites the rest of the human family to do the same, to see Christ as one who will invest humanity with great meaning and dignity. Throughout this document, the bishops see themselves as "bearers of a message of salvation for all of humanity" (GS, #1). They want to address not only the members of their own flock, "but the whole of humanity as well" (GS, #2). The Church leaders do not see themselves as separated from the larger human family whose struggles they share.

Nothing says this so well as the powerful opening lines of this groundbreaking document: "The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time…are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts.…That is why they cherish a feeling of deep solidarity with the human race and its history" (GS, #1).


Christ: the perfect human

The belief that Christ is the model for all humanity is a signature teaching of Vatican II that gives a deep and illuminating answer to the question of why we should be imitators and disciples of Christ. As the Council states, "The Church...believes that the key, the center and the purpose of the whole of human history, is to be found in its Lord and Master" (GS, #10). The Council later affirms, "It is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of humanity truly becomes clear…Christ, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals humanity to itself [emphasis added] and brings to light its very high calling" (GS, #22).

As one becomes a disciple and imitator of Christ, the document implies, one does not abandon one's humanity or become less human. Rather one becomes more fully human. "To follow Christ, the perfect human," the Council states, "is to become more human oneself" (GS, #41).

The Council sums up its teaching on Christ as the key to understanding the meaning and destiny of humanity in these words: "The Lord is the goal of human history, the focal point of the desires of history and civilization, the center of humanity, the joy of all hearts and the fulfillment of all aspirations.…Animated and drawn together in his Spirit, we press onwards on our journey towards the consummation of history which fully corresponds to the plan of his love: 'to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth' (Eph 1:10)" (GS, #45).

Pope John Paul II advances this teaching

During his years as bishop and archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla—now Pope John Paul II—attended all four sessions of Vatican II (1962-1965) and served on several important committees. When he was elected pope in 1978, he saw it as his duty to continue the implementation of the Council.

One Council teaching that he especially took to heart was this notion of Christ as the "goal of human history" and the model for all of humanity. The first line of his first encyclical, The Redeemer of the Human Race, is "Christ is the center of the universe and of human history." Several of the ideas and passages quoted above from Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World found their way into his encyclical.

In addition, the idea that Christ is the model and key for understanding the full meaning of our humanity also began surfacing in his speeches around the world. For example, during his first trip to Poland as pope in June 1979, John Paul II gave a bold and dramatic address to Catholics gathered in Warsaw's Victory Square where a good number of the Communist Party leaders were also in attendance. "To Poland," the pope proclaimed, "the Church brought Christ, the key to understanding the great and fundamental reality that is man." And because of this, the pope continued, "Christ cannot be excluded from human history in any part of the globe, from any latitude or longitude of the earth. Excluding Christ from human history is a sin against humanity."

Pope John Paul II brought a similar message to American youth at New York's Madison Square Garden on October 3 of the same year: "When you wonder about the mystery of yourself, look to Christ who gives you the meaning of life. When you wonder what it means to be a mature person, look to Christ who is the fullness of humanity."

Five ways to be a disciple today

Reflection on the documents of the Second Vatican Council has led me to compile the following list of significant characteristics of today's disciples.

1. Today's disciples are servants of humanity. The documents of Vatican II encouraged Church members to place themselves in solidarity with the struggles and aspirations of the whole human family. In his first visit to the United States as pope in October of 1979, John Paul II expressed exactly this attitude. To an immense and diverse crowd in Boston, the first stop of his journey, the pope said, "I want to greet all Americans without distinction. I want to tell you that the pope is your friend and a servant of your humanity."

Indeed, the spirit of the Council led its followers to see themselves as servants of the human race and supporters of the positive signs of authentic human progress—even when discovered outside the borders of the Church. True disciples, the Council taught, should avoid thinking that "what human enterprise and ability have achieved is…a rival to the creator." Rather, it says, "Christians are convinced that the achievements of the human race are a sign of God's greatness and the fulfillment of his mysterious design" (GS, #34).

2. Today's disciples seek vital union with the risen Christ. This union is fostered through prayer. But it happens especially in the context of the Eucharist and the sacraments of the Church, as revitalized by the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. Most notable among these reforms has been the "full, conscious and active" participation in liturgical celebrations on the part of all the faithful (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, #14).

We encounter the risen Jesus most fruitfully in the sacraments. "By Baptism," the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy tells us, "men and women are implanted in the paschal mystery of Christ; they die with him, are buried with him and rise with him"—becoming children of God (#6).

It is especially in the Eucharist, "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #11), that disciples of Christ place themselves in intimate union with the risen Christ. It was in the context of the Last Supper, we may recall, that Jesus advised his first disciples, "Remain in me, as I remain in you" (John 15:4). He used the image of a branch remaining on the vine to convey the utter intimacy of this union—an image that disciples of our era need to keep pondering.

3. Today's disciples show special concern for the poor. Even though human progress has benefited many, almost every society has great numbers of people who are severely disadvantaged and needy. Socially aware followers of Christ in our day look for ways to reach out to those who are poor and "the least of Jesus' brothers and sisters" (see Matthew 25:40). Some individual Christians and parish communities make generous efforts to provide food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless and, perhaps even better, seek to change unjust social structures and laws in order to set free the oppressed. This, too, is a vital part of our mission as followers of Jesus today.

4. Today's disciples struggle to build a more peaceful and united world. Men and women who work to overcome the divisions separating Christian Churches are certainly among the peacemakers praised and described by Christ as "children of God" (Matthew 5:9). So also are those who strive patiently to create a better atmosphere of love and understanding between Christians and members of other world religions such as Islam and Judaism. In light of Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism and Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, all those engaged in the noble task of removing walls and promoting the unity of the human family should be viewed as truly performing part of Jesus' mission in our time.

5. Today's disciples take a broad and optimistic view of God's saving love. Vatican II holds up to us the image of a gracious "God who 'wills that all be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth' (1 Tim 2:4)" (SC, #5). Yes, the Council assures Christians that they are saved through Jesus' life, death and resurrection. But the Council also states: "All this holds true not only for Christians but also for all people of good will in whose hearts grace is active invisibly. For since Christ died for everyone, and since all are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery" (GS, #22). The follower of Christ, therefore, does not hesitate to work confidently and hopefully in partnership with the whole human family.

Our lives and Church have changed in so many ways since the Second Vatican Council ended in December of 1965. God's love and the Spirit's guidance remain constants through times of change. One way the Spirit guides Christian disciples is through the documents of the Council. As we continue to grow in our understanding of the vision of Vatican II, may each of us also grow into the fullness of our humanity and strive to live as true disciples of Christ.

This is the final issue of Vatican 2 Today. Our next 12-month newsletter, Eucharist: Jesus With Us, begins in March 2005 and ends in February 2006.


Question Box:

• What do you make of the statement that Jesus is the model for all humanity? How does your Christian discipleship invite you to become more fully human?

• How well are you living the five characteristics of a disciple listed in the main article? To which one(s) do you need to give more attention?

• What more must you do to continue to grow in your understanding of the vision of Vatican II and into the fullness of your humanity as a true disciple of Christ?




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