Compared to the Council of Jerusalem—the First Church Council, the document of which formed the First Reading of the Mass today—the Second Vatican Council produced hundreds of pages of conciliar and post-conciliar documents. Whether the final document of a council is a line, a paragraph or a textbook with thousands of pages, every Church council retains the same essential elements. First, a council is convoked to address a need or needs that affect the body of Christ, the Church. For example, the issue of circumcision, scripture, divinity of Christ, heretical teachings, modernity, etc., were all important issues for which councils were convoked. Second, a location of interest is chosen, for example, Jerusalem was the location of the first Church council; the first Ecumenical (worldwide) Council was held in Nicaea, while Vatican City was the location of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. Other councils like Ephesus, Chalcedon, Constantinople, Lateran, etc., had those names of places as their location. Third, the council deliberates over arguments from theology, Scripture, and pastoral experience, with the Holy Spirit as its guide. Fourth, a solemn doctrinal definition is formed, which becomes binding and infallible. This comes out in writing as a document or act of the council approved by the pope.
The controversy that necessitated the convoking of the Council of Jerusalem was the Jewish practice of circumcision and whether converts from non-Jewish origins should submit to circumcision and the Mosaic Law. Long before Fr. Martin Luther asked the question whether salvation is through works of the law or through faith in Christ, the Church had settled this question and decreed that we are saved by the grace of Christ’s redeeming death and resurrection. The greatest law for Christians then is obedience to Christ who has commanded us to love one another in the same manner He loved us. Hence, He concluded, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (John 14:23). How God dwells among His people, especially in the Church will further be elucidated by Jesus as He introduces the person of the Holy Spirit, who is God’s gift to believers.
First, the Holy Spirit will become the teacher of the Church. Whenever the Church gathers, as was the case in the Council of Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit will be her teacher, reminding her all that Christ taught and their pastoral application. We find the words of the final document of the Council of Jerusalem very striking: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us...” (Acts 15:28). The disciples in council express their confidence that the decision they reached was guided by the Holy Spirit, as Christ promised them in John 16:13. Today’s apostles continue to appeal to this union of divine guidance and human discernment in decisions reached in past councils and those yet to be convoked.
Second, the Holy Spirit comes to live in the heart of each individual who keeps the word. Jesus’ promise that He and the Father will come to dwell with anyone who loves Him is fulfilled when the Holy Spirit takes possession of the believer, who through baptism is adopted into God’s family and through confirmation is strengthened to bear witness to Christ. The Holy Spirit becomes for the believer a welcome guest, sweet refreshment, and the gift of God, pouring dew on our dryness, washing the stains of guilt away, bending that which was stubborn, melting the frozen, warming the chill, and guiding our steps that often go astray. The Holy Spirit’s presence in the Church and the believer is symbolically expressed in today’s 2nd reading from the book of Revelation, which points to the New Jerusalem gleaming with the splendor of God. The splendor of God, the Lamb, and the light is revealed in the Church and in every faithful believer.
Fr. Chukwudi Jo Okonkwo