Before establishing the feast of Corpus Christi in 1264, Pope Urban IV called upon the services of St. Thomas Aquinas for the composition of prayers and hymns for the liturgical celebration of the feast. These compositions alone could be the object of a profound study of Eucharistic theology and spirituality. Yet St. Thomas also wrote of the Eucharist in many of his theological works, “synthesizing the patristic heritage of the Greek and Latin Fathers” and playing “a defining role in the development of Western eucharistic theology.”i
Saint Thomas treats of innumerable points of Eucharistic theology in his writings, including transubstantiation, the matter and form of the Sacrament, understanding the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the fruits of the Mass and of the reception of Holy Communion (just one of St. Thomas’s characteristic distinctions), a discussion of “sacramental” and “spiritual” reception of the Eucharist, and many other topics.ii
Saint Thomas also gives considerable attention are the effects of the Eucharist, including the spiritual nourishment and refreshment the Sacrament gives, the grace it bestows, and the relationship between the Eucharist and salvation. Among the effects of the Eucharist are the perfection of charity and union with Christ in the Church. As with other Eucharistic themes, in St. Thomas’s theology, this perfection is closely tied to an understanding of the Mass as a sacrifice, as well as the sanctification and salvation made possible by Christ’s Passion.
For St. Thomas, holiness of life consists largely of perfection in the theological virtue of charity.iii According to St. Thomas, the Holy Eucharist is the “sacrament of charity”. This is “one of Aquinas’ favorite designations of the Eucharist in the Summa,” according to Joseph Wawrykow.iv The power communicated through the instrumentality of the sacraments originates in the supreme act of charity, Christ’s Passion, which stands united with the Eucharist at the center of salvation history. To varying degrees, every sacrament is intrinsically related to the Passion. As Aidan Nichols writes,
In the Thomistic theology of the sacraments, no sacrament bears grace except inasmuch as it is related to the passion of Christ, the all-perfect satisfying, reconciling deed of God for our salvation in the humanity of the Son.v
Saint Thomas makes explicit the connection between the Eucharist, Christ’s Passion, and charity. First, he shows the relationship between the physical, historical reality of the Passion and its effect through the sacraments: “Christ’s Passion, although corporeal, has yet a spiritual effect from the Godhead united: and therefore it secures its efficacy by spiritual contact—namely, by faith and the sacraments of faith.”vi
Secondly, he brings together the Eucharist and the Passion by means of the union the sacrament causes between the faithful and Christ. “The Eucharist is the sacrament of Christ’s Passion according as a man is made perfect in union with Christ Who suffered,” St. Thomas writes. “Hence, as Baptism is called the sacrament of Faith, which is the foundation of the spiritual life, so the Eucharist is termed the sacrament of Charity, which is the bond of perfection (Col. 3:14).”vii
Man is ordered by grace to a “twofold union” with Christ, spiritual and corporeal.viii The Eucharist brings man into this union by making Christ himself and his Passion sacramentally present in and through the ritual and the appearances of bread and wine. ix The Sacrament nourishes man for the sake of his spiritual growth and brings him into union with Christ. “The Church’s sacraments are ordained for helping man in the spiritual life,” St. Thomas writes, and he describes the Eucharist as “spiritual food”. x
He also quotes St. John Damascene in making the connection between the Eucharist as food and the communion effected by partaking of this food: “We communicate with Christ through (the Eucharist), both because we partake of His flesh and Godhead, and because we communicate and are united to one another through it.”xi
In another question from his treatment of the Eucharist in the Summa, St. Thomas claims that “the effect of this sacrament ought to be considered, first of all and principally, from what is contained in this sacrament, which is Christ.”xii Commenting on St. Thomas’s Eucharistic theology, James O’Connor makes an important point connecting Christology, sacramental theology, and soteriology: “Since the Eucharist is Christ, it is with the Eucharist that one must be united, actually or in desire, in order to be saved.”xiii
Saint Thomas also distinguishes between the “immediate” and “ultimate” effects of the sacrament. The immediate effect is Christ himself, present in the Eucharist, while the ultimate effect is the unity of the Church, Christ’s mystical body.xiv Obviously, these effects are closely intertwined. The Real Presence and the union with Christ and the Church are bound to each other, and together contribute to man’s salvation. Saint Thomas writes, “The reality of the sacrament is the unity of the mystical body, without which there can be no salvation.”xv
The Eucharist is not merely about spiritual enrichment, then, but about man’s ultimate destiny, his salvation and his future state of glory: “For this reason, St. Thomas calls every reception of the Eucharist viaticum (and not merely one’s last holy communion, at the hour of death) because what this sacrament gives us is the power to reach glory, the vision of God.”xvi Saint Thomas treats of salvation and glory as they relate to the Eucharist in the Summa Theologica.xvii The Eucharist brings faithful into union with the Passion of Christ in order that they might share in his glory. xviii Furthermore, Anscar Vonier writes that it is not sufficient to employ the standard Thomistic definition of a sacrament—that it is an “external sign of internal grace”—unless “by ‘internal grace’ we also mean the cause of grace—Christ’s passion, and the goal of grace—eternal life.”xix
There is a final effect of the Eucharist we might do well to mention here. Nichols writes of a two-fold movement, a dynamism inherent in the Eucharist which is tied to the concept of glory, but has chiefly to do not with man being glorified but in giving glory to God through worship. He asserts that in the Eucharist there is a “catabatic” or downward movement of grace from God to human beings, and then an “anabatic” movement upwards towards God. “It is to such anabatic glorification that the sanctifying divine action is ultimately directed” he writes, and supports this claim on Christological grounds:
The example of our great high priest tells us so. Christ’s entire life and passion was directed chiefly to the glorification of the Father: even the salvation of the human race was subordinated to this goal.
There are many ways to think about the Church’s “Sacrament of sacraments,” the Holy Eucharist. Considering the effects of the Eucharist is one essential way of approaching this great Mysterium Fidei. And one way of summarizing these effects, as St. Thomas Aquinas presents them, is to say that the Eucharist sanctifies and saves man by drawing him into union with Christ and the members of his mystical body precisely as that body is united in the worship and glorification of the Father. Christ’s Passion, represented in each celebration of the Eucharist, is the source of sacramental grace and is the sacrifice of praise in which Christ and his people are joined together in one act of heavenly worship.
Such a summary must include the truth of the Eucharist as spiritual food—a truth so important to St. Thomas’s understanding of the sacrament. The Eucharist nourishes man and prepares him to glorify God by sanctifying him and bringing him into transformative union with Christ who is present in the sacrament. As Christ teaches in His Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, the Eucharist is the “living Bread” and the “Bread of Life.”
The Eucharist is Christ, Who has died and is risen, and the Sacrament communicates the life of the crucified and risen Lord to the faithful who receive Him with faith and devotion.
i Roch A. Kereszty, O.Cist., Wedding Feast of the Lamb: Eucharistic Theology from a Historical, Biblical and Systematic Perspective (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2004), 134.
ii Saint Thomas’s treatise on the Eucharist comprises Questions 73-83 of the Tertia Pars. For the themes named above, see especially III, qq. 75-78 (transubstantiation and Christ’s presence in the Eucharist), III, qq. 74 and 78 (matter and form), III, q. 62, a. 5, q. 73, a. 4, q. 79, aa. 1, 5, and 7, and q. 83, a. 1 (the sacrifice of the Mass; one might also fruitfully consult III, q. 48, a. 6 entitled “On the Efficacy of Christ’s Passion”), III, q. 79 and (the fruits of the Eucharist), and III, q. 80, aa. 1-4 (sacramental and spiritual reception).
iii Summa Theologica IIaIIae, q. 184, a. 2. Saint Thomas here identifies three different kinds of perfection in charity: loving God as he ought to be loved, tending toward God completely in one’s affective faculty, and the removal of obstacles to charity. According to St. Thomas, only the third of these perfections is possible for man in this life. He also says that man may attain the second of these three perfections in heaven, while the first is possible for God alone.
iv Joseph Wawrykow, “The Sacraments Thirteenth Century Theology”, The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology, Ed. Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) 228.
v Aidan Nichols, “St. Thomas and the Sacramental Liturgy”, The Thomist, Vol. 72, No. 4 (October, 2008) 588.
vi Summa Theologica III, q. 48, a. 6. Thomas here cites Romans 3:25: “Whom God hath proposed to be a propitiation, through faith in His blood.”
vii Ibid, III, q. 73, a. 3.
viii Colman E. O’Neill, O.P., Meeting Christ in the Sacraments (New York: Alba House, 1991) 129.
ix For a discussion of the distinction between the presences of Christ in the Eucharist (“substantial”) and of his Passion in the Mass (“operative”), see Charles Journet, The Mass: the Presence of the Sacrifice of the Cross (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008) 59 ff.
x Summa Theologica III, q. 73, a. 1.
xi Ibid, III, q. 73, a. 4. See St. John Damascene, De Fide Orthodoxa, iv.
xii Ibid, III, q. 79, a. 1. The second consideration in St. Thomas’s schema is “what is represented by this sacrament”, the Passion, his third consideration is that the Eucharist is given as food, and the fourth consideration is the nature of the sacramental appearances, bread and wine. Each of these considerations points in its own way to the various effects of the sacrament.
xiii James T. O’Connor, The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005) 325. O’Connor cites Summa Theologica III, q. 73, a. 5, where St. Thomas writes, “Even though the Eucharist is received after Baptism, it is nevertheless first in the intention of Christ.” See also III, q. 73, a. 3 for St. Thomas’s treatment of the Eucharist as necessary for salvation.
xiv Kereszty, Wedding Feast of the Lamb, 135. See Summa Theologica III, q. 73, a. 3. Anscar Vonier succinctly expresses the causality between these sacramental effects when he writes, “Christ’s sacramental Body makes Christ’s mystical Body.” See Abbot Anscar Vonier, A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist (Bethesda, Maryland: Zaccheus Press, 2003) 168.
xv Summa Theologica III, q. 73, a. 3. That the union of the mystical body is not merely a “horizontal” union of the members of the Church but also a “vertical” union with the Head of the Body is clear in a statement of Aidan Nichols: “we can only conclude that the res sacramenti, the ultimate purpose and reality of this sacrament, is the grace of union with Christ.” See The Holy Eucharist, 81.
xvi Aidan Nichols, O.P. The Holy Eucharist: From the New Testament to Pope John Paul II (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1991) 81. See Summa Theologica III, q. 79, a. 2.
xvii See especially III, q. 73, a. 3 and q. 79, a. 2.
xviii Kereszty, Wedding Feast of the Lamb, 137. See Summa Theologica III, q. 83, a. 1, q. 48, a. 6, and q. 63, a. 6.
xix Vonier, A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, 16.
xx O’Neill, Meeting Christ in the Sacraments, 40. O’Neill writes, “The sacramental system of the Church is wholly centered on the heavenly worship of Christ.” He also writes of the entry of the faithful into the heavenly liturgy, “Their spiritual participation by faith in this worship is the natural presupposition and concomitant of the bodily participation made possible with the entry of Christ into the ritual action.” Ibid, 39.
xxi Aidan Nichols, “St. Thomas and the Sacramental Liturgy”, The Thomist, Vol. 72, No. 4 (October, 2008) 590. Nichols writes, “Our sanctification is nothing other than our incorporation into the glorification of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
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