Archive for the ‘Abbot Vonier’ Category


The Oneness of the Christian Sacrifice – Abbott Vonier

June 4, 2012

Completed in 1955 after nine months of work, Salvador Dalí’s painting The Sacrament of the Last Supper has remained one of his most popular compositions. Since its arrival at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1955, it replaced Renoir’s A Girl with a Watering Can as the most popular piece in the museum. The combination of a classic Christian theme with the jarring techniques of Surrealism captures the eye, as Dali was able to do repeatedly with such works as The Temptation of St. Anthony, Christ of Saint John of the Cross, Crucifixion or Corpus Hypercubus, The Madonna of Port Lligat, Nuclear cross, and The Ecumenical Council, among others. The composition was laid out using the Golden Ratio, just like Michelangelo’s classic.

It is well known that the most constant reproach of Protestantism against the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharistic sacrifice is this, that the Catholic Church, by teaching the need of a second sacrifice, virtually denies the all-sufficiency of the sacrifice on Calvary. Yet the Church has never ceased protesting that her Eucharistic sacrifice is by no means a derogation of the natural sacrifice of Christ on the Cross; it is, on the contrary, an additional honor to that great act by which Christ redeemed us.

The sacrifice of the Christian altar and the Sacrifice of Calvary are one and the same. At the same time the Church maintains that the Mass is a sacrifice in the true sense of the word, an act which is new every day, though the sacrifice be not new. We have, then, in this matter unity and duality of a very peculiar nature. It is my conviction that unless we cling firmly to the sacramental concept of the Eucharistic sacrifice we cannot meet the Protestant difficulty. But if once we grasp the meaning of the sacrament, the Protestant difficulty vanishes, and the fundamental oneness of the Christian sacrifice becomes apparent.

If the Eucharistic sacrifice were in any way a natural sacrifice it would be simply impossible to avoid the conclusion that there are two different sacrifices, and the question: Why two sacrifices? would be justifiable. The circumstance that the second sacrifice would take place under entirely different conditions would not save us from such a conclusion; if it were a sacrifice in natura, however much disguised, it would be really another sacrifice, not the same sacrifice. But let the sacrifice be a sacrament in the full sense of the word, then it cannot be a new sacrifice, but it must be the representation, pure and simple, of the historic or natural sacrifice.

If there were in the Mass an immolation, or a mactation, or a death, or an heroic deed, not already contained in the sacrifice of the Cross, the Eucharist would at once become sacrifice number two, because in that case something new would have happened in the world of grace which did not happen on the Cross.

It is the genius and very nature of the Christian sacrament to be an act which may be repeated indefinitely, though the content, or, if you like, the object of the act, be immutable. This is the representative role of the Christian sacrament. Such a thing cannot happen anywhere outside the sacramental sphere. Is not the sacrament precisely this mystery of never ceasing repetition or representation of something in itself immutable? If Christ came to us in His natural state and were thus offered up, this new coming and this new offering would be events forming new chapters in the historic career of the Son of God.

But the sacramental presence and the sacramental offering of Christ are not historic events in His career; they do not form new chapters in the book of His life. Of course, the acts by which He instituted the Eucharist and offered Himself up for the first time are most tremendous deeds in His historic career; but to be offered up in the sacrament does not belong to the historic life of the Son of God. If there is repetition of acts, those repetitions are not on the part of Christ, they are on the part of the Church living here on earth. “As the thing which is offered up everywhere is one Body and not many bodies, so there is one sacrifice everywhere.” [Summa, III, q 73,a.3, ad3]

It is such a pity to see how often an initial misconception in these high matters leads to profound divergences of thought, nay, even to dangerous presentments of Catholic truth. To save the oneness of the Christian sacrifice the strange hypothesis has been put forward in our own days that the Eucharistic sacrifice is not so much a representation of the sacrifice of the Cross as an integral portion of the sacrifice of the Cross. The Eucharistic sacrifices, both at the Last Supper and now, are being considered as so many stages in the one great all-embracing sacrifice whose culminating act was on the Cross.

It is not my mission here to criticize theological opinions. It is certain, however, that to consider the Eucharistic sacrifice as being in any way a portion of the universal sacrifice is a profound reversal of the traditional role of the sacrament. A sacrament is not an act in the drama, however great that drama may be; a sacrament is essentially the representation of the whole drama. The historic drama must be complete before sacraments are possible.

Sacraments are the monuments of the finished thing, not the introductory scenes or the last acts of some great historic deed. If the Eucharistic sacrifice were in any way a portion of the universal sacrifice it would represent nothing except itself; it would contain nothing except itself; it would not apply to us anything except such grace as would belong to it in its partial role; it would not contain more immolation than would be warranted by its essentially limited place in a greater mystery.

Now the Christian sacrament, and above all, the sacrament-sacrifice, is a representation, an application, an immolation, and a containing of the whole immensity of the universal sacrifice. We must, if we are to save the dignity of the Catholic Mass, make it a thing by itself, not merely the first or last act of another thing, however divine and powerful.

I can understand the temptation that comes to anyone who lets go his grasp of the sacramental view in general, and more particularly of the sacramental view of the Eucharistic sacrifice. He finds himself confronted with an awkward duality, which he hopes to reconcile by making Mass a part of the Christian sacrifice. He thus invokes what might be called a oneness of organism, as when we call “one” the various members of the same body. In the theory I allude to, Mass is only a member, it is not the whole thing.

But in the traditional view Mass is the whole thing; it contains the whole Christ with the kind of totality described earlier. Is not one of the basic principles of the Eucharistic sacrifice to be found in the very completeness and finality of the sacrifice of the Cross? If Mass gave anything to the Cross it would cease to be a sacrament, as it would cease to be a representation. Mass is the memory or the monument of Christ’s passion. Is it not the very purpose of a monument to stand for the complete victory, the final triumph? We do not erect monuments to deeds incomplete or half-achieved, however heroic they may be.

To take away something from the completeness of the sacrifice of the Cross on the one hand, and on the other hand from the completeness of the sacrifice of the Mass, is not to join them into one organism; it is to maim them both. In this matter you cannot make a whole with two halves, because sacrament and nature are totally different. But they become one through that very difference, as I have already said, because the one is the total representation of the other’s totality of reality. The traditional view of the Church, as I shall prove by-and-by, is that the sacrifice of Calvary was complete and perfect of its kind; the Eucharist adds nothing to it, but it is truly “the brightness of its glory and the figure of its substance.”

To come back to the Protestant, we may say to him that his position is in a way comprehensible if he denies the whole sacramental system, root and branch, making of faith alone his approach to Christ; but if a man admits sacraments at all there is no more reason for him to reject the sacrament-sacrifice than to reject the sacrament-regeneration — i.e., Baptism. In both we have nothing else than a representation — in the technical sense of the word — of Christ’s death and its application to the individual soul.

If Baptism is no derogation to Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, but is, on the contrary, the sign of Christ’s victory, why should the Eucharistic sacrifice be such a derogation? Are we not dealing in both instances with modes of contact between the individual soul and the historic Christ? The Eucharistic sacrifice may be a more vivid representation, or, if you like, a more burning contact, having more of activity than of passivity, containing a divine substance; but when all is said there is no radical difference in strict theological thought between Baptism and the Eucharist, considered in its true sacramental functions of sacrifice and spiritual nutriment.

This seems a fitting place for the examination of a difficulty which may sometimes bewilder even careful thinkers in theological matters. The Eucharistic sacrifice was offered up first at the Last Supper, before the natural sacrifice on the Cross took place. Would not this point to the conclusion that in some way the Eucharistic sacrifice is truly the beginning of the whole sacrificial drama of Christ? Did He not, when He offered Himself in sacrifice in the supper room, perform the first act of that priesthood which reached its consummation on Calvary?

Here, again, one must admit that it would be difficult, not to say impossible, to fit the Last Supper into the act of redemption if we gave to the Eucharistic sacrifice the meaning and the value of a natural sacrifice. If it were a natural sacrifice, we could not avoid the conclusion that the world was redeemed before Christ shed His first drop of Blood, as the Last Supper would have had infinite value as sacrifice in its own right.

The other alternative would be, of course, the one adopted by some recent theologians whose views have already been mentioned, who consider the Last Supper to have been merely the first act of the one universal sacrifice, and who make the sacramental reality and the natural reality complement each other. But if once the sacramental view of the Eucharistic sacrifice is admitted, the difficulty no longer exists. As the sacrament is essentially a representation, it could be instituted at any moment by Christ, provided He existed bodily in the reality of the Incarnation, and not only in the hope of the believer.

That great act of Redemption, the immolation of Christ on the Cross, could be represented before, as well as after, His crucifixion; and though the sacrament derives all its truth and value from the death of Christ, its institution, or even its celebration or use, may precede that event. The celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice by Christ no more superseded His role on Calvary than did the first breaking of bread of the Christian Church after the coming of the Holy Spirit. Sacraments, and sacraments only, possess that aloofness from the historical sequence of events.

Speaking of Baptism, Saint Thomas gives us in very succinct phrases the theology of those wonderful anticipations by Christ. Taking it for granted that men may have received Christian Baptism before Christ died on the Cross, he says: “Even before Christ’s passion Baptism received its efficacy from Christ’s passion, as it was its figure; but it prefigured differently from the sacraments of the Old Law, as these were mere figures; but Baptism derived the power of justifying from that very Christ by whose virtue the passion itself was to become salutary.” [Summa, III, q 66,a.2, ad1]

Applying this doctrine to the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Last Supper, we may say that it prefigured the sacrifice of the Cross; and the Christ who was to give His own natural Flesh and Blood that power of redeeming mankind, gave to bread and wine the power of representing sacramentally that same Flesh and Blood. We need not even consider the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Last Supper as being a final vow of the Son of God to undergo death, a theme beloved of more than one preacher. The traditional view of the Last Supper is much more sacramental in tenor: Christ, on the eve of leaving this world, gave us the memory or monument of Himself, and nothing in the nature of that great monument obliged Christ to wait until after the event for this.

The monument is such that He could erect it before the event, it being a sacrament. The institution of the Eucharistic sacrament at the Last Supper, then, was not so much Christ’s vow to die, as His anticipated triumph in His death.


Sacraments And Signification – Abbot Vonier

January 13, 2012

The Baptism of Christ by Giovanni BELLINI, 1500-02, Oil on canvas, Santa Corona, Vicenza, Italy. He is considered to have revolutionized Venetian painting, moving it towards a more sensuous and coloristic style. Through the use of clear, slow-drying oil paints, Giovanni created deep, rich tints and detailed shadings. His sumptuous coloring and fluent, atmospheric landscapes had a great effect on the Venetian painting school, especially on his pupils Giorgione and Titian.

There is an excellent definition of the nature of the sacraments in Article Four of the Sixty-First Question of the Third Part of the Summa Theologica: “Sacraments are certain signs protesting that faith through which man is justified.” Such a definition makes the transition from the role of faith to the role of the sacraments a very natural and easy one. The power of the sacraments could never be dissociated from the power of faith; the two supernatural agencies move forward hand in hand. A sacrament is always an external sign witnessing to that more recondite quality of the soul, the faith that justifies man by bringing him into contact with Christ.

Two very important questions arise here: First, why should there be this external protestation of the faith? Second, to what extent shall we give to those signs a literal efficacy of signification? In the answer to the second question there lies all the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism; in fact, it may even be said, between Judaism and Christianity. In its many aspects this will be the main object of our study; but for the moment let its dwell on the first point, the radical oneness of the Catholic theory concerning the means of justification.

Faith and sacraments are indissolubly united; though faith may be called the older and more universal factor. The sacramental system is grafted on faith; it is essentially the executive of our faith; it is, shall we say, the reward of faith. Because of her faith the Church is granted those further powers of reaching Christ which make Christ not only the object of devout contemplation, but of physical possession; the sacramental reality is granted to those who have faith; such is the burden of Christ’s teaching in the sixth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel. He who does the work of God by believing in Him whom the Father has sent is the one to whom Christ will give His Flesh to eat and His Blood to drink. We may apply here that important principle of spiritual growth which Christ enunciates more than once: “To everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall abound, but from him that hath not, that also which he seemeth to have shall be taken away.”

Because of her generous faith the Church is given the abundant riches of the sacraments. What might appear at first sight to be the exception to the rule — that faith and the sacraments are indissolubly united — is only a more profound application of it; I refer to the practice of infant Baptism. Saint Thomas, following Saint Augustine, relies on the faith of the Church herself in order to keep intact the essential union of faith and the sacrament of faith.

“In the Church of the Savior the little ones believe through others, as through others they contract those sins which are washed out in Baptism”; these are the words of the earlier Father which the medieval Doctor expands into the following theological explanation: “The faith of one, nay of the whole Church, is of profit to the little one through the operation of the Holy Spirit, who makes the Church into one, and makes the one share the goods of the other.” There could hardly be a more unfair accusation brought against the Catholic Church than to say that by her uncompromising insistence on the sacramental life she diminishes the power of faith.

It is really the Puritan, rather than the Protestant in general, who is the enemy of the sacramental system taken in the wider aspect of that Thomistic definition in the previous post. For the Puritan, faith is not in need of any help or any adjuncts. Yet the reasons given by Catholic theologians for the presence in the Christian dispensation of these external signs of internal faith are chiefly psychological; man’s nature being what it is, sacraments are indispensable to a full life of faith.

Saint Thomas gives a threefold reason for the institution of the sacraments; but this threefold reason is really one —  man’s psychology. However, the three factors are

    1. firstly, the condition of man’s nature, being a composite of spirit and sense;
    2. secondly, man’s estate, which is slavedom to material things and only to be remedied by the spiritual power inside the material thing;
    3. thirdly, man’s activities, so prone to go astray in external interests, finding in the sacraments a true bodily exercise which works out for salvation.

Nothing would be easier than to develop this subject with all the fascinating means that psychological studies put at our disposal.

The sacramental life of the Church is based on a perfect understanding of man’s needs. Sacraments are through their very nature an extension of the Incarnation, a continuation of that mystery expressed in the words: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Is not the Son of God made Man, the Sacrament par excellence, the magnum sacramentum, the invisible made visible? “And evidently great is the mystery of godliness, which was manifested in the flesh, was justified in the spirit, appeared unto angels, hath been preached unto the Gentiles, is believed in the world, is taken up in glory”

To say that a Sacrament is a protestation of the faith which is in us, is not a complete definition of the Christian sacrament; though it may be considered as adequate enough for a sacrament in its widest meaning. Even Saint Thomas never hesitates to give to some of the major rites of the Old Law the name of sacrament; always making it quite clear, however, that the power of those ancient observances never went beyond signifying the patriarchal faith, while the Christian sacrament has a much higher degree of signification, one indeed that has effectiveness associated with it. It would be quite mistaken, and very ungenerous, not to grant to the ancient rites instituted by God sacramental dignity of at least an inferior degree; they all were external signs of the faith in the coming redemption. They were tremendous helps to that faith, although in themselves they were not direct causes of grace.

Saint Thomas divides the life of mankind into four seasons —  the state of innocence before the fall, the state of sin before Christ, the state of sin after Christ, and the state of bliss in heaven. No sacraments are necessary in the first and in the last state; sacraments are necessary to man in the two middle states. But it is in the “state of sin after Christ” that sacraments reach their perfection; the seven sacraments of the Christian dispensation are sacraments in the highest sense, because, besides signifying the grace which is the inheritance of faith, they also contain that grace and cause it.

An objector may find fault with the arrangement that God has given to man different sacraments before Christ and different sacraments after Christ. Does this not argue mutability in the divine will? The answer of Saint Thomas is a perfect synthesis of that broader view of the sacramental system which makes it as old as the world:

To the third objection let us reply that the father of the family is not said to be of changeable disposition because he gives different orders to his household according to the variety of seasons, and does not command the same work to be done in summer and in winter; so likewise there is not mutability in God’s ways because He institutes one set of sacraments after the coming of Christ and another in the time of the Old Law; for these latter were apt prefigurements of grace, while the former are manifest grace already present amongst us.

The Power of Sacramental Signification
It is the very essence of a sacrament to be a sign; it is its proper definition. “We now speak specifically of sacraments insofar as they imply the relationship of a sign.” Let us never deprive a sacrament, even the most excellent, of this constitutional property of signification. The orthodox realist in sacramental theology boldly proclaims his faith, I do not say in the symbolical nature of the sacrament, but in the demonstrative nature of the sacrament as a sign, or, if we like the word better, in its representative nature as a sign.

This power of signification inside the one and the same sacrament is not simple but complex, for the sacramental element performs its function in various ways, as well as signifying various realities; yet it has a certain definiteness, a clearly outlined circle of signification, which has been traced by the hand of God. It is the divine institution which is directly responsible for the choice of those signs which, in the words of Saint Thomas, are given us “for a more explicit signification of Christ’s grace, through which the human race is sanctified.” The angelic Doctor adds, with that true liberality of mind so characteristically his own, that this clear circumscribing of the sacramental signs does not in any way narrow the road of salvation, because the material things which are indispensable for the sacraments are commonly to be had, or may be procured with very little trouble.

Sacraments, then, are truly signs from heaven. In no other sphere of human transactions does the external sign become such an efficient messenger of the internal reality. There is in Article Three of the same Question a passage of Saint Thomas which may be called truly classical as stating the power of signification proper to the sacraments:

My answer is, that, as has been already said, the sacrament, properly so-called, is a thing ordained to signify our sanctification; in which three phases may be taken into consideration, namely: the cause of our sanctification, which is the passion of Christ; the essence of our sanctification, which consists in grace and virtue; and then the ultimate goal of our sanctification, which is eternal life. Now all these are signified by the sacraments. Therefore a sacrament is a commemorative sign of what has gone before, in this case the passion of Christ, a demonstrative sign of what is being effected in us through the passion of Christ, that is grace, and a prognostic sign, foretelling our future glory.

Every sacrament, then, has something to declare: it recalls the past, it is the voice of the present, it reveals the future. If the sacrament did not fulfill its function of sign proclaiming something which is not seen, it would not be a sacrament at all. It can embrace heaven and earth, time and eternity, because it is a sign; were it only a grace it would be no more than the gift of the present hour; but being a sign the whole history of the spiritual world is reflected in it: “For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice, you shall show the death of the Lord, until He come.” What Saint Paul says of the Eucharist about its showing forth a past event is true in other ways of every other sacrament. The passage we have transcribed from Saint Thomas refers to every one of the seven sacraments.

In order to elucidate this all-important role of signification in the sacraments we may make a comparison with the non-sacramental means of grace. If my heart be touched by God’s grace, such a divine action, excellent and wonderful though it be, is not a sign of anything else; it is essentially a spiritual fact of the present moment, and ends, as it were, in itself. It has no relationship of signification to anything else, whether past, present or future.

Such is not the case with the sacraments; through them it becomes possible to focus the distant past and future in the actual present; through them historic events of centuries ago are renewed, and we anticipate the future in a very real way. All this is possible only in virtue of the sacramental sign, which not only records the distant event, but, somewhat like the modern film, projects it upon the screen of the present.

O sacred Banquet, wherein Christ is received, the memory of His passion is recalled, the soul is filled with grace, and there is given to us a pledge of future glory.

This antiphon from the Office of Corpus Christi, when compared with the above text from the Summa, at once betrays its Thomistic origin. But although the Eucharist performs that function of transcendent representation in the spiritual order in a more excellent degree, all the other sacraments do the same in their several ways. All the sacraments enable us to step out of the present.

Much confusion of thought in the doctrine of the sacraments in general, and of the Eucharist in particular, would be spared us if we never let go of that elemental definition of the sacrament, that it is a sign. Whatever reality there is in a sacrament is deeply modified by this role of signification. Baptism, for instance, is not just any kind of cleansing of the soul; its cleansing power is in the burial and resurrection of Christ which is signified in the sacramental rite.

Know you not that all we who are baptized in Christ Jesus are baptized in His death? For we are buried together with Him by baptism into death: that, as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection.

In this text of Saint Paul the elements of past, present and future in our baptismal conformation with Christ are strikingly verified.

The current definition of a sacrament as an external sign of internal grace would certainly be too narrow for Saint Thomas, if by “internal grace” we meant nothing but the actual transformation of the soul. This is, in fact, only one of the things signified. But if by “internal grace” we also mean the cause of grace —  Christ’s passion, and the goal of grace —  eternal life, then the definition is adequate. But to limit the sacramental power of signification to the present moment, to the transformation of soul which takes place when the sacrament is received, would be an unwarranted minimizing of the sacramental doctrine, and would leave much of our scriptural language unintelligible. How, for instance, could the Eucharist be a memorial of Christ if it were only a supernatural feeding of the soul?

When Our Lord said: “Do this for a commemoration of Me,” He gave the Eucharist an historic import which is not to be found in the spiritual raising up of the individual soul alone. A commemoration is essentially a sign, a monument, something related to a definite person or event of the past.

Saint Thomas lays it down as an axiom that a sacrament is always an object of the senses. A merely spiritual thing, an act of our intellect or will, could never fulfill that role of signification which is so essential to the sacrament. The sign, on the contrary, is an external manifestation of the process of thought and volition: Saint Thomas quotes from Saint Augustine a very succinct definition: “A sign is that which, besides the impression it makes on the senses, puts one in mind of something else.”

When I see the baptismal water poured on the head of the catechumen, and when I hear the words of the priest who does the christening, if I am a man of faith, my mind, roused by these external rites and signs, travels a long way. I go back to the Jordan, where Christ is being baptized; I go back to Calvary, where blood and water issue from the side of Christ; my mind leaps forward to that people who stand before the Throne of God in white robes which have been washed in the Blood of the Lamb; and, more audacious still, my mind gazes right into the innermost soul of the catechumen and distinguishes that soul from all non-baptized souls, through that spiritual seal which makes it a member of Christ. The sacramental sign is pregnant with all that spiritual vision of my faith. In the order of signs, of course, we include words as well as things; both are, in fact, objects of our senses, and the words are generally necessary to make more precise the signification of the thing. `A repetition of words, when words are added to the visible things in sacraments, is not superfluous, because one receives determination through the other.”

In a text already quoted Saint Thomas makes a clear-cut distinction between the two roads which lie before us, and which lead directly to the passion of Christ: the act of the soul, and the use of external things. The former is faith, the latter is the sacrament. Let us give this distinction its full value. The external things are as solid a road to Christ as the act of the soul. The sacramental signs, which are the external things alluded to by the Angelic Doctor, have become, in God’s Providence, a distinct supernatural world, as real as the supernatural world of graces given to the souls of men.

At the same time, those sacred signs differ radically from the acts of man’s soul performed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They are visible, palpable realities, not breathings of the Spirit in the hearts of men. They are not mere aids to man’s memory; they are not just opportune reminders of the invisible. “If anyone says that sacraments have been instituted solely for the purpose of fostering faith, let him be anathema.” External things have been taken hold of by God as directly as men’s souls. Like this visible planet of ours, the supernatural world of salvation is divided into land and water. The graces of the Holy Spirit are the water; the external things, the sacraments, are the land.


Faith And The Sacraments – Abbot Vonier

January 12, 2012

Carl Heinrich Bloch, Marriage At Cana

In 1865 Bloch was assigned to illustrate the life of Christ, in a series of 23 paintings for the King’s Praying Chamber in Frederiksborg Castle Chapel, Denmark. It would take Bloch almost fourteen years to complete the commission. The resulting paintings would define his career and would be complemented by eight altar pieces and an outstanding series of 78 etchings, influenced by Rembrandt’s depictions of Christ.

Following the premature death of his wife in 1886 he was left with the responsibility of his eight children. The grief and stress proved to be too much and he died of stomach cancer in 1890 at the age of 56. In addition to his Biblical art, Bloch was renowned as a genre and portrait painter and served under various positions at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

Bloch’s painting ‘Marriage At Cana’ (above) depicts the reaction of the servers as they realize the water has been transformed into wine. The figure of Christ looks on from a distance from his seat at the wedding table. The masterly use of lighting bathes Jesus and the wedding guests in bright daylight as one of the servers in the foreground points to the source of the miracle.
From The Bible Illustration Blog


The Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist is a particular instance of the more universal question of the mode of our union with Christ. We take for granted the Incarnation and the Atonement on the Cross; we take for granted that the Son of God through His death has redeemed mankind in general and has satisfied for sin; we know that in Christ there is plentiful redemption; such things are for us unchallengeable and universal articles of belief which may be called God’s side of the matter, that aspect of truth which is turned heavenward.

But the universal truths thus enunciated leave untouched that other problem of our own individual share in the treasures of redemption — how do individual men come into contact with that great Christ who is our Redemption personified? There is evidently in the Christian doctrine of redemption an element so absolute that it stands by itself, quite independent of man’s benefit therefrom. Before it is at all possible to think of man’s enrichment through the grace of Christ’s redemption we have to assume that much greater result of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross which is aptly expressed in the term “Atonement,” by which is meant, not directly the benefit of man, but the benefit of God: that full restoration of what had been taken from God through man’s sin, His honor and glory. Christ’s act on the Cross has given back to the Father all that was ever taken away from Him by man, and the divine rights have been fully restored.

It is not an absurd hypothesis to think of Christ’s great act of atonement as having an exclusively divine side — that is to say, Christ could have died on the Cross with the exclusive purpose of giving back to the Father all the glory which He had lost through man’s transgression, without the human race being in any way the better for it. But this is merely an hypothesis, though a perfectly rational one.

Actually Catholic doctrine says that Christ’s sacrifice, besides being an atonement, was also a redemption — in other words, a buying back into spiritual liberty of the human race which had become the slave of evil. But even this aspect of Christ’s divine act, though a perfectly human one, is still too universal; salvation is primarily for mankind as a species; the entry of the individual into the redemptive plan remains to be effected.

The urgent problem is, how am I to be linked up effectively with that great mystery of Christ’s death? When shall I know that Christ is not only the Redeemer, but also my Redeemer? Mere membership with the human race does not link me up with Christ, though it be true that Christ died for the whole race. This membership is indeed a condition, sine qua non, of my becoming one day a member of Christ; but a member of Christ I shall not become unless some new realities be brought into play. These new realities which are the link between me and Christ are faith and the sacraments.

“The power of Christ’s passion,” says Saint Thomas, “is linked up with us through faith and through the sacraments. This, however, in different ways: for the linking up which is by faith takes place through an act of the soul, while the linking up which is by the sacraments takes place through the use of external things.”

It is a favorite idea with Saint Thomas, that faith is truly a contact with Christ, a real, psychological contact with Christ, which, if once established, may lead man into the innermost glories of Christ’s life. Without this contact of faith we are dead to Christ, the stream of His life passes us by without entering into us, as a rock in the midst of a river remains unaffected by the turbulent rush of waters. This contact of faith makes man susceptible to the influences of Christ; under normal conditions it will develop into the broader contacts of hope and charity; but it is the first grafting of man on Christ which underlies all other fruitfulness. Till faith be established the great redemption has not become our redemption; the riches of Christ are not ours in any true sense; we are members of the human race, but we are not members of Christ.

It does not belong to my subject to enter into a discussion as to the reasons why one man has faith while another is without faith; nor do I propose to lay down what is that minimum of faith which is indispensable in order to establish true contact between the soul and Christ.

It is sufficient for our purpose to know that a man who has faith has laid his hand on the salvation of Christ. It is the most universal way of coming into touch with the redemption of the Cross; it is a way of approach which is always open, in the past, in the present, in the future. Mary, the Mother of God, through her faith, entered into Christ’s passion in the very moment of time when it took place; Adam, in his very fall, plunged into it headlong; and it will be present to the last human generation through that wonderful act of the soul of which Saint Thomas speaks in the above text. Whether we say that Christ will suffer — passurus est — or whether we say that Christ has suffered — passus est — is quite immaterial to the immediateness of contact by faith. “As the ancient Fathers were saved through faith in the Christ to come, so are we saved through faith in the Christ who has already been born and has suffered.”

I feel that we are less habituated in our times to think of faith as a kind of psychic link between the soul and Christ; yet such is the traditional concept of that wonderful gift. Anyone who has faith is in the supernatural state, and therefore is directly in touch with Christ’s life, even though he be actually in a state of mortal sin.

The Council of Trent has taken great trouble to make clear this point of Catholic moral theology. A man ceases to be Christ’s solely through the sin of infidelity; he does not cease to be Christ’s through any other sin, however heinous. As long as his faith is a true faith he remains a member of Christ’s mystical Body, though there be grievous sores of mortal sin upon his soul. Through that faith, which nothing can kill except the sin of formal infidelity, he keeps so near to the mystery of Christ’s death on the Cross that his recovery from the wounds of sin, however grievous, is a normal process of supernatural life, not strictly miraculous. It is true that the faith of the believing Christian in the state of mortal sin is a fides informis, a faith devoid of the higher vitalities of charity, yet it is a real faith.

Unless we grasp that function of faith as the psychic link between Christ and the soul Catholicism becomes unintelligible. The Church would become, as it did in Lutheran theology, an adventitious association of the elect. But the Church is constituted primarily through faith, and her powers are meant for those who possess that supernatural responsiveness of soul. If we really believe that the Church possesses enough power to wipe away sin, we assume, as well, that sin is compatible with membership in Christ’s mystical Body.

Incorporation into Christ, according to Saint Thomas, has a threefold degree; the first is through faith, the second is through the charity of this life, the third is through the possession of heaven. It is true that the whole tendency of faith is towards charity, that ultimately faith without charity cannot save us; nonetheless, charity cannot exist in man without faith, while there may be true faith in man without actual charity.

All this goes to demonstrate that there is in faith an instrumental power, enabling man to open the door that leads to perfect union with Christ. We cannot speak of such instrumental power in charity, for charity is not a means towards the possession of God; it is, on the contrary, actual possession of God. Saint Thomas calls faith an indispensable endowment of the soul, because it is the beginning or principle of spiritual life.’

This peculiar position of faith in the spiritual order as a kind of tool of supreme excellence will be seen in a clearer light when we come to ask ourselves the question whether there be another kind of means for man to get at Christ’s redemptive life. Once more let it be emphasized that through the possession of charity we do not only contact Christ, we are actually in Christ. Charity is not an instrument, while faith has primarily an instrumental role. Now the sacraments are truly such another set of means for the attainment of that final object, to be united with Christ in charity.

The sacraments complete and render more efficacious that instrumentality of faith just spoken of: they do not supersede the instrumentality of faith, but they make it more real, if possible, and certainly more infallible in its effect. The relative position of faith and the sacraments in bringing about man’s justification through charity is an interesting theological question of which we shall have more to say by-and-by.

The sacraments are essentially sacraments of the faith, sacramenta fidei, as Saint Thomas invariably calls them; both faith and sacraments have that power of divine instrumentality which open to man the treasure-house of Christ’s redemption.

I cannot end this chapter without quoting from Saint Thomas a beautiful passage in which he describes God’s action, which he calls grace, keeping faith alive in the soul, even of the sinner:

Grace produces faith not only when faith begins to exist in the soul for the first time, but also while it habitually abides in the soul…. God brings about the justification of man in the same way as the sun produces light in the air. Grace, therefore, when it strikes with its rays the one who is already a believer is not less efficacious than when it comes for the first time to the unbeliever, because in both it is its proper effect to produce faith: in one case strengthening it and giving it increase, in the other case creating it as an entirely new thing.

The sun of divine grace once above the horizon sends forth its rays of faith into the minds of men, and nothing can resist their light except blind obstinacy and infidelity.


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