A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist

by Abbot Vonier, 1925

This is the best theological investigation I have found on the idea of a sacrament, of God acting through sensible signs.  In contrast to what one might expect from a book on this subject, the author—a French-English Thomist—has an almost mathematical insistence on precision.  Catholics who for years been told nothing but how they should feel about this or that doctrine (rather than what it actually means) will find this insistence on clarity and rigor as refreshing as I did.

The “key” promised in the title is the idea of a sacrament as a sign that does exactly what it signifies, nothing more and nothing less.  Vonier discourages any understanding of a sacrament which would see the ritual appearance as a sort of mask underneath which God does something essentially unrelated to what is seen and heard.  Instead, he emphasizes the following points:

1)      The unity of sign and reality.  According to Vonier, God’s action in a sacrament is to make the sign be true.  “The sacrament must signify in words and deeds and things…to the point where it will be necessary, if a lie is to be avoided, that the sacrament should even contain what it signifies…The inward reality of the sacrament is the prolongation of [its] signification…”

2)      The difference between sacramental and natural efficacy.  In a sacrament, God acts through signs; He does not give a natural being an intrinsic hidden power commensurate with the sacrament’s effect.  The sacramental world is “reality without fixity of being.”

3)      Each sacrament signifies the past (Christ’s passion), the present (the grace being communicated), and the future (the hope of eternal life).  A non-sacramental gift of grace, wonderful though it is, does not refer to anything outside itself.  In the sacraments, however, “historical events of centuries ago are renewed, and we anticipate the future in a very real way.

4)      The sacraments glorify God as well as aiding man.  “Let us cling to the old maxim ‘[sacraments are for the sake of man]’, provided we realize that nothing is so useful to man as to adore God…We must ever remember that the sacrament is a res sacra—a sacred thing—given to man so as to enable him to approach God…In the sacramental system man is active, not only passive; in it he gives back to God God’s own gifts.”

Applying these points to the case of the Eucharist, Vonier points out

1)      It is the presence of Christ’s Body and Blood that are the direct “divine prolongation” of the Eucharistic ritual, and the ritual separation of the Body and Blood constitutes the sacrifice because it recalls Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary.  Jesus’ Soul and Divinity are also present in the Eucharist, but by concomitance, i.e. because they are united to His Body and Blood.  Therefore, if one of the Apostles had celebrated the Eucharist on Holy Saturday, while Jesus was dead, His human Soul would not have been present in the host, because it was separated from His body.

2)      Vonier insists that Jesus is present under the accidents of the transubstantiated host in a different “mode of being” than that of His natural glorified Body.  I’ll admit that I’m not entirely sure what Vonier means by this.  I found the two chapters on transubstantiation somewhat vague and confusing, in marked contrast to the rest of the book.

3)      The Eucharist is not a new sacrament to make up for some kind of deficiency in Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary.  That sacrifice was the one and only offering needed for our salvation.  In the Eucharist, this one unique sacrifice is re-presented, i.e. made present.  Such a thing would be nonsense from a natural point of view, but it is a natural thing for a sacrament.

4)      In the Blessed Sacrament, Christians share in Christ’s sacrifice.  The Eucharist is given to man not only to heal his soul, but to satisfy his desire to do justice to God.  In this sacrament, the Church is given a sacrifice worthy to be offered to God.

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  1. […] A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist by Vonier […]

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