"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

REALITY—A Synthesis Of Thomistic Thought

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.


What is the essence of the Sacrifice of the Mass? This question was posed in one manner in the time of St. Thomas, and in another manner after the appearance of Protestantism. Yet in his very first article the saint formulates the objection which will be developed by Protestantism.

1. In the thirteenth century the question was generally posed in these terms: Is Christ immolated in this sacrament? And the answer commonly given is that of Peter Lombard, which is based on these words of St. Augustine: [916] Christ was immolated once in Himself, and yet He is daily immolated in the sacrament. The words "in the sacrament" were explained as meaning: He is immolated sacramentally, not, as on the cross, physically. Hence in the Mass there is an immolation, not a physical immolation of Christ's body, for that body is now glorified and impassible, but a sacramental immolation. This language had been familiar to the Church Fathers. [917] It is repeated by Peter Lombard, [918] and by his commentators, notably by St. Bonaventure and St. Albert the Great. [919] The explanation of St. Thomas [920] runs as follows: In two ways this sacrament is the immolation of Christ. First because, in the words of Augustine, [921] "we are accustomed to name an image by the name of the thing of which it is the image." Now this sacrament, as said above, [922] is an image of the passion of Christ, which was a true immolation..

Secondly by efficient causality, because this sacrament makes us participators in the fruits of our Lord's passion.

On the nature of this sacramental immolation the saint [923] speaks thus: As on the cross Christ's body and blood were separated physically, thus, in the Mass, by the double consecration, they are separated sacramentally. Thus, the substance of the bread having been changed into Christ's body and that of the wine into His blood, Christ is really present on the altar in the state of death, His blood being shed, not physically, but sacramentally, even while, by concomitance, His body is under the species of wine and His blood under the species of bread.

2. When Protestantism denied that the Mass is a true sacrifice, Catholic theologians, instead of asking, "Is Christ immolated in this sacrament? " began to pose the question in this form: "Is the Mass a true sacrifice, or only a memorial of the sacrifice on the cross?"

But we must note here that St. Thomas had anticipated the Protestant objection. He [924] formulates it thus: Christ's immolation was made on the cross, whereon He "delivered Himself as offering and victim, an odor of sweetness unto God." [925] But in the mystery of the Mass, Christ is not crucified. Hence neither is He immolated. To this objection he replies that, although we do not have in the Mass the bloody immolation of the cross, we do have, by Christ's real presence, a real immolation, commemorative of that on the cross.

The objection itself, however, under various forms, is reasserted as truth by Luther, by Calvin, by Zwingli. The last says: [926] Christ was slain once only, and once only was His blood shed. Hence He was offered in sacrifice only once.

Let us notice the assumption which underlies this argument. Any true sacrifice includes essentially a physical immolation of the victim, whereas, in the Mass, there can be no physical immolation of His body which is now glorified and impassible. The Council of Trent, [927] recalling the doctrine of the Fathers and of the theologians of the thirteenth century, notably St. Thomas, answers that the unbloody immolation, the sacramental immolation of the Mass, is a true sacrifice.

Is real, physical immolation of the victim an essential element of sacrifice? In a bloody sacrifice, yes. But there can be, and is in the Mass, an unbloody sacramental immolation, which represents the bloody immolation of the cross and gives its fruits to us. This answer of St. Thomas [928] is repeated by the great Thomists. Thus Cajetan [929] says: This unbloody mode, under the species of bread and wine, re-presents, sacrificially, Christ who was offered on the cross. Similarly, John of St. Thomas: [930] The essence of the Eucharistic sacrifice consists in the consecration, taken, not absolutely, but as sacramentally and mystically, separative of the blood from the body. On the cross the sacrifice consisted in the real and physical separation of Christ's blood from His body. The action, therefore, which mystically and sacramentally separates that blood is the same sacrifice as that on the cross, differing therefrom only in its mode, which there was real and physical and here is sacramental.

The Carmelites of Salamanca [931] teach the same doctrine. But they add a modification which is not admitted by all Thomists, viz.: Reception of the sacrament by the priest belongs to the essence of this sacrifice. Many other Thomists hold that the priest's Communion (which destroys, not Christ's body, but only the Eucharistic species) belongs not to the essence, but only to the integrity of the sacrifice. But whatever may be the truth on this last point, the Salmanticenses hold that this double consecration constitutes a true immolation, not physical, but sacramental. Bossuet [932] has the same doctrine. And this thesis, which seems to us the true expression of the thought of St. Thomas, is reproduced, not only by the majority of living Thomists, but also by other contemporary theologians. [933].

Some Thomists, [934] however, under the influence, it seems, of Suarez, wish to find in the double consecration a physical immolation. Then, since they must recognize that only the substance of the bread and that of the wine undergo a real physical change, and that these are not the thing offered in sacrifice, they are led to admit, with Lessius, a virtual immolation of Christ's body. This virtual immolation is thus explained: In virtue of the words of consecration the body of Christ would be really and physically separated from His blood, did it not remain united by concomitance, from the fact that Christ's body is now glorified and impassible. This innovation is not a happy one, because this virtual immolation is not in fact real and physical, it remains solely mystic and sacramental. Besides, what it would virtually renew would be the act by which Christ was put to death. But this act, says St. Thomas, [935] was not a sacrifice, but a crime, which therefore is not to be renewed, either physically or virtually.

The only immolation which we have in the Mass, therefore, is the sacramental immolation, the sacramental separation, by the double consecration, of His blood from His body, whereby His blood is shed sacramentally.

But is this sacramental immolation sufficient to make the Mass a true sacrifice? Yes, for two reasons: first because exterior immolation, in sacrifice of any kind, is always in the order of sign, [936] of signification: secondly because the Eucharist is simultaneously sacrifice and sacrament.

First then, even where there is no physical immolation, we can still have a true sacrifice, if we have an equivalent immolation, above all if we have an immolation which is necessarily the sign, the signification, the re-presentation of a bloody immolation of the past. The reason is as we have said, that exterior immolation is effective only so far as it is a sign, an expression of the interior immolation, of the "contrite and humbled heart," and that without this interior immolation, the exterior is valueless, is like the sacrifice of Cain, a mere shadow and show. The visible sacrifice, says St. Augustine, [937] is the sacrament, the sacred sign, of the invisible sacrifice.

Even in the bloody sacrifice, the exterior immolation is required, not as physical death (this condition is required to make the animal fit for eating) but as the sign of oblation, adoration, contrition, without which the slaughter of the animal has no religious meaning, no religious value.

This position granted, we see that the Mass is a true sacrifice, without being bloody in its mode, even if the immolation is only sacramental, in the order of a sign signifying something that is now impossible, namely, the physical separation of Christ's blood from His impassible body. Yet this sacramental immolation is the sign, is essentially the memorial and representative sign, of the bloody immolation on Calvary, an effective sign, which makes us sharers in the fruits of that bloody immolation, since the Eucharist contains the Christ who has suffered. [938] Again, this immolation in the Mass of the Word made flesh, though it is only sacramental, is, as sign, as expression, of reparative adoration, much more expressive than all the victims of the Old Testament. St. Augustine and St. Thomas [939] demanded only this sacramental immolation to make the Mass a true sacrifice.

A second reason for this doctrine, as we said above, lies in the character of the Eucharist as being simultaneously sacrament and sacrifice. Hence we are not surprised that the exterior immolation involved should be, not physical, but sacramental.

But it does not follow that the Mass is a mere oblation. St. Thomas [940] writes: We have a sacrifice in the proper sense only when something is done to the thing offered to God, as when animals were killed and burned, or bread was broken and eaten and blessed. The very word gives us this meaning, because sacrificium [941] is used of man doing something sacred. But the word "oblation" is used directly of a thing which unchanged is offered to God, as when money or loaves are laid unchanged on the altar, Hence, though every sacrifice is an oblation, not every oblation is a sacrifice.

In the Mass, then, we have, not a mere oblation, but a true sacrifice, because the thing offered undergoes a change; the double transubstantiation, namely, which is the necessary prerequisite for the Real Presence and the indispensable substratum of the sacramental immolation.

3. St. Thomas insists on another capital point of doctrine: The principal priest who actually offers the Mass is Christ Himself, of whom the celebrant is but the instrumental minister, a minister who at the moment of consecration does not speak in his own name, nor even precisely in the name of the Church, [942] but in the name of the Savior "always living to intercede for us." [943].

Let us hear some further texts of St. Thomas. This sacrament is so elevated that it must be accomplished by Christ in person. [944] And again: In the prayers of the Mass the priest indeed speaks in the person of the Church, which is the Eucharistic unity; but in the sacramental consecration he speaks in the person of Christ, whom by the power of ordination he represents. [945] When he baptizes, he says "I baptize thee": when he absolves, he says "I absolve thee"; but when he consecrates, he says, not "I consecrate this bread," but, "This is My body." [946] And when he says "Hoc est corpus meum," he does not say these words as mere historical statement, but as efficient formula which produces what it signifies, transubstantiation, namely, and the Real Presence. But it is Christ Himself who, by the voice and ministry of the celebrant, performs this substantiating consecration, which is always valid, however personally unworthy the celebrant may be. [947].

Is it then sufficient to say [948] that Christ offers each Mass, not actually, but only virtually, by having instituted the sacrifice and commanded its renewal to the end of the world? This doctrine, from the Thomistic viewpoint, depreciates the role of Christ. Christ Himself it is who offers actually each Mass. Even if the priest, the instrumental minister, should be distracted and have at the moment only a virtual intention, Christ, the one high priest, the principal cause, wills actually, here and now, this transubstantiating consecration. And further, Christ's humanity, as conjoined to His divinity, is the physically instrumental cause of the twofold transubstantiation. [949].

It is in this sense that Thomists, together with the great majority of theologians, understand the following words of the Council of Trent: "In the two sacrifices there is one and the same victim, one and the same priest, who then on the cross offered Himself, and who now, by the instrumentality of His priests, offers Himself anew, the two sacrifices differing only in their mode." [950].

Substantially, then, the Sacrifice of the Mass does not differ from the sacrifice of the cross, since in each we have, not only the same victim, but also the same priest who does the actual offering, though the mode of the immolation differs, one being bloody and physical, the other non-bloody and sacramental. Hence Christ's act of offering the Mass, while it is neither dolorous nor meritorious (since He is no longer viator): is still an act of reparative adoration, of intercession, of thanksgiving, is still the ever-loving action of His heart, is still the soul of the Sacrifice of the Mass. This view stands out clearly in the saint's commentaries on St. Paul, [951] particularly in his insistence on Christ's ever-living intercession. Christ also now, in heaven, says Gonet, [952] prays in the true and proper sense (by intercession): begging divine benefits for us. And His special act of intercession is the act by which, as chief priest of each Mass, He intercedes for us. Thus the interior oblation, always living in Christ's heart, is the very soul of the Sacrifice of the Mass; it arouses and binds to itself the interior oblation of the celebrant and of the faithful united to the celebrant. Such is, beyond doubt, the often repeated doctrine of St. Thomas and his school. [953].

Each Mass, finally, has a value that is simply infinite. This position is defended by the greatest Thomists against Durandus and Scotus. [954] This value arises from the sublimity both of the victim and of the chief priest, since, substantially, the Sacrifice of the Mass is identified with that on the cross, though the mode of immolation is no longer bloody but sacramental. The unworthiness of the human minister, however great, cannot, says the Council of Trent, reduce this infinite value. Hence one sole Mass can be as profitable for ten thousand persons well disposed as it would be for one, just as the sun can as easily give light and warmth to ten thousand men as to one. Those who object 41 have lost sight, both of the objective infinity which belongs to the victim offered, and of the personal infinity which belongs to the chief priest.

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