Reflections on Eucharist: "I Believe All the Son of God Has Spoken" (Part 1)

2nd Advent Sermon of Pontifical Household Preacher

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 10, 2004 ( Here is a translation of the second Advent sermon, delivered this morning to the Pope and officials of the Roman Curia, by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher for the Pontifical Household.

With his sermons in the Redemptoris Mater chapel of the Apostolic Palace, Father Cantalamessa is offering a series of Eucharistic reflections in the light of the «Adoro Te Devote.» Next Friday, he plans to deliver his third and last sermon in preparation for Christmas. Part 2 of this sermon will appear Sunday.

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Second Sermon
«I Believe All the Son of God Has Spoken»

A great scholar of Medieval texts has written that the Adoro Te Devote is «one of those harmonious and brilliant, very rich and simple compositions, which have served, more than many books, to form Catholic Eucharistic piety.»[1] The history of the hymn is rather singular. It is usually attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas, but the first testimonies of such attribution go back to no less than 50 years after the death of the Angelic Doctor, which occurred in 1274. However, even if the literary paternity is destined to remain hypothetical (as it is for the rest, the other Eucharistic hymns that go under its name) it is true that the hymn is in line with his thought and spirituality.

The text remained all but unknown for another two centuries, and it would have continued to be so if St. Pius V had not inserted it among the prayers of preparation for the Mass and thanksgiving, printed in the Missal he reformed in 1570. From that date the hymn was established in the universal Church as one of the Eucharistic prayers most loved by the clergy and the Christian people. It entered the Roman Ritual, published by Paul VI, after the liturgical reform, with the critical text established by Wilmart.[2]

The abandonment of Latin today risks driving the hymn back into oblivion from which it was extricated by St. Pius V. Therefore, it is to be hoped that the Year of the Eucharist will contribute to honoring it again. There are metric versions of it in the main languages, one in English, the great work of the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins.

To pray with the words of the Adoro Te Devote means for us today to be inserted in the warm current of Eucharistic piety of the generations that preceded us, of so many saints who sang it. It means, perhaps, to relive emotions and memories that we ourselves experienced when singing it in certain grace-filled moments of our life.

1. Word and Spirit in the Consecration

One can speak of the Eucharistic mystery — Cardinal Danneels has written — «in the precise and clear language of the exegetes and theologians, which the Church will never be able to give up. But one can also use the language of the heart, of wonder, and of love …; the language of the Holy Spirit, who is the very breath of the Church, the language of contemplation.»[3] I believe that the beauty of the Adoro Te Devote lies in the fact that it brings together in itself, in an unsurpassable way, both of these languages; in it the most lucid theology is coupled with an uninterrupted impulse of the heart.

Visus, tactus, gustus in te fállitur,
sed audítu solo tuto créditur.
Credo quidquid dixit Dei Fílius;
nil hoc verbo veritátis vérius

Translated as faithfully as possible, the second stanza of the Adoro Te Devote says:

Sight, touch, and taste in Thee are each deceived;
The ear alone most safely is believed:
I believe all the Son of God has spoken,
Than Truth’s own word there is no truer token.

The only observation about the critical text of this stanza relates to the last verse. As it is, whether in song or recitation, one is obliged by the metrics to break the word «veritatis» in half (veri – tatis), for which reason the variant seems preferable that changes the order of the words and reads «Nil hoc veritatis verbo verius.»[4]

It is not that the senses of sight, touch and taste can themselves be deceived about the Eucharistic species, but that we can deceive ourselves in interpreting what they tell us. They are not deceived, because appearances are the proper object of the senses — what is seen, touched and tasted — and the appearances are really those of bread and wine. «In this sacrament,» St. Thomas writes, «there is no deception. In fact, the accidents which are perceived by the senses really exist, while the intellect, whose object is the essence of things, is kept from falling into deception by faith.»[5] Only later, in the wake of the philosophy of Descartes, were there theologians who suggested a different explanation, stating that the Eucharistic species have no objective consistency, but are simple modifications produced by God or by Christ’s body itself on our senses. In this case our senses would certainly deceive themselves, but not in Thomist theology.

The phrase «the ear alone most safely is believed, ‘auditu solo tuto créditur,'» refers to the affirmation of Romans 10:17 which in the Vulgate reads: «‘Fides ex auditu,’ faith comes from hearing. Here, however, it is not about listening to God’s word in general, but about hearing a precise word pronounced by him who is Truth itself. Because of this it seems important to me to keep the demonstrative adjective «this word» («hoc verbo») in the last verse.

It is clear which word it refers to: the word of the institution that the priest repeats in the Mass: «This is my body» («Hoc est corpus meum»); «This is the cup of my blood» («Hic est calix sanguinis mei»). It is confirmed by a passage of St. Thomas’ Summa, which our hymn seems to have simply changed into poetry: «That the real body and blood of Christ is present in this sacrament, is something that cannot be perceived either with the senses or with the intellect, but only with faith, which is supported by the authority of God. Because of this, when commenting on the passage in St. Luke 22:19: ‘This is my body which is given for you,’ St. Cyril says: Do not cast doubt on the truth of this, but rather accept with faith the words of the Savior: because he, being the Truth, does not lie.»[6]

The Church has based herself on this word of Christ in explaining the Eucharist; it is the rock of our faith in the real presence. «Even if the senses suggest the contrary to you,» said the same St. Cyril of Jerusalem, «faith must make you certain. You must not, in this case, judge according to taste, but allow yourself be guided solely by faith.»[7]

Among the Latin Fathers, it is St. Ambrose who has written the most penetrating things on the nature of this word of Christ: «When arriving at the moment to realize the venerable sacrament, the priest no longer uses his words, but Christ’s. It is, therefore, the word that effects (‘conficit’) the sacrament. … The Lord commanded and the heavens were made …, he commanded and everything began to exist. See how effective (‘operatorius’) Christ’s speaking is. Before the consecration, the body of Christ was not, but after the consecration, I tell you that it is now the body of Christ. He said and it was done, he commanded and it was created (cf. Psalm 33:9).»[8]

The holy Doctor says that the word «This is my body» is an «operative,» effective word. The difference between a speculative or theoretical proposition (for example, «man is a rational animal»), and an operative or practical proposition (for example: «fiat lux,» let there be light) is that the first contemplates the thing as already existing, while the second makes it exists, calls it into being.

If there is something to add to St. Ambrose’s explanation and to the words of our hymn, it is that the «operative force» exercised by the word of Christ is owed to the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit who gave force to the words pronounced in life by Christ, as he himself declared on one occasion to his enemies (cfr. Matthew 12:28). It is in the Holy Spirit that, in his Passion, he «of
fered himself to God» (cf. Hebrews 9:14) and it is in that same Spirit that he renews his offering sacramentally at every Mass.

In the whole Bible one notes a wonderful synergy between the word of God, the «dabar,» and the breath, the «ruah,» which vivifies it and carries it: «By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth» (Psalm 33:6); «His word shall be a rod to smite the violent, with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked» (Isaiah 11:4). How can one think that this mutual interpenetration is interrupted precisely in the culminating moment of the history of salvation?

Initially, this was a common conviction, both of the Latin as well as the Greek Fathers. The affirmation of St. Gregory of Nyssa — «it is the sanctification of the Holy Spirit that confers to the bread and the chalice the energy that renders them body and blood of Christ»[9] — is echoed, in the West, by St. Augustine: «The gift is sanctified to become this great sacrament by the operation of the Spirit of God.»[10]

It was the deterioration of relations between the two Churches that led each to stiffen its own position and to make this also a point of contention. In order to oppose those who held that «only by virtue of the Holy Spirit the bread becomes the body of Christ,» the Latins, basing themselves on the authority of St. Ambrose, ended by insisting exclusively on the words of the consecration.[11]

From the moment that the undue attempt was given up to determine «the precise instant» in which the conversion of the species took place and, more correctly, consideration was given to the whole of the rite and the intention of the Church in carrying it out, there was a rapprochement between Orthodoxy and the Catholic Church. On this point, each one also recognizes the validity of the other’s Eucharist. Words of the institution and invocations of the Spirit, together, operate the prodigy.

[Sunday: Transubstantiation and transignification]

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[1] A. Wilmart, «La tradition littéraire et textuelle de ‘l’Adoro te devote,» in Recherches de Théologie ancienne et médiévale, 1, 1929, pp. 21-40.

[2] «Rituale Romanum. De sacra communione et de cultu Mysterii Eucharistici extra Missam,» Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis 1973, pp. 61.s.

[3] Cardinal G. Dannneels, «Ouverture à Eucharistia. Encyclpédie de l’Eucharistie,» ed. M. Brouard, Paris, le Cerf, 2002, p. 11.

[4] Wilmart, art. cit., p. 159, legge «nichil veritatis verbo verius»; I think that, with the majority of manuscripts, the adjective «this» («hoc verbo») is maintained, for reasons I shall explain further on.

[5] S. Th. III, q. 75, a. 5, ad 2.

[6] S. Th., IIIa, q. 75, a. 1.

[7] St. Cyril of Jerusalem, «Catechesi mistagogiche,» IV, 2.6.

[8] St. Ambrose, «De sacramentis,» IV, 14-15.

[9] St. Gregory of Nyssa, (PG 33, 1113. 1124).

[10] St. Augustine, «De Trinitate,» III, 4,10 (PL, 42, 874).

[11] Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, S.Th, III, q. LXXVIII, a.4: the phrase is attributed to Damascene.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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