Originally posted here. The following homily was given by Archbishop Augustine DiNoia, O.P., Secretary of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on January 27, 2011.
Consumed by the Holy Mysteries of this Great Sacrament
In his premiere biography of St. Thomas, Gugliemo di Tocco wrote of the saint that “he celebrated Mass every day, his health permitting, and afterward attended a second Mass celebrated by one of the friars or some other priest, and very often served at the altar. Frequently during the Mass, he was literally overcome by an emotion so powerful that he was reduced to tears, for he was consumed by the holy mysteries of this great sacrament and strengthened by their offering.”
“Consumed by the holy mysteries of this great sacrament.” The Italian term here is divorato-devoured, eaten up, consumed-by the mysteries.
Surely Tocco’s vivid description of Aquinas’s devotion at Mass stops us dead in our tracks-we, whose celebration of or participation in the Holy Mass is frequently distracted or routinized or just bored. We’re tempted to excuse ourselves with observations like “well, of course, Aquinas was a saint, and this is typically saintly behavior,” or “as a very smart theologian, Aquinas had a more penetrating grasp of things than we do.” But instead of these evasions, what we should do is ask ourselves: what I am missing?
Rare indeed are the mysteries that consume or devour our jaded sensibilities. Perhaps a really good thriller might do so on occasion. But we assume that holy mysteries will be something very different from murder mysteries or natural mysteries.
But we shouldn’t exaggerate the contrast between holy mysteries and other sorts of mysteries. In ordinary usage, the word “mystery” refers to something that remains as yet unexplained or something that is basically inexplicable. We expect the mystery to be resolved in the final pages of a thriller, but at the same time scientists speak of the enduring mysteries of the universe. These kinds of mysteries are not unlike holy mysteries in that, in both cases, our capacity to understand or penetrate a particular reality is challenged in a significant way.
The crucial difference between the Catholic and common uses of the word “mystery” lies here. When the term is applied to divine realities, the mystery involved is by definition without end. This is not to say (as nominalists, in contrast to Aquinas, seemed to want to say) that the things of God are permanently or radically incomprehensible and ineffable, but that they are endlessly comprehensible and expressible. Not darkness, but too much light is what we encounter here. That irritating conversation stopper, “it’s a mystery,” doesn’t mean that we have nothing further to say but that we can’t say enough about the matter in hand. The mysteries of faith are so far-reaching in their meaning and so breathtaking in their beauty that they possess a limitless-that is to say, literally an unending and inexhaustible-power to attract and transform the minds and hearts, the individual and communal lives, in which they are pondered, digested, and, ultimately, loved and adored.
Not for nothing can we use the word in the singular and in the plural, mystery and mysteries. The all-encompassing mystery-in the singular-is nothing less than and nothing else but God himself, and the mysteries-plural-are its many facets as we come to know them.
St. Thomas insistently taught that the mystery of faith is radically singular because the triune God who is at its center is one in being and in activity, and comprehends in one act of omniscience the fullness of his truth and wisdom. Through the infused gift of faith-thus called a theological virtue-the believer is rendered capable of a participation in this divine vision, but always and only according to human ways of knowing. We truly know God, but not in the way that he knows himself. According to Aquinas, the human comprehension of the singular mystery of divine truth is necessarily plural in its structure.
In this sense, we can speak both of the mystery of faith-referring to the reality of the one triune God who is know through the act of faith-and of the mysteries of faith-referring to our way of knowing in the Church the various elements of the singular mystery of God. All the mysteries of our faith point us to the single mystery at their center, nothing else but God himself, one and three.
Coming to the center of this mystery, we affirm with astonished delight the divine desire to share the communion of Trinitarian life with human beings, with us. No one has ever desired anything more. God himself has revealed to us (how else could we have known it?) that this divine desire-properly speaking, intention and plan-is at the basis of everything else: creation itself, the incarnation of the Word, our redemption through the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, our sanctification and glory through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus St. Paul speaks to us today of the grace he received precisely “to bring to light for all what is the plan of the mystery hidden from ages past in God who created all things, so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the Church.”
Amazingly, then, it turns out that the divine mystery is the key to all other mysteries. Far from being opaque, it throws light on everything else. To see everything with the eyes of faith-to adopt, as it were, a “God’s eye view”-is to see and to understand everything in the light of this divine plan, “to bring to light for all what is the plan of the mystery.”
Glory, bliss, beatitude-these wonderful terms refer to the consummation of our participation in the communion of Trinitarian life already begun in Baptism, nothing less than seeing God face to face. At the heart of the mystery and the mysteries, finally, is the mystery of divine love. The Catholic tradition has not hesitated to call this participation in the divine life a true friendship with God.
Given all this, was it not fitting that God should be moved to send his own Son into the world and, in the exquisite divine condescension of the Incarnation, to take on a human nature so that he could be known and loved by us as Jesus of Nazareth, Christ and Lord? Was it not fitting that the Son of Man should offer his life to the Father on the Cross in a sacrifice of love for our reconciliation? Was it not fitting that Christ should remain with us in the Eucharist?
Aquinas teaches us to regard these mysteries in the light of the overarching mystery of the divine love. This is very clear in what he wrote about the final question: “It is a law of friendship that friends should want to be together….Christ does not leave us without his physical presence on our pilgrimage, but he unites us to himself in the sacrament in the reality of his body and his blood” (STh 3a, 75, 1).
At the start we asked ourselves: what are we missing? what does it mean to be “consumed by the holy mysteries of this great sacrament”? The answer is really very simple. It means: to be consumed by the love they embody and reveal. Is it any wonder that Aquinas wept in the contemplation of these holy mysteries?
May this great saint, who experienced such rapture whenever he celebrated the Eucharist, help us not to miss being consumed by the love of our divine friends who give themselves to us in this great sacrament, to their eternal glory and to our unending benefit, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John’s Seminary in Boston invited Dominican Fr. Romanus Cessario, OP to preach to the seminarians. Fr. Cessario is a professor of dogmatic and moral theology at St. John’s, as well as an author and editor (I am a former student, though he doesn’t cite that in his credentials).
The “must-read” full text of the homily can be found here…below are excerpts (my emphasis):
Study for the Catholic priest remains a contemplative act. We do not read theology books to discover the knack of doing this or that, we do not ponder divine truth so that we can acquit ourselves of professional responsibilities, we do not undertake study even to develop the high-end skills of management or technology. We study so we can pray. The study of theology and the practice of contemplative prayer flow from the one and the same act of divine faith whereby we accept the Truth about God. For the priest, contemplative study provides the inexhaustible and irreplaceable source of everything that he does. No short cuts are available. No one is exempt. The Church developed a Latin adage to capture this basic truth of priestly formation. Nemo potest dare quod non habet. You can’t give what you do not have.
For the Catholic priest, especially the diocesan priest, the separation of study and prayer brings catastrophic results. No one more than the priest needs the experience of contemplative study. The reason is the Headship that the Church confides to the priest. The priest is not ordained to see about the practical details of programs and everyday activities. He is ordained to preach from the abundance of his heart. The only way that the priest’s heart obtains the abundance of divine truth that the world needs so desperately is through the prayerful study of divine truth. He needs to absorb it, to penetrate it, to make it his own, like breathing in and breathing out. St. Thomas recognized that study does not come easy. Like every good action, study requires a virtuous formation to ensure that our study achieves the desired effect.
Lay people as well ought to adopt the habitus of study and spiritual reading. Making time is half the battle…episodes of Jersey Shore may be relaxing entertainment but will not improve the quality of your life…I’m pretty certain of that. I came across a great quote from Fr. Larry Richards (from a video on the Archdiocese of Boston “Confession site”): “If you dropped dead right now and God offered to give you ‘what you love the most’ for all eternity, would it be Him?” Happy reading.
Just last week I was in Toulouse France, filming for my ten part documentary on Catholicism. I will admit that I was in Toulouse for fairly personal reasons. In the Dominican church of the Jacobins, in a golden casket situated under a side altar, are the remains of my hero, St. Thomas Aquinas. I spent a good amount of time in silent prayer in front of Thomas’s coffin, thanking him for giving direction to my life. When I was a fourteen year old freshman at Fenwick High School, I was privileged to hear from a young Dominican priest the arguments for God’s existence that Thomas Aquinas formulated in the thirteenth century. I don’t entirely know why, but hearing those rational demonstrations lit a fire in me that has yet to go out. They gave me a sense of the reality of God and thereby awakened in me a desire to serve God, to order my life radically toward him. I’m a priest because of God’s grace, but that grace came to me through the mediation of Thomas Aquinas.
As I prayed before the tomb of Aquinas, I found myself ruminating on the importance for our own time of the one whom the church calls its “common doctor.” What can this thirteenth century Dominican master teach us? First, Thomas Aquinas saw with utter clarity that since all truth comes from God, there can never be, finally, any conflict between the data of the sciences and the facts of revelation. In his own time, there were advocates of the so-called “double truth theory,” which held that the “truths” of philosophy and science were in one category and the “truths” of the faith in another. On this interpretation, one could hold mutually exclusive positions as long as one remained cognizant that the opposing views were in separate departments of the mind.
Well, Thomas saw this as so much nonsense and said so. Apparent conflicts between science and religion (to use our terms) are born of either bad science or bad religion, and they should compel the puzzled thinker to dig deeper and think harder. Following Augustine, Thomas said that if an interpretation of the Bible runs counter to clearly established findings of the sciences, we should move to a more mystical and symbolic reading of the Scriptural passage. How important this is today when forms of fundamentalism have given rise to a terrible rationalist counter-reaction. Biblical literalism—a modernism, alien to the patristic and medieval minds—produces a variety of views repugnant to physics, evolutionary biology, cosmology, etc. And this has led to the sequestration of some religious types and some scientific types into separate and mutually hostile camps. Thomas Aquinas would see how foolish and counter-productive this is for both science and religion. The faith, he claimed, should always go out to meet the culture with confidence, and the culture should see its own deepest aspirations realized in the faith.
Secondly, Thomas knew that the Creator God of the Bible is the only finally satisfying explanation for the existence of the contingent things of the world. He was deeply impressed by the actual existence of those things that do not contain within themselves the reason for their being. Clouds, trees, plants, animals, human beings, buildings, planets, and stars certainly exist, but they don’t have to exist. This means, he saw, that their being is not self-explanatory, that it depends, finally, on some primordial reality which does exist through the power of its own essence. This “necessary” being is what Thomas called “God.” He was moved by the correspondence between this philosophical sense of God and the self-designation that God gives in Exodus 3:14: “I am who I am.” How significant this is in our time when “new” atheists have raised their voices to dismiss belief in God as a holdover from a pre-scientific time. Thomas would remind the Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins of the world that no scientific advance could ever, even in principle, eliminate the properly metaphysical question to which God is the only satisfying answer. God is not a superstitious projection of human need; rather, God is the reason why there is something rather than nothing.
Thirdly, Thomas Aquinas was a deep humanist, precisely because he was a Christian. He saw that since God became human in Christ, the destiny of the human being is divinization, participation in the inner life of God. No other religion or philosophy or social theory has ever held out so exalted a sense of human dignity and purpose. And this is why, Aquinas intuited, there is something inviolable about the human person. How indispensably important that teaching is in our era of stem-cell research, euthanasia, legalized abortion, and pre-emptive war, practices that turn persons into means.
Thomas’s bones lie in that golden casket in Toulouse, but his mind and his spirit, thank God, still inform the counter-cultural voice of the church.