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Perfectly One: Eucharist, Unity, and Traditionalism

“That they may become perfectly one…” —John 17:23

The ancient form of the Roman liturgy—that masterwork of the Holy Spirit by the hands of the saints—is once again targeted for extinction. Understandably, more than a few traditionalists are giving vent to their distress in heated and dramatic terms. However, as we struggle to preserve our patrimony, let us recall that the holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of mystical union, is the liturgy’s fountain and fulfillment. Therefore, we necessarily must avoid any word or deed that unduly disturbs the divine unity this Sacrament signifies and effects, lest we forfeit the very good toward which our worship is ordered, leaving ourselves with something beautiful but sterile.

The doctrine concerning the unitive reality of the Eucharist has an exquisite apostolic, patristic, and magisterial pedigree, yet it remains underappreciated.

St. Paul gave the mystery primordial expression in his letter to the strife-ridden Corinthians: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). The fathers subsequently elaborated upon this simple utterance. St. John Chrysostom’s exposition is typical:

What is the bread? The body of Christ. And what do they become who partake of it? The body of Christ: not many bodies, but one body. For as the bread consisting of many grains is made one … so are we conjoined both with each other and with Christ.[1]

The same truth was revealed by St. John. St. Augustine’s treatment of the bread of life discourse (John 6) is not unusual among the fathers, save for its surpassing eloquence. Referring to verses 53-55, he wrote:

[Christ] would have this meat and drink to be understood as meaning the fellowship of his own body and members … The sacrament of this thing, namely, of the unity of the body and blood of Christ, is prepared on the Lord’s table … While men seek […] neither to hunger nor thirst, there is nothing that truly affords this [satisfaction], except this meat and drink . . . that is, the very fellowship of the saints, where there will be peace and unity, full and perfect.[2]

Along with other medieval luminaries, St. Thomas Aquinas assimilated the mind of the fathers on this subject. The faithful, partaking of one thing (Christ), become that one thing, being converted into that which they consume.[3] Thus, “the unity of the mystical body is the fruit of the true body received.”[4]

Holy Mother Church has several times affirmed this principle while sitting in ecumenical council, teaching that the Savior instituted the Eucharist “as a symbol of that unity and charity with which he would fain have all Christians be mentally joined and united together,” and that by the Blessed Sacrament “the unity of all believers who form one body in Christ is both expressed and brought about.”[5]

In short, we receive the Lord sacramentally that we might become “perfectly one” in and through him (Jn. 17:23). This sacramental unity anticipates the true unity that we will enjoy when we see God face to face. “We shall have God as our common object of vision, God as our common possession, God as our common peace.”[6]

This sublime mystery must guide us during the present crisis, shaping our conduct in three respects.

First, we must avoid endorsing societies that carry a whiff of Donatism, holding themselves apart from the general body of Catholic believers and purporting to judge the Church. We must be clear that the faithful cannot intermingle with such societies without putting themselves in spiritual peril. It is vain to defend these societies by arguing that they are not formally schismatic when the non-existence of schism turns primarily on the Church’s maternal indulgence. Schism is a grave sin; we should flee even its specter.

Second, we must refrain from trafficking in contempt for Pope Francis (here I speak as one guilty), for such casual malice, besides poisoning the soul, will inevitably pass through the man and attach to his office. Whatever his merits, Francis is entitled to the reverence that accrues to him on Peter’s account. Naturally, his teaching may be scrutinized and his legislation protested, or else the Church would be reduced to a cult. But we must operate with exceeding love and prudence. How many men in past ages, justifiably alarmed by some papal extravagance or pretense, began by assaulting the pope’s person, then advanced to suspecting and opposing his unique ministry? The enemy excels at contaminating virtue with a pinch of vice, leading the soul in small steps from indignation to disobedience.

Third, we must plunge more deeply into the life of prayer and askesis, rendering ourselves amenable to the Holy Spirit, who sheds charity abroad in our hearts (Rom. 5:5). We will doubtless persevere in the blessings of Catholic harmony if we have charity, the “bond of perfect unity” (Col. 3:14). Let us therefore “bear with one another in charity, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2-3). We cannot call ourselves champions of the liturgy unless we demand from ourselves a love commensurate with the mystery at its heart. “If we are all nourished of the same and all become the same, why do we not also show for the same love and become also in this respect one?”[7] Such love is the love of God, which preserves in its radiant tranquility all that it encompasses.

It is worth sincerely pondering a remark made by St. Augustine, who spoke prophetically in the voice of the Lord against a backdrop of dire ecclesial division:

Other gifts of mine are possessed in common with you by those who are not mine: not only nature, life, perception, reason … but also languages, sacraments, prophecy, knowledge, faith, the bestowing of their gifts to the poor, and the giving of their body to the flames; but because destitute of charity, they only tinkle like cymbals; they are nothing, and by nothing are they profited.[8]

By nothing are they profited!

As we fight—fighting as spiritual not fleshly men fight—let us recognize that the liturgy is meant, by the exercise of its mysteries, to deliver us from sinful discord into the unity of divine love. We begin to taste this future glory even now in the Blessed Sacrament, the crown of the whole liturgy. Bearing this in mind, we must not labor so as to lose the reward we seek. Rather, we must “be angry and sin not” (Eph 4:26), always beholding with the psalmist “how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity” (Ps. 133:1).


Photo by Alison Girone: Fr. Carlo Santa Teresa’s first Latin Mass. Used with permission.

[1] St. Chrysostom, Homily XXIV on First Corinthians, 4.

[2] St. Augustine, Trac. Ev. Jo. XXVI, 15-17.

[3] Summa Theologiae III, q. 73, a. 3, ad. 2.

[4] Summa Theologiae III, q. 82, a. 9, ad 2.

[5] Council of Trent, Session XIII, Chapter II; Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium I, 3.

[6] St. Augustine, Ennar. in Ps. LXXXV, 7.

[7] St. John Chrysostom, Homily XXIV on First Corinthians, 4.

[8] Trac. Ev. Jo. LXV, 3.

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