The Catholic University of America

St Thomas Aquinas Mass Homily
Prior Provincial Very Rev. Brian Martin Mulcahy, O.P.
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Crypt Church.
Jan. 29, 2013

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To me…this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ, and 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 to the principalities and authorities in the heavens.

This grace, of which we heard in our reading from the Letter to the Ephesians, given to the Apostle Paul, “to preach the inscrutable riches of Christ” and “to bring to light for all what is the plan of the mystery hidden from ages past…so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the Church,” we recognize as a grace, a gift, a charism that was also shared by the saint whom we gather to honor today, St Thomas Aquinas. St Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, in the Apostolic Age, the First Century of the Christian era; and our brother, St Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century. And the Church, of course, has held up the teaching and writings of St Thomas Aquinas as having a perennial usefulness in the explication or “unfolding” of the truths of our Catholic Faith, especially for the instruction of seminarians and the clergy (but not exclusively for them, by any means). As Pope Leo XIII stated in his 1879 encyclical, Aeterni Patris, on the restoration of Christian Philosophy:

“With his spirit at once humble and swift, his memory ready and tenacious, his life spotless throughout, a lover of truth for its own sake, richly endowed with human and divine science, like the sun [St Thomas] heated the world with the warmth of his virtues and filled it with the splendor of his teaching. Philosophy has no part which he did not touch finely at once and thoroughly; on the laws of reasoning, on God and incorporeal substances, on man and other sensible things, on human actions and their principles, he reasoned in such a manner that in him there is wanting neither a full array of questions, nor an apt disposal of the various parts, nor the best method of proceeding, nor soundness of principles or strength of argument, nor clearness and elegance of style, nor a facility for explaining what is abstruse.”

Of course, the founding of the Catholic University of America by the Bishops of the United States in 1887, only eight years after Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, with its School of Philosophy and School of Theology, was, in many ways, a concrete response to the charge given by Leo XIII in Aeterni Patris for the renewal of “Christian Philosophy.” The Dominican Friars of the Province of St Joseph are rightly proud of their long and close association with both the Schools of Philosophy and Theology at the Catholic University of America, almost from their start – an association and collaboration that continue to this day in the persons of Fr James Brent, O.P. and Fr Nicholas Lombardo, O.P. and, please God, will continue well into the future.

And our own experience as Dominican friars, as philosophical and theological heirs to the Angelic Doctor, is that St Thomas’ “soundness of principles” and “strength of argument,” his “clearness and elegance of style” and his “facility for explaining what is abstruse” continue to capture the imagination and enlighten the intellects of men and women of the 21st century who are eager to bring the light of Gospel truth to shine on the crucial questions and issues of our day.

In this Year of Faith, called for by our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, the Christian Faithful are urged to “rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ” (Porta Fidei, n.2), and in so doing, to become effective witnesses to Christ in today’s world and to “to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance.” (ibid.) As members of the Body of Christ, we are exhorted by our Holy Father during this Year of Faith to “rediscover a taste for feeding ourselves on the word of God, faithfully handed down by the Church, and on the bread of life, offered as sustenance for his disciples (cf. Jn 6:51). Indeed, the teaching of Jesus still resounds in our day with the same power: ‘Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life’ (Jn 6:27).” (Porta Fidei, n.3). As Christian men and women of today, we must equip ourselves with a thorough knowledge and profound understanding of the teachings of our Faith. However, the most effective tool for evangelization in today’s world, the Holy Father insists, will not be just well-informed Christians but rather authentic Christians, will be the witness of our lives as disciples of Jesus, disciples who are fed with the Bread of Life, and who, in turn, lead others to come to Him and be fed, as well. “The renewal of the Church is also achieved through the witness offered by the lives of believers: by their very existence in the world, Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us,” (Porta Fidei, n.6) writes the Holy Father.

Let us consider, for a moment, St Thomas Aquinas’ Eucharistic theology. One can pour over his treatise on the Eucharist in the Tertia Pars of the Summa Theologiae, qq.73-78, or one can figuratively sit at the feet of St Thomas by reading his magisterial Commentary on the Sixth Chapter of St John’s Gospel, the “Bread of Life” discourse. However, even for St Thomas, whose “facility for explaining what is abstruse” is unmatched, theological explanations have to, in the end, give way to poetry, to hymnody, as in the great Eucharistic hymns he composed for the Divine Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi. There is nothing in St Thomas’ Eucharistic hymns, like the Adoro Te Devote, which is not contained in his explications of Eucharistic theology, but the hymns are born of years of contemplation on St Thomas’ part, of countless Masses he celebrated fervently, of hours spent sitting before the Tabernacle; they are born of a heart caught up in love and wonder.

One can and should go to question 76 of the Tertia Pars of the Summa, in its eight articles, to learn from St Thomas how Christ is Present in the Sacrament of the Altar, but one can also ponder the first two verses of the Adoro Te Devote to have the same truths expressed with the succinctness that only poetry can achieve.

Adoro Te devote, latens Deitas
Quae sub his figuris vere latitas

(“Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore.
Masked by these bare shadows, faith and nothing more)
Tibi se cor meum totum subjicit
Quia te contemplans totum deficit

(See, Lord, at Thy service, lo, lies here a heart
Lost, all lost, in wonder at the God Thou art.”)

And in the second verse, we are given the basis, the foundation for our belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur
Sed auditu solo tuto creditur

(“Seeing, touching, tasting are in Thee deceived
What says trusty hearing? That shall be believed.)
Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius
Nil hoc verbo Veritatis verius

(What God’s Son hath told me, take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true.”)

You and I have faith in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist because Jesus told us so: “This is My Body; this is My Blood.” And “Unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you do not have life within you.” (Jn 6:53) And “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” (Jn 6:55) To repeat: “What God’s Son hath told me, take for truth I do; / Truth Himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true.”

And you and I, as Catholics, make regular acts of faith in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist: we genuflect reverently before the Sacramental Presence on our altars; we spend Holy Hours in the Presence of our Eucharistic Lord exposed for our adoration; parents point to the Tabernacle and instruct their young children, “Jesus is in there.” These acts of faith on our part serve to ground us more firmly in all the truths of our Catholic faith, which we believe because “Truth Himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true.”

This Christmas time, I was re-reading one of the lesser-known “commentators on St Thomas Aquinas”, the English laywoman author of the mid-20th century, Carryl Houselander, who points out that you and I believe in Jesus’ Presence within ourselves, and within other members of the Body of Christ, in our brothers and sisters, in exactly the same way that we believe that Jesus is Present in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar – not because our senses tell us that it is so, or because we can wrap our minds around it, but because Jesus has told us so. Her little yet profound book, The Reed of God, is a collection of Carryl Houselander’s meditations on the motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She writes:

“Our Lady must have had to make her act of faith in Advent. Surely she would not have believed that God was a child in her womb, had He not said so! That is what faith is: believing something because God has told us that it is so. It is not believing something because we feel that it is true or because we want it to be true or because our reason can encircle it. Truth would be a very small and petty thing if it would fit into our minds.

“If we took the sum-total of our moods, how seldom, if ever, would we be convinced by them that the Holy Spirit is within us and wishes to be at home in us. This is too mysterious a thing for us to accept through anything less than the Word of God Himself. We begin our seeking by making acts of faith in the presence of Christ in our own souls.”

And she goes on:

“The next act of faith is in Christ in other people. It is very easy to believe in the indwelling presence of Christ in the souls of imaginary people; to believe in it in people whom we do not know; but it is very difficult to believe in it in the case of our own relations and our intimate friends. (…) Just as we cannot depend upon feelings to know that Christ is in ourselves, we cannot depend upon appearances to know that He is in others. That which is true of the Host is true of people. We cannot discern God’s presence through our senses, but faith tells us that we should treat one another with the reverence that we give to the Host.”

“Faith tells us that we should treat one another with the reverence that we give to the Host.” Wouldn’t that transform our celebration of this Year of Faith if each of us could strive to do that? Wouldn’t that go a long way to make us the “authentic witnesses to Christ” that the Holy Father urges us to be now and always, and not for our own sake, but so that the men and women of today might come to believe and be saved?

Carryl Houselander continues:

“We need to bring to other people faith like that which we bring to the Blessed Sacrament. It is really as easy to believe in one as in the other. We have exactly the same reason for believing in both: the word of Christ. Both are miracles of love which, like God’s peace, surpass understanding.

“We believe easily in the presence of Christ in the Host, because it is an idea with which we are familiar. We have made daily acts of faith in it, and we accept it easily. (…) If we made daily acts of faith in the presence of Christ in others, we should soon accept that, too.

“Faith simplifies the search. We do not have to discover in which of several people Christ is to be found: we must look for Him in them all. And not in an experimental spirit, to discover whether He is in them or not, but with the absolute certainty that He is.”

And, once again, drawing a parallel between the way Christ is present in the Holy Eucharist and the way He is present in the members of His Body, she writes:

“Christ does not choose to be known through outward appearances – even the appearance of virtue. (…) If we look for Christ only in the saints, we shall miss Him. If we look for Him only in those people who seem to have the sort of character we personally consider to be Christian, that which we might call our ‘ideal,’ we shall miss the whole meaning of His abiding in us. If we look for Him in ourselves, in what we imagine to be good in us, we shall begin in presumption and end in despair. Our search through faith and courage and love is a great going out into darkness, a reaching out to others in darkness, believing that Christ is there in each one; but not in the way we expect, not in the way that we think He should be, not in the way we already understand, but in the way He chooses to be, Who is Himself the Way.”

And as we read in John, Chapter 14: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my Word, and the Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (Jn 14:23)

To reverence the Presence of Christ in my brother and sister, to honor Him in them, motivated by the same sure faith with which I adore His Presence -- Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity -- in the Blessed Sacrament. This is a worthy task for each of us in this Year of Faith, and it is this Faith of ours, after all, that has conquered the world. (cf. I Jn 5:4)