It was Dec. 6, the feast of St. Nicholas. Thomas Aquinas had just finished Mass in the chapel that bore the name of the saint for that day. As the story goes, his friend, Reginald, approached him about continuing to dictate his masterpiece, the Summa Theologica, which would become one of the most important documents in the history of the Catholic Church.
But as Reginald would eventually learn, Thomas had experienced such a profound mystical experience ― some believe during the moment of consecration ― that he no longer felt that what he had to say was of importance. Pressed further to consider going on, he replied with the famous words:
“Everything that I have written seems like a straw to me compared to those things that I have seen and have been revealed to me.”
He would not write again. Months later, after contracting an illness, he found himself on his deathbed on March 7 of the following year. In his final words in front of the Blessed Sacrament, he said:
“I receive Thee, price of my soul’s redemption; I receive Thee, viaticum of my pilgrimage, for love of whom I have studied, watched, labored; I have preached Thee; I have taught Thee. … If I have taught anything poorly on this sacrament or the others, I submit it to the judgment of the Holy Roman Church, in obedience to which I leave this life.”
Whatever happened that fateful day in December, it was clear that Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest, most learned and saintly doctors in our history, regarded the Eucharist with the utmost respect and adoration. Even a cursory review of his work suggests that he believed the Eucharist was the pinnacle of God’s expression of himself in this world, and nothing could compare to it.
I began this “free-will discourse” a couple of articles ago with the treatise that our free will, even more than life and unity, is the cornerstone of God’s design. I continued with the contention that if we do not embrace a co-partnership with God, in the lifestyle we live, his image and likeness for us will suffer more and more as each day goes on.
And I continue with the contention that, as Thomas Aquinas observed, even the greatest gift God has given, his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, is dependent on us freely, knowingly and lovingly opening ourselves to him.
When we step back and consider all of this, it challenges us to consider what we as Catholics have available to us each day. And yet, if we stop there, we may be missing the full story of just what is required so that the Eucharist can be for us, as Aquinas understood, God’s greatest presence in our lives. For starters, the Catechism (1415) asserts the following:
“Anyone who desires to receive Christ in Eucharistic communion must be in the state of grace. Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive Communion without having received absolution in the sacrament of penance.”
Going even further, the Catechism (1355) also states:
“… we call this food Eucharist, and no one may take part in it unless he believes that what we teach is true, has received baptism for the forgiveness of sins and new birth, and lives in keeping with what Christ taught.”
At first glance, both of these provisions make reasonable sense. For those who have committed any serious transgression, the sacrament of reconciliation is deemed necessary to eliminate the stain of sin from our soul and to begin to make amends for what we have done; thus, through this process, we become more prepared to receive Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Furthermore, in regard to the provision about non-Catholics, theologians would argue that a lack of formation and consent does not allow for a full understanding and appreciation for the “True Presence” that the Eucharist is.
Thus, in either case pointed out by the Catechism — whether seen just as a symbol or received in a state of grave sin — the Church has determined that an individual would not be in a position of knowledge and grace to fully receive Christ’s presence.
Similarly, but in regards to different circumstances, the Catholic Church teaches that when dealing with individuals who are in an advanced state of dysfunction, who are nonresponsive or incoherent to what is occurring (e.g., in a coma), the Eucharist should not be administered, even in a tiny portion. This is not first for medical reasons (although obviously important to consider), but, rather, because the incapacitated individual is unable to consent to receive and lacks an awareness of the sacredness of what he or she would be receiving. As with prior restrictions, it suggests that a deep sense of reverence, understanding and full consent is necessary for all those who receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ ( also see “Sacraments in the Critical Care Setting,” Catholic Witness in Health Care, Practicing Medicine in Truth and Love, (2017) Ed. John Travaline, Louise Mitchell; Ely, E. Wesley, “Baptism in the ICU,” The Linacre Quarterly 84 (2) 2017).
Yet while all this seems logical at first glance, it gives me pause to consider a perspective that appears lost in these beliefs. All saints and holy people know that nothing is more important than to fully receive him in our lives, to fully open ourselves to his presence and purpose for our being.
Aquinas, like many, regarded the Eucharist as the single most accessible way to do this, and thus based much of his teachings on the culmination his Real Presence. And yet, despite all of this ― despite an infinite source of transformational love and truth that the Eucharist embodies ― none of it means anything if I do not, in my free will, consent knowingly, lovingly and properly to what I am receiving.
If you think I am overstating this contention, consider this example. Imagine there was a drug that could cure dementia if only a person would consume it. Science had proven that it could heal all symptoms and return the previously afflicted person to a complete state of health.
Despite all the skeptics, those who took it were healed of their illness and were never the same afterward. It did not matter where you came from, what you believed or how advanced the symptoms were. It transformed those who received it, thus healing them fully. Given all this, would we not think that doctors would prescribe this across the board to any and all, regardless of their situation and circumstances? Of course we would.
So, given the infinite capacity of the Eucharist, why would the Catholic Church not prescribe this for all people, regardless of sin, understanding and even capacity to respond?
If receiving the True Presence is as the Catholic Church purports, would we not want all to receive Christ in this way? Sure, you might argue that a lack of understanding or capacity might restrict reverence or adoration that God deserves. But God cannot be harmed by our lack of awe or adoration, and neither is our ultimate goal; receiving him fully is.
What I am suggesting here is not that the Catholic Church is promulgating a heresy, but that the Catholic Church understands, at the deepest level, what matter most is that we knowingly, willingly and lovingly use our free will to consent to his presence in every single aspect of our lives ― including when his presence literally enters our bodies in Holy Communion.
This means in the way we walk, talk, eat, entertain, create and reflect among an infinite number of other activities; anything that allows for free will is part of our co-partnership of his design of us and this world. And why should we be surprised that free will is even critical in the pinnacle of the Eucharist?
Remember what happened when Jesus tried to “give himself” to the people in his hometown of Nazareth. He was rejected and thus exclaimed, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown … ” and walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
He left Nazareth, never to return, indicating that because of their lack of openness (i.e., free-will consent), he could not give of his love in the way he desired. His hometown experience speaks to what the Catholic Church teaches about the intersection of faith and life.
The transformational power of God cannot transform if we do not freely consent to who he is and live each second as if what we do matters in opening the door to his love and purpose for us. This is God’s design of our world. He cannot, and will not, force us to unite with him. We must come to him — and receive him — of our own free will.
James Schroeder, Ph.D., is vice president of the psychology program at Easterseals Rehabilitation Center in Evansville, Indiana.
He resides there with his wife, Amy, and their seven children.
He has published four books and writes for a variety of religious and secular sites, including NCRegister.com.
He also is a regular guest on Relevant Radio and the Son Rise Morning Show.