Monday, May 04, 2020

East-West Disagreements about the Epiclesis and Transubstantiation

Back in February, Hieromonk Enoch published an article entitled “Pre-Schism West Against the Scholastic View of Eucharistic Consecration.” The author weaves together a fabric of half-digested quotations from Western and Eastern authors to argue his claim that it was not the words of institution (Hoc est enim Corpus meum, Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei, etc.) but the Supplices te rogamus prayer that was seen by “pre-Schism” Latins as the prayer that effected the mystery of transubstantiation.

It is certainly true that the Eucharistic Prayer was understood in a more holistic sense by our predecessors who were not yet in the grips of what can be called “neoscholastic reductionism,” but it is certainly going too far to claim that granting a special status to the words of Christ spoken over the elements was a medieval scholastic development.

Ludwig Ott’s ever helpful Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (I shall be referring to the revised edition from Baronius Press, with a corrected translation newly typeset) qualifies the following proposition as sententia certa: “The form of the Eucharist consists in Christ’s Words of institution, uttered at the Consecration” (416). He continues:
While the Greek-Orthodox Church wrongly placed the power of change either in the Epiclesis alone, following after the narrative of the institution, or in the connection of the words of institution with the Epiclesis (Confessio orth. I 107), the Catholic Church adheres firmly to the view that the priest consummates the transubstantiation solely by the uttering of the words of institution.
Ott then cites the Decretum pro Armenis of Florence and the parallel passage of Trent, and makes an argument from the Gospel narrative. He then cites testimonies from Tertullian (“He took bread…and made it into His Body, by speaking: ‘This is my Body,’” Adv. Marc. IV 40), St. Ambrose (“The words of Christ bring about this Sacrament,” De sacr. IV 4,14), and St. John Chrysostom (“The priest stands there and sets up the outward sign, while speaking these words; but the power and the grace are of God. ‘This is my body,’ he says. These words transmute the gifts,” De proditione Judae, Hom. I 6). Implicit testimonies are cited from St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus, and Origen; St. John Damascene metnions both the words of institution and the Epiclesis (De fide orth. IV 13).

So, then, what are we to make of the Epiclesis? I find the next bit in Ott especially interesting:
In agreement with Cardinal Bessarion, the words of the Epiclesis are to be taken as referring to the time to which they are related, and not to the time at which they are spoken. That which happens in one single moment in the consecration is liturgically developed and explained in the subsequent words of the Epiclesis. It has only a declaratory, and no consecratory, significance. The view of H. Schell that the Greeks consecrate by the Epiclesis alone, and the Latins by the words of institution alone, must be rejected, since the substance of the Sacraments is not within the disposition of the Church. DH 3556. (417)
Cardinal Basilios Bessarion (1403-1472)
An enlightening discussion of this issue is found in Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s grand commentary on the Summa theologiae, much of which, sadly, has never been translated. For my students in Gaming, Austria, some time ago I produced a translation (available here) of interesting passages in De Eucharistia et Poenitentia. On Tertia Pars, question 78, we find this commentary:
It is clear that the questions that have arisen between Catholics and schismatics concerning the form of consecration and the epiclesis may only now be treated, the questions of the Real Presence and of transubstantiation being presupposed.
       To begin with, we have before our eyes definitions of the Church. The Church has declared that the form of this sacrament are the words of Christ, not the epiclesis (the subsequent prayer, as the Greeks call it). Cf. Denz. 414, 698, 715, 876, 938, 3043, 3035. [1] The Council of Florence (D. 698) says: “The form of this sacrament are the Savior’s words, with which he confected this sacrament; the priest then speaking in persona Christi, confects this sacrament. For by the power of those words the substance of bread is converted into the body of Christ, and the substance of wine into His blood.” ... The Council of Trent (D. 876) says: “By the force of the words [of consecration], the body of Christ is under the appearance of bread and the blood under the appearance of wine.” [See also D. 938 and 949.]
       Innocent IV, in the year 1254, concerning the Greek rite, declares: “The Greeks should be permitted to celebrate Masses at the hour which is according to their own custom, provided that they observe, in the confection or consecration, the very words expressed and handed down by the Lord” (D. 3043). In fact, Pius X, in the year 1910 (D. 3035), condemning doctrine recently defended, declares against certain errors of the Orientals: [in brief, consecration is effected by the words of consecration, not by the epiclesis, which is not strictly necessary]. Denziger notes here that many earlier popes have declared that the epiclesis is not required for consecration, namely Benedict XII (D. 532), Clement VI, Benedict XIII, Benedict XIV and Pius VII.
       From the fourteenth century on, schismatic Greeks say that the Eucharist is confected by the prayers which are poured out after the words “This is my body, This is my blood” have been pronounced, according to their liturgical prayers as follows: “We beseech you, Father, that you send Your spirit over us and over these gifts set before us, and make this bread the precious body of your Son and that which is in the chalice the precious blood of your Son.” To say that this prayer is necessary for consecration is to affirm that the Masses celebrated in the Roman Church are invalid and is, moreover, contrary to the declaration of the Council of Florence (D. 698 and 715). The chief proponents of this error were Cabasilas, Mark of Ephesus, and Simeon of Thessalonica, who were refuted by Cardinal Bessarion in his work De Eucharistia, as well as by Allatius and Arcudius. (Cf. Dict. Théol. Cath., s. v. «Epiclèse», P. Salaville.)
Then Garrigou-Lagrange proceeds to give an account of the liturgical meaning of the epiclesis:
There is a twofold explanation of the meaning of the epiclesis after the words of consecration.
       (1) One explanation is: When it is read after the consecration, as it now is [in the Greek rite], the epiclesis invokes the Holy Spirit, not to effect transubstantiation, which is already accomplished, that is, not so that the bread become the body of Christ, but that it may become this for us, namely, that it may profit the priest and the faithful, especially those who are going to receive communion. In this way speak Vasquez, Bellarmine, Suárez, de Lugo, Billuart, and among the recent authors, Billot. But this explanation does not seem literal enough [i.e., it doesn’t account for the seemingly obvious meaning of the prayer].
       (2) The second explanation, which is more common, was proposed by Cardinal Bessarion. The epiclesis invokes the Holy Spirit exactly inasmuch as the consecration, being a work ad extra, is common to the three divine Persons, and accordingly the Holy Spirit is invoked, so that, with the Father and the Son already having been invoked, He Himself [in unity with them] may bring about transubstantiation. Indeed, this transubstantiation is accomplished in an instant, by the words of consecration already pronounced; but because, by our human speech, all these things cannot be expressed in one and the same instant, “things which are completed in an instant are declared one after another.” In this way speak Bessarion, Bossuet, Ferraris, Cagin, Franzelin, Salaville.
Later, Garrigou notes that a similar principle is at work in the narrative of the Last Supper, where Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and speaks the words: “narration is successive and announces words after facts, when really the words spoken are simultaneous with the facts.” [2]

These two theories, in spite of their superficial disagreement, help us to understand the “moment of consecration” in a non-reductionist sense. Even if there must be a moment after which the real Body or Blood of Our Lord is present and thus deserving of the worship of latreia, as we can extrapolate from the behavior of clergy in every traditional Eucharistic rite [3], nevertheless beings like ourselves, who live, think, and speak in time, must pray in such a way that our anaphoras (and our liturgies as a whole) draw out, step by step as it were, the meaning of mysteries that occur timelessly.

The reason why this kind of temporal disjunction happens is not hard to see. We humans can only speak of an instantaneous coming-to-be in language of change and therefore of measurable duration (consider all the troubles theologians have had to face when speaking of “creation ex nihilo”). Thus, every orthodox Christian liturgy speaks at length of the conversion of the gifts—it calls down the Spirit, recalls or repeats the institution, offers up the gifts to the heavenly Father, and so on (in different sequences for different rites)—but really, these things are occurring simultaneously. This we cannot express with our time-bound language.

This explains why traditional rites grow, over time, in their textual witness to the substance of what is happening: they grow in doctrinal precision, spiritual amplitude, poetic grandeur, and ascetical demands. It would be unworthy of the magnitude of the moment of consecration to treat it cheaply and to think that, having said “the magic words,” we’re pretty close to being done with what we have come to do. The attitude of a true believer is quite the opposite: so great is this moment that it must be surrounded by wall after wall of language, silence, chant, incense, gesture; it must be placed like a mighty jewel in the most exquisite setting; it must be approached by many steps, and these not always audaciously forward-moving, but sometimes circular, hesitant, reiterative.

Thus, so far from supporting a reductionist view of consecration, the position summarized by Garrigou-Lagrange works against it, and in favor of the fullness of expression one finds in the Greek tradition as well as in the undeformed Latin tradition.


[1] These are not the most up-to-date Denzinger numbers; they would reflect the edition nearest 1948.

[2] We need not linger here over the issue of whether or not the traditional Roman Rite has or ever had an epiclesis, and whether its absence is anything of a defect. The debate has gone back and forth for a long time. Readers today are likely to encounter it in two authors: Martin Mosebach and Fr. John Hunwicke. Mosebach claims that the Veni Sanctificator of the Offertory is an epiclesis. Hunwicke, having noted that the Roman Canon predates the Macedonian controversy through which the epiclesis entered the Greek liturgy, argues that the Roman Canon rests on a theology of the Father’s omnipotent good pleasure sufficient to account for the transformation of the gifts when He is asked to do so in the Name of His beloved Son (see here for an NLM round-up).

[3] I defend this position in my article “On ‘Pinpointing’ Consecration: A Letter for the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas.” I also defended this position in the hardest possible case, namely, for an anaphora that seems to lack the words of institution. See my article “Doing and Speaking in the Person of Christ: Eucharistic Form in the Anaphora of Addai and Mari,” Nova et Vetera 4 (2006): 313–79. Br. Ansgar Santogrossi has subjected my arguments to a welcome critique; some portions of this may be found here and here. I am not particularly wedded to a defense of this anaphora. My stated goal was simply to see if any way could be found, on the basis of principles of Thomistic sacramental theology, to explain how transubstantiation might be efficaciously signified and recognized without the words of institution.

Visit Dr. Kwasniewski’s website, SoundCloud page, and YouTube channel.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: