The Liturgy and Divine Adoption

God has predestined us to be adopted sons and daughters, an invitation made in and through his Son, by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is pure gift,  completely and freely bestowed upon man as a grace, and received in baptism.

Baptism of Christ by Carlo Maratta

(Mng. Editor’s note: This article was submitted before the new translation of the Roman Missal became the version presently being used.)

The great German scholar, Romano Guardini, stated that it is only the faith of Christianity that reveals a correct understanding of the person. 1 Based upon the liturgical principle, lex orandi, lex credendi, we can add that the prayer of the Church is the ultimate source of a proper anthropology.  As such, the foundation for an authentic vision of the human person is the liturgy.

When we turn to the liturgy to understand who man is, we see that, on multiple occasions, the liturgy employs the use of the word, adoption, and its derivatives, to refer to man’s relationship with GodHowever, the 1973 ICEL translation of the Missal translates adoptionis filiorum, more often than not, as “children,” and at other times, the term is not even translated.  With the new translation of the Roman Missal imminent, it will be very interesting to see how the Latin word, “adoption,” is ultimately rendered.  If it is translated as “adopted sons,” as opposed to “children,” then the faithful will hear that we are not children of God, in some sort of natural sense; but rather, we have been gratuitously adopted in the Son.  This will have ramifications for an understanding of the human person.

In order to explicate these potential anthropological ramifications, this article will examine a theology of divine adoption in scripture, the teachings of the Church, and in the work of Blessed Columba Marmion.  It will then discuss how this theology is made manifest in the Church’s liturgy.

Theology of Divine Adoption
The notion of divine adoption is a key concept in St. Paul’s theology.  In five separate passages, he refers to Christians as having received the Spirit of adoption as sons (c.f. Rom 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:5).  St. Paul explains that we have been predestined to be adopted sons in the Son, through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Through receiving  “the Spirit of adoption of sons,” a completely new life is bestowed upon the Christian, fundamentally changing his existence.  As a consequence of this filiation, the Christian is now able to address the Father as Abba, the same term of intimacy by which the Son addresses his Father (cf. Mk 14:36).  Thus, through adoption, the Christian is drawn into the Son’s own relationship with the Father.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church builds upon, and develops, the soteriological, Christological, and pneumatological aspects of divine adoption.  In the first place, adoption is pure gift; it is free and undeserved. 2  Adoption does not belong to man by nature, but through grace.  Secondly, there are ecclesiological and sacramental/liturgical elements of this doctrine.  The adoption of the Christian takes place through his incorporation into the Church at baptism.  The Catechism states: “We can adore the Father because he has caused us to be reborn to his life, by adopting us as his children, in his only Son: by Baptism, he incorporates us into the Body of his Christ; through the anointing of his Spirit, who flows from the head to the members, he makes us other ‘Christs.’” 3  Regarding the liturgy and adoption, we read in the Catechism: “In the liturgy of the Church, God the Father is blessed and adored as the source of all the blessings of creation and salvation, with which he has blessed us in his Son, in order to give us the Spirit of filial adoption.” 4

From the biblical witness, and the teachings of the Church, as contained in the Catechism, the Church’s theology of adoption may be summarized in this way: God has predestined us to be adopted sons and daughters (cf. Eph 1:1-5).  This invitation to become God’s adopted children, is made in and through his Son, by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  This is pure gift; it is completely and freely bestowed upon man as a grace.  The Christian receives this gift in baptism, deepening through participation in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. 5 Finally, and most importantly, the Spirit of adoption unites the Christian with Christ, the only Son, making the Christian a sharer in Christ’s life.

In the last century, the Church has been blessed with a theologian whose entire corpus can be described as an explication of the doctrine of divine adoption.  Blessed Columba Marmion (1858-1923) was an Irish monk who wrote considerably on this topic in his principle works, Christ the Life of the Soul, and Christ in His Mysteries.  He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2000. Today, many refer to him as the “Doctor of Divine Adoption.”

Dom Marmion made man’s divine adoption in the Son the center of his teaching.  He considered the doctrine of supernatural adoption to be the summary of revelation.  As a summary of the Christian faith, this doctrine encompasses the mystery of the blessed Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Central to the doctrine of divine adoption is: God’s paternity, and man’s supernatural vocation, man’s fall from the grace of sonship, the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery and man’s restoration as a son in the Son, and, finally, the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. 6

Marmion’s thought on adoption could be summarized thus: the Divine Persons of the Blessed Trinity have predestined man to participate in their divine life; to enter into their Communion.  God has predestined that we participate in God’s own life, accomplished through the grace of divine adoption.  The gift of supernatural adoption is made in and through the Son; in him, that this plan is realized.  In the Incarnation, the Son shares in man’s nature so that man may share in the Son’s divine nature, in his relationship with the Father in the Holy Spirit.  As Marmion writes: “By nature God has only one Son.  By love, He will have a multitude of them, without number.  This is the grace of supernatural adoption.” 7  Thus divine adoption, in the thought of Blessed Columba, is a participation in Christ’s own life.  The Christological nature of divine adoption is a fundamental theme in Marmion’s work.  In Christ the Life of the Soul, we read: “We are here at the central point of the Divine plan: the Divine adoption.  It is from Jesus Christ, it is through Jesus Christ, that we receive it.” 8

For Blessed Columba, the Eucharist, and, in particular, Eucharistic Communion, is essential to man’s participation in the life of the Son.  Union with Christ through Holy Communion is an “abiding” with him in whom the Father abides (c.f. Jn 14:10). 9  Eucharistic Communion is at the heart of the human person’s participation in the life of Christ, and, therefore, in his life as Son.  At a 2006 Colloquium on the thought of Blessed Columba, Cardinal Justin Rigali wrote: “For Abbot Marmion, to receive Christ in the Eucharist, to participate in the Eucharistic action, is indeed to make the most elevated act of faith, and to participate in the greatest measure possible, in the divine filiation of Jesus.” 10

A theme of Blessed Columba’s theology, that is particularly apposite to our day, is the notion of the sheer gratuity of divine adoption.  For Blessed Columba, it is only possible to speak of the adoption of one who is of the same nature as the one adopting.  As such, members of the human race can only adopt other members of the human race, welcoming the adoptee into their family.  However, with divine adoption, the Infinite God, who is wholly-Other, graciously deigns to adopt one of his creatures, inviting this creature into God’s own Triune life.  The sheer gratuitousness of this is lost on our culture, since we not only adopt pets, but even highways.  When divine filiation is no longer understood as utterly gratuitous, and radically beyond human nature, then man’s adoption in the Son will cease to be received as a gift. 11  The tendency in the present translation of the Roman Missal, to refer to man as God’s “child,” only reinforces this problem.  This will be addressed later in the discussion on the prayers of the liturgy and divine adoption.

In concluding reflections on a theology of divine adoption in scripture, the Catechism, and the work of Blessed Columba Marmion, we can say that a theology of divine adoption is essentially: Trinitarian, Christological, pneumatological, ecclesial-Marian 12, and Eucharistic.  Put briefly, it encompasses the entire Catholic faith.  It is no wonder, then, that the living Tradition of the Catholic faith, as expressed in the Church’s liturgy, will speak on numerous occasions of the anthropological truth of man’s divine adoption.

The Liturgy
In the liturgy, man’s divine adoption is communicated through Word and Sacrament.  In the Word—both in the scriptural readings, and in Christ present and acting in the person of the priest praying the presidential prayers—the reality of divine adoption is made present.  The Word of God is always efficacious, communicating that which it intends (cf. Is 55:10-11).  Thus, when we hear of our adoption in the propers of the Mass, this anthropological truth is being effected.

It is not insignificant that on several occasions, the Roman Missal speaks of man’s adoption.  In the Easter Vigil Liturgy, which is referred to as the “greatest and most noble of all solemnities,” man’s adoption is mentioned four times.  It is present in the prayers, after the second and fourth readings, in the Collect, and in the Prayer after the Litany of the Saints.  We see the Latin phrases: adoptionis gratia (grace of adoption), sacra adoptione (sacred adoption), and adoptionis spiritum (the spirit of adoption).  The current translation of the Roman Missal, only translates these phrases as “adoption” once and ignores them the other three times.

In the Preface for Pentecost Sunday, the salient elements of a theology of adoption are manifested.  The so-called Gray Book draft of the third edition of the Roman Missal translates this preface thus: “For you brought the Paschal Mystery to completion when, on this day, you bestowed the Holy Spirit upon those you made your adopted children (fílios adoptionis) by uniting them to your Only-Begotten Son.”  Compare this with the current ICEL translation: “Today you sent the Holy Spirit on those marked out to be your children by sharing the life of your only Son, and so you brought the paschal mystery to its completion.”

The prayers of the liturgy, in their fidelity to the Latin text, are meant to communicate the fullness of the Catholic faith and, in reference to the truth about man, a proper Christian anthropology.  With a faithful translation that communicates a true liturgical anthropology, the words of the liturgy become sacramental; that is, these words make present the reality that they signify.  The General Instruction of the Roman Missal confirms this when it speaks of the mystery of the Church being made present through the words of the greeting, and the people’s response: “The priest…signifies the presence of the Lord to the community gathered there by means of the Greeting.  By this Greeting, and the people’s response, the mystery of the Church gathered together is made manifest.” 13  Consequently, the propers of the Mass that speak of man’s adoption in the Son communicate this reality.  However, when Latin phrases, such as fílios adoptionis, are translated as “children,” this truth about man is blurred.

As already mentioned, this is a particular danger for our age as the concept of adoption has been so expanded as to be almost meaningless.  There is a pressing need to recover the gratuity of divine adoption.  Furthermore, when man is simply referred to as one of God’s children, this gives the appearance that man is related to God through natural begetting.  This could not be further from the truth.  Man is not, by nature, a child of God; he only enters God’s divine life through the grace of adoption.  This distinction is critical in order to correctly understand man’s relationship with God.  It is, therefore, essential that the texts of the Mass accurately translate the word, “adoption,” so that we are able to recover a proper liturgical anthropology.

The manner by which the liturgy communicates the anthropological truth about man in Sacrament, is through the Eucharist.  In a particular way it is effected through the reception of the Son’s life in Holy Communion (cf. Jn 6:53-57).  As the eternally begotten Son, he is always in relation with the Father.  Through the grace of baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist, we are drawn into communion with the Son in the Holy Spirit, participating in the Son’s filial relationship with his Father.

With the advent of the “Theology of the Body,” there has been a shift in the minds of many Catholics toward a nuptial understanding of the Mass, to the detriment of the filial understanding.  This spousal image is correct when we understand the Mass as the re-presentation of Christ’s self-gift,as the Bridegroom, on the Cross to the Church, his Bride (c.f. Eph 5:21-33).  There is also certainly a nuptial imagery operative in the liturgy (e.g., invitation to the supper of the Lamb), but this nuptiality must always be understood within the context of the Son’s relation to the Father.

This anthropological view of man, as an adopted son in the Son, is not contradictory to a spousal understanding of the body.  The spousal nature and vocation of the human person is only possible because he is made for union with the Son, who is also Bridegroom.  This is why original solitude precedes man’s call to communion.  Pope John Paul II explains this priority thus: “Although in its normal constitution, the human body carries within itself the signs of sex, and is by its nature, male or female, the fact that man is a ‘body’ belongs more deeply to the structure of the personal subject than the fact that, in his somatic constitution, he is also male or female.  For this reason, the meaning of original solitude, which can be referred to “man,” is substantially prior to the meaning of original unity.” 14

Then, Cardinal Ratzinger, commenting on the dignity of the human person, also confirms the priority of man’s relationship with God, relative to a spousal understanding:

{T}he sexual differentiation of mankind into man and woman is much more than a purely biological fact for the purpose of procreation, but unconnected with what is truly human in mankind. In it, there is accomplished that intrinsic relation of the human being to a “Thou”which inherently constitutes him or her as human…The likeness to God in sexuality is prior to sexuality, not identical with it. It is because the human being is capable of the absolute “Thou” that he is an “I” who can become a “Thou” for another “I.” The capacity for the absolute “Thou” is the ground of the possibility and necessity of the human partner. 15

Finally, David L. Schindler explains the distinction between filiality and nuptiality within the context of man’s creation in the image of God: “{T}he content of the doctrine of the imago Dei is, in the first place, that man is capax Dei: it is the relation to God that originally constitutes each person, and this relation immediately expresses itself in and as relation, also, to others.” 16

From the above, it can be argued that the basis for man’s spousal vocation is his original solitude and, therefore, his filial relationship with God.  Again, this is not a contradiction of the Theology of the Body.  When we speak of an anthropology of the Mass, the priority, therefore, is not so much nuptial, but filial; as such, it is a participation in the Son’s prayer to the Father, in the Holy Spirit.

It is through the spiritual worship of the Eucharist that man enters into union with the Son.  He encounters the Logos, made flesh, who has already spoken to man through the Liturgy of the Word.  This Logos draws man to himself, in his total sacrifice on the Cross, made present in the Eucharistic Prayer, and into his self-surrender to the Father, in the Holy Spirit.  Thus, in participating in the Eucharist Prayer, and especially in receiving Communion, man receives and enters into the very life of the Son, in his filial relationship with the Father.  Blessed Columba Marmion referred to the act of Eucharistic Communion—the most perfect act of man’s divine adoption—in this prayer: “O Heavenly Father, I abide in your Son Jesus, and your Son abides in me.  Your Son, proceeding from you, receives communication of your Divine life, in its fullness…And since I share in his life, look at me in him, through him, with him, as the Son in whom you are well pleased.” 17

The mystery of man’s vocation to adopted sonship in the Son is at the very heart of a liturgical anthropology.  The propers of the Mass and the Eucharist both communicate this mystery, making it present.  A more accurate rendering of the Latin term, “adoption,” will have paramount ramifications for a proper liturgical understanding of the human person.  This is especially important since, in contemporary culture, the concept of adoption has become meaningless.  An accurate translation of the Latin text, with additional catechesis on a theology of adoption, will assist in recovering an understanding of divine adoption as a gift.  Additionally, proper catechesis on a theology of divine adoption will help the faithful understand that our dignity is not diminished, by virtue of the fact that we are not children of God by nature.  Rather, through grace, we have been elevated by God in a manner that far exceeds our nature.  The Son assumed our nature, so that we might share in his nature; this is a sign of God’s inestimable love for us.  Finally, an authentic liturgical anthropology also reveals the truth of man’s final destiny.  The maxim: “We become, by grace, what Christ is by nature,” confirms that the Christian, as an adopted son in the Son, is a fellow heir with Christ, and as such, is an heir to his eternal glory (cf. Rom 9:17).

  1. Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World (Washington DC: Regenery Publishing, 1968) 121.
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC),.§257, 1996, and 2784.
  3. CCC §2782.
  4. CCC §1110.
  5. Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis: Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist as Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission (Washington DC: USCCB Publishing, 2007) §17: “The sacrament of Baptism, by which we were conformed to Christ, incorporated in the Church and made children of God, is the portal to all the sacraments. It makes us part of the one Body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12:13), a priestly people.  Still, it is our participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice which perfects within us the gifts given to us at Baptism.”
  6. Cardinal Justin Rigali, “Blessed Columba Marmion: Doctor of Divine Adoption” Josephinum: Journal of Theology, Vol. 13, No. 2, Summer/Fall (2006) 133-4.
  7. Blessed Columba Marmion, Christ, The Life of the Soul, trans. Alan Bancroft (Bethesda MD: Zaccheus, 2005) 7.
  8. Ibid., 27.
  9. Ibid., 361.
  10. Justin Rigali, “Blessed Columba Marmion,” 139.
  11. Columba Marmion, Life, 20-22.
  12. Ibid., 484-91.  The Catechism and Blessed Columba Marmion do not explicitly speak of the Blessed Virgin Mary with reference to divine adoption.  However, Marmion makes clear that the Blessed Mother is inseparable from the mission of the Son.  Furthermore, as Mother, she intercedes for her children so that they may receive the graces of the Christian life.  Finally, Marmion speaks of the role of the Blessed Mother in the spiritual life as helping to form the life of her Son in each Christian.
  13. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (Washington DC: USCCB Publishing, 2003) §50.
  14. John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston MA: Pauline Books and Media, 2006) 157.
  15. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “The Dignity of the Human Person,” in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. 5, ed. H. Vorgrimler et al (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969) 122, quoted in David L. Schindler, “The Embodied Person As Gift And The Cultural Task In America: Status Quaestionis” Communio, 35, no. 3 (2008) 398-431.
  16. Schindler, “Embodied Person,” 407.
  17. Columba Marmion, Life, 383.
Owen Vyner About Owen Vyner

Owen Vyner is the director of marriage and family life at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, Colorado. He has a BA in history and political science from the University of Western Australia, a Graduate Diploma of Education from the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and a Master of Theology degree from the John Paul II Institute for Marriage & Family (Melbourne). He is currently pursuing a Licentiate in Sacramental Theology at the Liturgical Institute (Mundelein). His wife Terri and he are the parents of a baby girl from Korea.