Why Doesn’t Holy Communion Always Seem to “Work”?

St. Thomas Aquinas and Ronald Knox on Objective Grace and Subjective Dispositions at Work in the Reception of the Sacrament

For anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with Holy Communion, questions emerge about its efficacy that do not admit of easy answers. The Eucharist is immensely powerful, so why does it not seem to make more of a difference in every communicant’s life? Why does the Mass seem to help some people become so holy, while others seem relatively unaffected by it? And so on.

Such questions concerning the relationship between the objective and subjective dimensions of the reception of sacramental grace have attracted a great deal of attention among theologians and pastoral workers engaged in the new evangelization.

The tension in this relationship might be expressed as follows: on the one hand, all of the sacraments, including the Eucharist, are gifts of God given for man’s sanctification and salvation; on the other hand, the worthy and fruitful reception of the sacraments requires at least some degree of subjective sanctification prior to their reception, and the more holy the recipient, the more fruitful will be his reception of the sacraments. This tension can be the occasion of exaggerations on both sides of the issue.

It is possible to place too much emphasis on the objective principle ex opere operato (literally, “by the work being worked”), describing the conferral of sacramental grace in terms that are mechanistic, automatic, or quasi-magical. Conversely, one might lapse into a form of Pelagianism, exaggerating the role of the recipient’s subjective disposition, often expressed with the formula ex opere operantis (“by the work of the worker”), and perhaps falling into a trap of spiritual elitism, such as that of claiming the Eucharist as “a prize for the perfect” rather than as “a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”1

In the face of this tension between the objectivity of God’s sacramental gifts and the subjective disposition of their recipients, proponents of the new evangelization often point to the need for enhanced forms of Christian discipleship, at the same time lamenting a perceived widespread use of the sacraments without proper dispositions.2 One expression sometimes used today to describe such Catholics is to say that they are “sacramentalized but not evangelized.”3

In a 2013 article for Nova et Vetera, Ralph Martin draws upon the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas regarding preparation for receiving the sacraments in order to address what he called “the post-Christendom sacramental crisis.”4 The crisis Martin identifies is the bad fruit of a combination of factors, including: cultural decay in the West, “something like an institutional collapse” within the Church, marked by the closing and merger of many parishes, schools, etc., the rejection of the Church’s moral teaching, and a decrease in priestly vocations.5 The crisis consists of a “radical drop” in sacramental reception by Catholics and “the apparent lack of sacramental fruitfulness in the lives of many who still partake of the sacraments.”6

Whereas Martin mainly focuses on St. Thomas’s treatment of the Sacrament of Baptism, here we will consider St. Thomas’s teaching on this question with specific reference to the Eucharist. We will then consider the more pastorally focused treatment of this question offered by the English preacher and apologist Msgr. Ronald Knox (1888-1957).

The effects of the Eucharist are possible only by the power of God, and St. Thomas attributes the power of the Eucharist to Christ and his Passion. As is true of the other sacraments, the Eucharist operates through instrumental causality. With regard to all the sacraments, St. Thomas writes that “a sacrament in causing grace works after the manner of an instrument.”7

We already begin to sense the objective principles at work in the Eucharist: divine power, communicated by means of instrumental causality, serves as a cause of grace in the lives of the faithful. God’s promise to act by means of the sacraments ex opere operato and not due to the degree of holiness possessed by the minister or recipients is an established part of the Tradition. According to Romanus Cessario, “Whenever a legitimate celebrant with proper intention speaks the words, ‘I baptize you . . .’; ‘Receive the Holy Spirit . . .’; ‘I absolve you . . .’; ‘This is my body . . .’; ‘By this holy anointing . . .’; and so forth, the Christian community protests that that which the sacrament signifies occurs in the recipient.”8

For St. Thomas, the objectivity of sacramental efficacy is rooted in his Christology. It is telling that the treatise on the sacraments immediately follows the treatise on Christology, in what has been described as “an appropriate linkage.”9 Saint Thomas writes that “the principal efficient cause of man’s salvation is God.”10 He connects this truth to the saving efficacy of the sacraments: “The sacraments of the Church which derive their efficacy from the Word incarnate Himself.”11 What is true of all the sacraments is seen more clearly in the Eucharist, since in it Christ is substantially present. His presence, which St. Thomas compares with the Incarnation, is the first consideration one must keep in mind regarding the conferral of grace through the Eucharist.12 Rooting sacramental power in Christ, and especially Christ’s Passion,13 preserves both the objective and subjective dimensions of the sacramental economy. Objectivity is protected, insofar as Christ is the Guarantor of sacramental efficacy, presuming that at least the minimum requirements for valid celebration are in place. At the same time, the truth that sacramental power comes from Christ and not from the works of man protects not only against outright Pelagianism, but against any sense that the sacraments depend upon man’s holiness for their essential efficacy. Further, St. Thomas protects against any sense that the sacraments work by a kind of magic, since the power belonging to them has God as its source. The Church’s role in confecting the Eucharist is critical, but it is the power that flows from Christ’s Passion that enables the Church’s priests to consecrate. This is the power that makes the sacraments, and particularly the Eucharist, “efficacious in communicating the fruits of our redemption.”14

There is more than sufficient objectivity at work in the Eucharist for the faithful to be free of anxiety or scruple. It is Christ who gives the Eucharist, the power of his Passion that confers grace through the Eucharist, his charity they receive, union with him into which they are drawn, and Christ himself consecrates through the ministry of the Church’s priests, acting in his Person at the altar. Even the hunger of the faithful for the Bread of Life comes not because of some kind of self-created desire, but because of the grace of Baptism. Gilles Emery gives this assessment of St. Thomas’s teaching on the hunger for the Eucharist given at Baptism:

In fact, of its very nature Baptism contains the desire or the objective hunger for the Eucharist — not necessarily proceeding from the objective conscience — the desire to spiritually ingest (manducare) Christ, the desire for transformation into Christ given in the act of faith completed in charity. The Eucharist is therefore dynamically included in all the other sacraments to such an extent that without this “objective hunger” for the Eucharist, no effect of grace can be obtained. To put it another way, the hunger for the Eucharist belongs organically to salvation.15

Hunger for the Eucharist is essential to man’s salvation, but even this hunger is given to man as a gift. Surely, those who would receive the sacrament must respond to the gift of Eucharistic hunger, doing what they can to allow their hunger to grow and intensify. Sin always threatens to weaken one’s hunger for the Eucharist. Here we begin to see the subjective side of Eucharistic reception. Hunger, or desire, for the Eucharist is needed to bring a person to the altar in the first place, unless his action is to be merely rote. And it stands to reason that the more intense a person’s desire, the more disposed he will be to receive its benefits gratefully and well.

The same is true for the whole array of dispositions that prepare a person for receiving the Eucharist. Faith, to take a uniquely important example, is the first requirement for the reception of any sacrament. Faith — again, itself a gift of grace — moves a person toward Baptism and entry into the Church in the first place. Faith is then needed throughout the whole journey of the Christian life, drawing him more and more deeply into the life of Christ, drawing him again and again to the sacraments, and helping him to understand and make optimal use of the graces he receives through the sacraments. It is faith that sets a person on the path to union with Christ in his Mystical Body, union in charity. Though the sacraments are rightly said to effect what they signify, this conviction cannot translate into a denial of the role played by faith in their use.16 The faith of the Church and the action of Christ are “constitutive elements” at work in the sacraments with “mutual dependence.”17

Freedom from sin is also a critical disposition for receiving the Eucharist, but here we must distinguish between mortal and venial sins and between that basic disposition which makes reception of the sacrament possible and a higher level of preparation which makes possible an even more fruitful reception. The Eucharist has the power to forgive sins, but it is not the ordinary means by which mortal sins are forgiven. One who is conscious of unforgiven mortal sin may not receive Holy Communion, but must first have recourse to the Sacrament of Penance. To receive the Eucharist while in a state of mortal sin is itself a mortal sin.18 Saint Thomas’s treatment of the question, “Whether the forgiveness of mortal sin is an effect of this sacrament,”19 provides significant insights regarding the interplay of objective and subjective considerations pertaining to the sacraments.

First, St. Thomas distinguishes between two senses in which one might speak of the Eucharist forgiving mortal sin: on the part of the sacrament itself, which contains the power of Christ’s Passion and is therefore capable of forgiving all sin; and then on the part of the recipient, “in so far as there is, or is not, found in him an obstacle to receiving the fruit of this sacrament.”20 Secondly, St. Thomas explains why a person with unforgiven mortal sin may not receive the Eucharist: the Eucharist, as a sacrament of the living, cannot be given to a person who is spiritually “not alive”; also, mortal sin (including “attachment” to it) prevents that union with Christ which is the principal effect of the sacrament. And thirdly, St. Thomas identifies two ways in which the Eucharist, as a sacrifice and sacrament that “has from Christ’s Passion the power of forgiving all sins,” can in fact forgive mortal sins: when the Eucharist is received not “actually” but spiritually or “in desire” (such reception, of course, involving repentance and contrition), and when a person who is neither conscious of nor attached to one or more mortal sins he has committed receives the sacrament. In the latter case, that of a person who receives in ignorance of his sin, he “devoutly and reverently” receives the benefits of the Eucharist despite his sin(s). He “obtains the grace of charity, which will perfect his contrition and bring forgiveness of sin.”21

The exact nature of the interaction of God’s power, including the power of his forgiveness, and man’s free will is a mystery, but here St. Thomas does much to clarify the roles of each. God’s power always has the primacy, yet in his power God has given us the ability to say “yes” or “no” to his offer of love. The Eucharist is itself the supreme sacramental expression of God’s own free act in Jesus Christ: he offers his love and grace completely so that man might become united to him and share his life of perfect charity. God’s freedom meets that of man in the Eucharistic liturgy. He calls forth worship from his people, and even invites them to participate in Christ’s own worship of the Father. Yet each person must make a decision for or against this invitation, including a decision about whether or not to reject sin and to welcome the graces contained in the sacrament.

Undoubtedly, some Catholics go through the motions of this worship without making this free act of self-offering. Saint Thomas knows this and distinguishes between various forms of sacramental reception. Having treated what ought to happen with regard to those in a state of mortal sin, St. Thomas also addresses the very practical question of what does in fact happen when people in different spiritual states receive the Eucharist. Chief among these distinctions is the one he makes between receiving Holy Communion “sacramentally” and “spiritually,” of which only the latter bears spiritual fruit. Saint Thomas even goes so far in dealing with practical matters as to say that should an irrational animal consume the species, that animal would receive the Eucharist “accidentally,” but this is not to be set alongside the others as a third way of receiving.22

Saint Thomas insists, according to James O’Connor, that “even though the effects may be individually impeded by a lack of devotion and fervor or ‘by a mind distracted by venial sin’ (S. Th., III, q. 79, a. 8), the intrinsic value of the Sacrament and sacrifice is not impeded.”23 Yet even among those who, as we might say, are in a basic state of readiness for reception of the Eucharist, there are still degrees of preparation that yield greater or lesser sacramental fruits. In his Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Thomas teaches that there are three ways in which a person can receive the Eucharist unworthily: first, when the Mass is celebrated in a way that does not conform to the Tradition of the Church, handed down from the Lord himself; second, through a lack of devotion, which can be mortal or venial, as one approaches Holy Communion; and third, by approaching the sacrament “with the intention of sinning mortally.”24 The second of these possibilities expresses the importance of devotion in St. Thomas’s treatment of subjective disposition, as greater or lesser devotion has the ability to facilitate or retard sacramental grace as it bears fruit in the recipient.25

At the core of these subjective considerations is, of course, the subject. The sacraments and the graces they contain are the gifts of God, but they are not forced on unwilling would-be beneficiaries. It is important to avoid thinking of the giving and receiving of grace as if it were like money wired into a bank account with no action on the recipient’s part.26 The sacraments are gifts given according to the nature and needs of humanity.27 At the core of man is his God-given gift of freedom, which allows him to imitate or, tragically, to reject the opportunity to imitate Christ’s freely offered self-gift. To ignore freedom in giving sacramental grace would be to render the sacraments inhuman. As Colman O’Neill writes, “God does not save the adult without his own human and free cooperation. If God dealt otherwise with men He would be denying the nature which He has given them.”28

In his goodness God fashions the sacraments and the sacramental economy so that they fit with human nature. This is not to say that God panders to humanity. We have seen from the outset that God calls his people to perfection in charity. But it remains true that God’s gifts are suited to human nature, so that we may say that divine grace is communicated through material elements in a way that is conducive to the salvation of man, precisely as man. Perhaps a final way of attempting to capture the mysterious point of juncture between grace and free will as they meet in the reception of Holy Communion is to invoke the quality of “sincerity.” In his Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, St. Thomas writes:

For, as was said, that person eats in a spiritual way, in reference to what is signified only, who is incorporated into the mystical body through a union of faith and love. Through love, God is in man, and man is in God: “He who abides in love, abides in God, and God in him” (1 Jn 4:16). And this is what the Holy Spirit does; so it is also said, “We know that we abide in God and God in us, because he has given us his Spirit” (1 Jn 4:13).

If these words are referred to a sacramental reception, then whoever eats this flesh and drinks this blood abides in God. For, as Augustine says, there is one way of eating this flesh and drinking this blood such that he who eats and drinks abides in Christ and Christ in him. This is the way of those who eat the body of Christ and drink his blood not just sacramentally, but really. And there is another way by which those who eat do not abide in Christ nor Christ in them. This is the way of those who approach [the sacrament] with an insincere heart: for this sacrament has no effect in one who is insincere. There is insincerity when the interior state does not agree with what is outwardly signified. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, what is outwardly signified is that Christ is united to the one who receives it, and such a one to Christ. Thus, one who does not desire this union in his heart, or does not try to remove every obstacle to it, is insincere. Consequently, Christ does not abide in him nor he in Christ.29

“Sincerity,” as St. Thomas understands the term, is a virtue that synthesizes very well the objective and subjective realities we have been considering. Sincerity has to do with the preparation of the heart to receive Christ. A sincere heart recognizes the goodness of the Gift contained in the Eucharist, and welcomes that Gift. A sincere heart is one in which some degree of charity is already present, and which is ready to receive a greater gift of charity and that union with Christ that charity both effects and characterizes. A person who receives the Eucharist with a sincere heart is detached from mortal sin, and strives against venial sin. In short, the sincerity St. Thomas describes suggests a person prepared at the core of his being to receive his Lord and be transformed more and more into his likeness, growing in unity with him and his Church.

A sincere heart is also characterized by the virtue of piety, which recognizes the magnitude of what is being offered. Anscar Vonier writes, “At no time ought we to forget this great Christian privilege, that we are partakers of the altar of God.”30 A person with a sincere heart cannot forget the privilege of the altar, nor that he stands ever in need of further transformation by the Eucharist, and of greater intimacy with the Eucharistic Lord. Indeed, one of the purposes of the Eucharist is to reveal the love of God for each person, and humanity is called to respond to what is signified in the Eucharist and be gathered into his Church. The theology of St. Thomas Aquinas does much to aid an understanding of all that is done by God, and all that is required of his people, to effect this unity in charity.

The teaching of Ronald Knox on the relationship between objective Eucharistic grace and the subjective dispositions of those who receive it bears many similarities to that of St. Thomas, though with less time spent on certain theological distinctions and more spent on pastoral encouragement of his hearers and readers to bolster their subjective readiness for, and cooperation with, the graces of the Holy Eucharist. Knox’s understanding of sacramental causality is very similar to that of St. Thomas. For Knox, the sacraments are “covenanted instruments” that both contain and confer the grace they signify. A sacrament is an “efficacious sign” that signifies what is performed and performs what is signified. Knox also follows St. Thomas closely in his Christocentric view of the sacraments, rooting their power in Christ and seeing the sacramental relationship between spiritual and material realities as an extension of the Incarnation. Because the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ, both St. Thomas and Knox view the Eucharist as the supreme example of the incarnational principle at work in the sacramental economy. This Christocentric and incarnational understanding of the sacraments is essential in order to explain the power of God at work in them, communicating grace through material realities and through the agency (subordinated in the Mass under Christ as Principal Agent) of human ministers. In Knox’s sacramental teaching, then, there is a firm foundation for understanding the objectivity of the grace the sacraments confer. In this his teaching is closely aligned with that of St. Thomas.

What Knox affirms in the following statement concerning the unity effected by the Eucharist is also true of other Eucharistic graces: “This unity is there, is real; it only remains for us to make it our own by corresponding to the grace given us, too often neglected.”31 There is much that Knox shares with St. Thomas when it comes to subjective receptivity and cooperation with sacramental grace. In one of his Corpus Christi sermons, Knox writes, “Although the grace of (the Eucharist) and the honour which it does to us so far surpass all our human hopes and deserving, he does ask for our co-operation; he does invite us to correspond, by our own devotion, with the grace we receive, does reward us in proportion as he finds in our hearts those good dispositions which he asks of us.”32 Christ comes to us in the Eucharist as Lord and Judge, and knows our need for grace and the degree of our receptivity.

We have just seen the priority St. Thomas places on the theological virtue of faith, and Knox regards the encounter with the Eucharistic Lord as an opportunity for the exercise of faith. “He demands something of us after all; we must make a venture of faith in order to find him,” Knox writes. “So accessible to us all, and yet such depths of intimacy for those who take the trouble to cultivate his friendship!”33 According to Knox, this dynamic involving the bestowal of a gift and a corresponding demand upon his disciples is a hallmark characteristic of Our Lord’s interaction with us: “When our Lord bestows on us great privileges, it is his custom to make great demands of us in return.”34 These demands include faith in the reality of the Eucharist and the graces it brings, of course, but this faith must be strengthened and supplemented by the virtues of charity and devotion. In a lengthy passage that describes very well the state of many Catholics of Knox’s time and our own, Knox wonders at those “slack” Catholics who give some basic assent to the truths of Eucharistic doctrine, but who nevertheless do not seem to bear much fruit as a result of receiving Holy Communion:

We are puzzled over the attitude of lapsed Catholics; oughtn’t we really be more puzzled by the attitude of slack Catholics? The people who have the faith, to whom the faith, apparently, means so little? All the staggering assertions of Catholic doctrine about what the Holy Eucharist is, a real change of the substance of bread and wine into the substance of our Lord’s body and blood, all that they accept. The embarrassing regulations which the Church imposes on us, that we should go to Mass every Sunday, that we should purify our consciences and receive holy communion at Easter time, all that they comply with; or, even if they fall short of it, they admit that they are in the wrong when they do so; they are content to carry a burdened conscience. The mystery they believe, the burdens they accept; but the consolations of the Holy Eucharist, the privileges conferred on us in the Holy Eucharist, seem to mean nothing to them at all. They still walk with Christ, but they walk with him, as it were, at a distance, in embarrassed silence, instead of throwing themselves upon the enjoyment of his companionship. “Did not our hearts burn within us,” ask the two disciples on Easter evening, “while he talked with us on the way?” But these hearts walk with him and remain cold. How is it that they remain cold?35

Elsewhere, Knox articulates the virtuous dispositions required to remedy the coldness of heart “slack” Catholics demonstrate: faith that goes beyond mere assent (though, of course, even such minimal faith is a necessary starting-point), humility, self-annihilation, or what we might call allowing oneself to decrease so that Christ can increase, detachment from worldliness, a spirit of recollection and gratitude, and charity. Knox offers as the principal lesson of the Passion of Jesus Christ “love claiming love”. It is not enough to recognize that God loves us, though his love is undoubtedly the fundamental reality of both the orders of creation and of redemption. Those God calls in love must offer their love in return, and this they must offer not in order to benefit God, but rather because it is “right and just” (to echo the Preface Dialogue of the Mass) and in order that God’s love and grace may bear its intended fruit in their lives. Just as Christ’s Passion demonstrates his love and calls forth our loving response, so the Sacrament in which his Passion is made sacramentally present to us both expresses and calls out for love. Such charity, humility, and self-abnegation, if they are to be perfect, can leave no room for self, but rather should cause us to be both empty and spiritually hungry as we approach the altar, so that Christ may fill us with himself. In a sermon Knox once preached during a retreat for priests, he teaches about the objective reality of the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament, and then compares that objective reality to the subjective fruitfulness of the Eucharist in those who receive it:

The effect of grace which the Sacrament brings with it, the measure of intimacy with which the Divine Guest communicates himself into our souls — ah, that is a very different matter. God gives his grace where he finds vessels empty to receive it, satisfies each soul according to the hunger with which it awaits him. That sacred Host which you received this morning — suppose that a saint had received it instead of you; it might have produced transports of love, fountains of tears, heroisms of mortification. Under the new law, then, as under the old, capacity, receptivity, is the measure of the gift.36

Knox is unafraid to hold before his hearers and readers the example of the saints, challenging them to cultivate the dispositions they need to respond positively to their own call to sanctity. Such holiness would also greatly advance the mission of evangelization.37 Yet the first step towards growing in holiness as a result of Eucharistic grace involves hungering for the Eucharist in the first place. As we find in the teaching of St. Thomas, so too we see in Ronald Knox’s teaching that hunger for the Bread of Life prepares the soul to receive Eucharistic graces. Whereas St. Thomas demonstrates that this hunger is given by God as a gift with the Sacrament of Baptism, Knox rightly reminds us that hunger for the Eucharist must be stoked, like a fire that at times dies down but of which it is possible to “fan the flame”38 once again. Christ’s “burning zeal” for our souls never changes, though our devotion can and often does change from one time in our lives to another.39

These changes in devotion can take multiple forms, as we see in the teachings both of St. Thomas and of Ronald Knox. Knox does not follow St. Thomas in making distinctions about the various kinds of Eucharistic reception (spiritual, sacramental, accidental), but then again, the nature of his preaching and writing does not require that such fine theological distinctions be stated explicitly. The essential point is that Knox clearly affirms the distinction between a person who has only venial sins on his conscience and those with unforgiven mortal sins. Innumerable texts can be brought forward that bear witness to Knox’s emphasis on God’s mercy, and the unfathomable sensitivity with which he administers that mercy to sinful people. Yet Knox is equally clear about the truth that a person in mortal sin may not receive Holy Communion, and that to do so is a sin of sacrilege and causes spiritual harm to that person. Such a reception brings damnation upon himself: “The Christian who partakes of this gift without concerning himself to ask whether he is in a fit state to receive it becomes the accomplice of Pontius Pilate, judging and misjudging Christ. By not recognizing that virgin-born body for what it is, he associates himself with the crime which crucified it.”40

With regard to those who are in a state of grace and eligible to receive Holy Communion, Knox’s teaching is both rich and subtle. It stands against hasty generalizations about purported categories of Christians, let alone any kind of spiritual elitism. Still, Catholics do demonstrate a variety of dispositions for the reception of sacramental grace, and so any responsible preaching of Eucharistic doctrine will take these distinctions into account. And any responsible preacher must exercise prudence in order to address these various levels of commitment to the Christian life and preparation to receive sacramental grace without accusing particular individuals or concrete groups of people of negligence or vice. Knox’s preaching finds room for half-hearted Christians, who require strong exhortation to pursue holiness with renewed vigor, as well as for those who are devout but discouraged by their seeming lack of spiritual progress, and he unfailingly includes himself when discussing the troubles of such Christians. The “we” of Knox’s sermons is no cliché, but a true inclusion of himself in the ranks of the struggling faithful. No one is worthy of receiving the Holy Eucharist. In one of his sermons on the Mass to the students of Aldenham, Knox writes of the prayers that immediately precede Holy Communion:

We say three prayers, one asking him to unite Christendom, one asking that we may never be separated from him, one asking that when he comes to us in Communion he may find us in the right dispositions, and may increase the health of our souls. I say, find us in the right dispositions; not find us worthy to receive him — we are never that. Never let us talk about receiving Communion worthily; it’s a misleading phrase. Domine, non sum dignus; Lord you must force your way in, not take any notice of my soul’s untidiness; it’s not the least bit ready for you really.41

Indeed, no one is worthy to receive so great a gift, yet nevertheless, a true distinction exists among those who are basically in a state of grace, between those who are more devout and who more eagerly strive to be holy, and those who are less eager and attempt only to do the minimum required in order to avoid hell and go to heaven. Of course, even here one could make sub-distinctions, as there are people all along the spectrums of actual holiness and of the desire for holiness. It is also the case that many people vacillate in their spiritual lives, moving up and down the spectrum of devotion. It is part of the genius of Knox’s preaching that he has something to offer everyone, some next step to take in order to appropriate the graces of the Holy Eucharist more fully. Perhaps a few examples will help to fill-out our understanding of what Knox teaches regarding the relationship between the objective and subjective dimensions of Eucharistic grace and fruitfulness.

For those who cling to sin and worldliness, though they have no mortal sins on their consciences, Knox has a word of warning and of exhortation: “We must not expect him to work the marvels of his grace in us, if we oppose its action through the stubbornness of our own wills, still clinging to self and to sense.”42 To be filled with attachments to anything other than God, but especially to sin, inevitably restricts sacramental fruitfulness. How can one be filled with Christ if he is full of himself, or of the world, or of desire for sinful gain and pleasure? Again, personal “capacity” and “receptivity” are the measures by which we can anticipate the fruitfulness of Eucharistic grace. A divided heart is not prepared to receive all God offers in the Eucharist.43 Here we find a teaching that aligns closely with that of St. Thomas regarding sincerity of heart.

Of course, an apparent lack of fruitfulness does not always mean that the fruits of Eucharistic grace are, in fact, necessarily lacking. A person may indeed be detached from sin and worldliness, may desire holiness and actively pursue it, yet perceive little tangible progress in his spiritual life. This is a theme on which Knox places special emphasis in consoling those “work-a-day Christians”44 tempted to discouragement.45 “I suppose there is no form of discouragement commoner among moderately good Christians than disappointment over the small effect which frequent reception of holy Communion has in our lives,” Knox writes in one of his retreat sermons. “It ought to make so much difference; it seems to make so little.”46

At the very least, Holy Communion is “the day’s food for the day’s march” and gives strength against daily temptations, and a “salve for every-day shortcomings,”47 as we have seen. We have also seen Knox indicate that the graces of the Eucharist work silently, as does bodily food, nourishing us spiritually from within and causing growth that we may or may not be able to sense or feel.48 Also, it is very difficult to judge our own spiritual progress with accuracy, it is difficult to know what troubles we may have avoided because of the graces of the Eucharist, and we must take into account that Christ calibrates the gift of his grace according to our current spiritual stage.49 Although Knox does not discount the role experience and emotion play in religion, he insists that we must be careful not to depend upon experiences or feelings or to view them as altogether reliable measures of one’s spiritual state. Nevertheless, the power of the Holy Eucharist cannot be denied, for, however silently, the Sacrament transforms into Christ those who participate faithfully in the Mass and devoutly receive Holy Communion.50

Effective evangelization draws souls outside of the Church within and brings those within the Church but cut off from God by mortal sin to repentance and sacramental forgiveness. Such evangelization brings those with only half-hearted devotion to a complete self-offering, made in union with the saving Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. And it leads Catholic disciples to welcome the fullness of Eucharistic grace. Therefore, no evangelizing efforts should be spared to attain such inestimable and eternal treasures for those God longs to save.

At the same time, the Holy Eucharist itself is the “source and summit of evangelization,” containing a plenitude of power for proclaiming the Gospel and sanctifying the People of God. The lives and writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and Msgr. Ronald Knox make clear that they worked diligently to articulate both the riches of Eucharistic grace and the paths by which those in various spiritual states might attain to those riches in this life and inherit the Sacrament’s promise of eternal life. The Church would do well to heed their witness and that of innumerable saints, preachers, and writers, respecting both the sacraments and the proclamation of the Gospel as essential for the life of the Church, without promoting one at the expense of the other. The salvation of many people whom God loves depends on the Church’s harmonious fulfillment of the Lord’s commands to “proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15) and to “do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19).

  1. Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 47.
  2. A typical example would be the great many children who, under their parents’ direction, receive the sacraments of Baptism, the Holy Eucharist, and Confirmation, but then rarely (if ever) practice their faith after Confirmation.
  3. Sherry A. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2012). Weddell uses this expression on p. 46 and explains the relationship between the objectivity of God’s grace and subjective cooperation with that grace on pp. 97-123.
  4. Ralph Martin, “The Post-Christendom Sacramental Crisis: The Wisdom of St. Thomas,” Nova et Vetera (English Edition), Vol. 11, No. 1 (2013) 57.
  5. Martin, “Crisis,” 58.
  6. Martin, “Crisis,” 59–60.
  7. Summa Theologica III, q. 62, a. 5. Hereafter styled ST.
  8. Romanus Cessario, OP, “Introduction” to Colman E. O’Neill, OP, Meeting Christ in the Sacraments (New York: Alba House, 1991), xv.
  9. Fr. Aidan Nichols, “St. Thomas and the Sacramental Liturgy,” The Thomist, vol. 72, no. 4, October 2008: 589.
  10. ST, III, q. 48, a. 6.
  11. ST, III, q. 60 (prologue).
  12. ST, III, q. 79, a. 1.
  13.  ST, III, q. 62, a. 5.
  14. Nichols, “St. Thomas and the Sacramental Liturgy,” 585. See Summa Theologica III, q. 62, a. 4. Also, in III, q. 79, a. 5, St. Thomas writes, “Through the power of the sacrament it produces directly that effect for which it was instituted.”
  15. Gilles Emery, “The Ecclesial Fruit of the Eucharist in St. Thomas Aquinas,” Nova et Vetera, English Edition, vol. 2, no. 1 (2004): 50.
  16. Colman O’Neill, O.P., Meeting Christ in the Sacraments (Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1964), 39.
  17. O’Neill, Meeting Christ in the Sacraments, 38.
  18. According to Nichols, many thirteenth-century theologians wondered whether a person in mortal sin could even look at the Blessed Sacrament without incurring further sin. See The Holy Eucharist: From the New Testament to Pope John Paul II (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 80. This statement is not meant to contradict the exceptional case of a person who finds himself truly unable to confess yet in such a position that not receiving Holy Communion would risk revealing his spiritual state to others and who, after making a perfect act of contrition and resolving to go to confession at his earliest opportunity, receives Holy Communion without committing the sin of sacrilege.
  19. ST III, q. 79, a. 3.
  20. ST III, q. 79, a. 3. The “obex,” or “obstacle,” to which St. Thomas refers would become part of the Council of Trent’s teaching on sacramental efficacy. See Council of Trent, Decree on the Sacraments, Session 7 (3 March 1547), Canon 6. Denzinger-Hünermann, 1606.
  21. ST III, q. 79, a. 3.
  22. ST III, q. 80, a. 3. Earlier, in his Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chap. 11, 698, St. Thomas had listed accidental reception as a third way of receiving the Eucharist, and includes on the list of those who might receive accidentally people who either lack faith or mistakenly believe the elements to be unconsecrated. Saint Thomas would develop a more nuanced view about the reception of unbelievers by the time he wrote the Summa, arguing (Reply Obj. 2) that they would receive sacramentally insofar as the word pertains to the sacrament itself, but would not receive sacramentally insofar as the word pertains to them as recipients, unless one were to intend to receive “what the Church bestows.” In no such case would spiritual reception be possible.
  23. James T. O’Connor, The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 202.
  24. St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chap. 11, 688–690.
  25. See Summa Theologica III, q. 69, a. 9 for St. Thomas’s treatment of “insincerity” in his treatise on Baptism, of which one possible cause is lack of devotion. See also III, q. 79, a. 5, where St. Thomas makes multiple references to the role of devotion in allowing Eucharistic grace to remove the punishment due to sin. In one instance, he writes, “Now (the Eucharist) was instituted not for satisfaction, but for nourishing spiritually through union between Christ and His members, as nourishment is united with the person nourished. But because this union is the effect of charity, from the fervor of which man obtains forgiveness, not only of guilt but also of punishment, hence it is that as a consequence, and by concomitance with the chief effect, man obtains forgiveness of the punishment, not indeed of the entire punishment, but according to the measure of his devotion and fervor.”
  26. See O’Neill, Meeting Christ in the Sacraments, 127–28.
  27. Vonier writes: “The humanity of it all is simply overpowering; and if it is true that sacramenta sunt propter homines (sacraments are for the sake of man), is it not also true that sacramenta sunt sicut homines (sacraments are like man)? Sacraments are deeply human.” Abbot Anscar Vonier, A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist (Bethesda, Maryland: Zaccheus Press, 2003), 164.
  28. O’Neill, Meeting Christ in the Sacraments, 126.
  29. Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, Chap. 6, Lecture 7, 976. Emphasis added.
  30. Vonier, A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, 165.
  31. Ronald Knox, “One Body,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 345.
  32. “Bread and Wine,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 351.
  33. “Where God Lives,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 261. “If grace is the air which the supernatural world breathes, faith is the light in which it is seen.” Ronald Knox, The Belief of Catholics (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 153.
  34. “Words of Life,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 374.
  35. “Words of Life,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 378. Cf. Luke 24:32.
  36. Ronald Knox, “Manna in the Desert: The Holy Eucharist,” Retreat for Priests (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1946), 81.
  37. “What holds up the conversion of England, I always think, is not so much the wickedness of a few Catholics, as the dreadful ordinariness of most Catholics. There is a temptation for us, simply because we belong to a holy Church, just to sit back and be passengers, and say, ‘I’m not going to bother about being anything above the average; I leave the Church to do the holiness for me.’ But we have got to match the Church, you and I, to wear her colours. And when we say, ‘I believe in the holy Catholic Church,’ we mean, among other things, ‘I believe that holiness is a good thing; that holiness would be a good thing for me.” Knox, “I Believe in the Holy Catholic Church (1),” The Creed in Slow Motion, 164.
  38. 2 Timothy 1:6. Saint Paul here refers directly to St. Timothy’s consecration as a bishop, but the meaning would seem to apply equally well to the Eucharistic hunger given in the Sacrament of Baptism, the fruitfulness of which (like that of Holy Orders) can wax and wane as the recipient becomes stronger or weaker in devotion and virtue.
  39. “A Priest For Ever,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 373.
  40. “Self-Examination,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 295.
  41. Ronald Knox, “Pater Noster to Ite Missa Est,” The Mass in Slow Motion (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1948), 136.
  42. “The Window in the Wall,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 247.
  43. In a retreat given to priests, Knox considers the case of Catholics “who want the best of both worlds; who are prepared to risk Purgatory, and all it may have in store for them, and are determined to enjoy to the full, while they may, the more easily attained comforts of earth. Thank God, there are many mansions in the world to come. But, are we prepared to win heaven on such terms, even if we are prepared to risk our souls in the process?” Ronald Knox, “Crossing Over Jordan: Death,” Retreat for Priests (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1946), 95.
  44. “Pity for the Multitude,” Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 339.
  45. “(Knox’s) writings are, more often than not, attempts to help ordinary people live out their faith in the realm of the everyday. In particular, he writes often about those times when one is discouraged or feeling that the everyday world and the Christian faith have little to do with each other. Knox gives encouragement and offers the possibility of renewal.” Jim McDonnell, “Ronald Knox: Relevance and Readability,” Priests and People, Vol. 2, No. 10, December, 1988: 407.
  46. Ronald Knox, “The Mass,” Retreat for Beginners (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960), 128
  47. “Pity for the Multitude,” 339.
  48. “What the devil is trying to do, what God is allowing the devil to do in order to test the genuineness of our purpose, is to make us despair of ourselves merely because we feel so second-rate. We’re so convinced, always, that we can chart our own spiritual progress by watching the way we feel about religion; we expect divine grace to be something that produces a conscious glow of energy in us. We are like children, who won’t believe that they’ve been given a present of money unless they can hear the coins jingling in their pockets. But of course divine grace isn’t like that, mostly. Divine grace is like money paid into your bank, which never finds its way into your money-box.” Ronald Knox, “Discouragement in Retreat,” A Retreat for Lay People (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 18.
  49. “The Mass,” 128­–129.
  50. “The Mass,” 128­.
Fr. Charles Fox About Fr. Charles Fox

Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an STD in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome.


  1. Avatar Anne O’Mara says:

    I like the reciprocity emphasized always by Mgr Knox. It’s relational. mutual.

  2. Avatar Karl Keating says:

    Nicely done. I always appreciate appreciations of Ronald Knox, likely my favorite Catholic writer.

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