The Epiclesis Question
First, the Epiclesis question. The Eastern anaphoras follow the Words of Institution (“this is my body, this is my blood”) with an explicitly consecratory petition to the Holy Spirit. As early as the 3rd/4th centuries, the Holy Spirit epiclesis, in its most explicitly consecratory sense as a petition to change the gifts, had evolved peacefully in the Eucharistic theology of the Christian East in the classic patristic period, long before any East-West dispute over the question. [Footnote: The earliest 3rd/4th century witness to the explicitly consecratory Spirit epiclesis are Cyril/John II of Jerusalem, Catechesis 5.7; Theodore of Mopsuetia, Homily 16: the Apostolic Constitutions VIII, and the oldest Eastern anaphoras still in use today.]
What do these texts mean? They mean what they say. It is axiomatic in contemporary liturgical theology to distinguish between theologia prima
and theologia secunda
. Theologia prima
, first-level theology, is the faith in the life of the Church antecedent to speculative questioning of its theoretical implications, prior to its systematization in the dogmatic propositions of theologia secunda
or systematic reflection on the lived mystery of the Church. Liturgical language, the language of theologia prima
, is typological, metaphorical, more redolent of Bible and prayer than of school and thesis, more patristic than scholastic, more impressionistic than systematic, more suggestive than probative. In a word, it is symbolic and evocative, not philosophical and ontological. Now, although it is perfectly obvious, indeed necessary, that doctrine will acquire theological refinements, especially in the heat of dogmatic controversy, it should be equally obvious that such refinements cannot be read back into texts composed long before the problems arose that led to those precisions. And since one must reject any attempt to press the texts beyond what they can bear, the most one can say is that of themselves, the anaphoral texts surrounding the institution and epiclesis in the Eastern anaphoras or in the Roman Canon neither confirm nor exclude any particular theological thesis about when or by what particular part of the anaphoral prayer the consecration is effected.
If we look to Orthodox theologia secunda
on the Eucharistic consecration as reflected in the most representative of the Eastern Father and theologians, we see what one would expect: a theology, which in unbroken continuity from the fourth century, is perfectly consistent with the obvious meaning of the Eastern Eucharistic prayers. From Chrysostom onward, saints venerated in the East and West have held the doctrine most clearly formulated in the 8th century by St. John Damascene, “last of the Greek Fathers” (ca. 675-753-54), in his De fide orthodoxa
: “God said, ‘This is My Body’ and ‘This is My Blood’, and ‘Do this in remembrance of Me’. And by his all-powerful command it is done until He comes. For that is what He said, until He should come, and the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit becomes, through the invocation [i.e., the epiclesis], the rain of this new tillage”.
This is the classic Orthodox teaching: the power of the consecration comes from the words of Christ, the divine mandate which guarantees the Eucharistic conversion for all time. But the epiclesis of the Holy Spirit is the decisive liturgical moment, for the Damascene commentary continues, “. . .the bread of the prothesis, the wine and the water, are converted supernaturally into the body of Christ and the blood, through the invocation of the Holy Spirit”.
The pristine Latin theologia prima
as expressed in the ancient Roman Canon Missae
has a different but not totally dissimilar movement. The Roman Canon does not first recite the Institution Narrative then formulate its meaning in an epiclesis. Rather, it imbeds the Verba Domini
in a series of discrete prayers for the sanctification and acceptance of the oblation (which, theologically, are of course the same thing). Now some of these prayers even before the Words of Institution speak of the bread and wine in terms that can only refer to the Body and Blood of Christ; and conversely, after the Words of Institution refer to them in a way that could seem to imply the gifts are not yet consecrated.
Only the wooden-headed literalist totally innocent of the proleptic and reflexive nature of liturgical discourse could find anything surprising about this. Such seeming contradictions—and similar appearing contradictions can be found in the Fathers of the Church who comment on the Eucharistic prayer—result from the fact that before the Middle Ages, nobody tried to identify a “moment of consecration” apart from the anaphoral prayer over the gifts in its entirety. No less an authority on the Roman Eucharist than Joseph-Andreass Jungmann, SJ, sums up the original common tradition of the undivided Church as follows: “In general,, Christian antiquity, even until way into the Middle Ages, manifested no particular interest regarding the determination of the precise moment of the consecration. Often reference was made to the entire Eucharistic prayer”.
This is the true ancient tradition of the Latin Fathers and theologians. In his De officiis eccelesiae
, I, 15, Isidore of Seville (ca. 560-636), says that the consecration occurs in the Canon by the power of the Holy Spirit. Isidore is commonly considered the “last of the Latin Fathers”, so right through to the end of the patristic period, the view was current in Latin as well Greek theology, 1) that the Eucharistic consecration was the work of the Holy Spirit, and 2) that the prayer which affected it was the canon or anaphora, without further specifying one of its component parts as the “form” of the sacrament or the “moment of consecration”. Fulgentius of Ruspe (533) and numerous other early Latin authors teach the same doctrine. Nor is this view different from that of medieval Latin commentators, as we see in Peter Lombard (ca. 1095-1160), John Teutonicus (after 1215), and the Glossa ordinaria ad Decretum Gratiani
, which includes the latter text in its anthology, showing how commonly accepted this teaching was.
Note, please, that all these authoritative medival Latin commentators explain the Supplices
prayer, which is said after the Words of Institution in the Roman Canon, as a petition to consecrate. In modern times a Catholic classic on the Eucharist, Maurice de la Taille’s Mysterium fidei
, also recognizes the Supplices
prayer as “a Roman epiclesis that corresponds both in the place it occupies and in its meaning—though not in its external form—to the Eastern epiclesis. This is precisely what the classic 14th century Orthodox Eucharistic commentator Nicholas Kabasilas himself recognized in Chapter 30 of his Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, when he cites the Supplices
prayer following the Institution in the Roman Canon as saying basically the same thing as the Byzantine epiclesis.
The later Western narrowing of perspective, ultimately doctrinalized in the scholastic hylomorphic matter-and-form (materia/forma
) theory of Eucharistic consecration, contrasts sharply with the theologia prima of the Roman Canon and its earlier Latin interpreters, which views, in turn, were fully cosonant with traditional Orthodox doctrine.
Can the two traditions be reconciled? Much has been made of the fact that, long before the dispute began, John Chrysostom attributes consecratory efficacy both to the Words of Institution and to the Epiclesis. Chrysostom states in at least seven different homilies that what happens in the Eucharist happens by the power of the Holy Spirit, a teaching common to both the Latin and Greek Churches. In at least one instance it is clear that Chrysostom is talking of the epiclesis. But in his Homily on the Betrayal of Judas (De proditione Judae hom
), he attributes the consecration to Christ in the Words of Institution.
Nicholas Kabasilas (ca. 1350) and numerous orthodox theologians after him have argued, rightly, that Chrysostom assigns consecratory power not to the priest’s liturgical repetition of Jesus’ words, but to the historical institution itself, i.e., to the original utterance of Jesus whose force extends to all subsequent Eucharistic celebrations. But this is no different from the position of the Latins, who obviously attribute the efficacy of Jesus’ words not to the prayer of the priest, as Kabasilas accuses them, but to the indefectible effectiveness of the Word of God, as is made perfectly clear in Ambrose, De sacramentis, IV
13. to produce the venerable sacrament, the priest does not use his own words, but the words of Christ, so it is the word of Christ which produces this sacrament. 15. Which word of Christ? The one by which all things were made. The Lord commanded and the heavens were made, the Lord commanded and the earth was made, the Lord commanded and the seas were made, the Lord commanded and all creatures were brought into being. You see, then, how effective the word of Christ is. If then, there is such power in the word of the Lord Jesus that things which were not began to be, how much more effective must they be in changing that which already exists into something else!. . . 17. Hear, then, how the word of Christ is accustomed to change all creatures, and to change, when it will, the laws of nature. . .
This is exactly what Chrysostom says: the same Jesus accomplishes the same Eucharist, the same marvels, in the liturgy as in the Last Supper.
So the classic Eastern Orthodox theology of consecration does not attribute the sanctification of the gifts to the Holy Spirit epiclesis alone
; i.e., sensu negante
, in deliberate exclusion of Jesus and his words. For Nicholas Kabasilas, as for Saints John Chrysostom and John Damascene, therefore, neither epiclesis nor Institution Narrative stands alone: they are interdependent in the context of the anaphora, as we would say today.
Catholic theologians with a modicum of historical knowledge and common sense have long since adopted the same balanced, non-polemical, ironical view. As early as the 17th century, the famous Bossuet (1627-1704) raised his voice in favor of sanity. He says, “without inquiring about precise moments” in this issue,
The intent of liturgies, and in general, of consecratory prayers, is not to focus our attention on precise moments, but to have us attend to the action in its entirety, and to its complete effect. . . It is to render more vivid what is being done that the Church speaks at each moment as though it were accomplishing the entire action then and there, without asking whether the action as been accomplished, or perhaps is still to be accomplished.
Dom Charles Chardon, OSB, in his Histoire des sacraments
(Paris, 1745), expressed a similarly balanced view of the situation:
Despite this diversity [over the form or moment of the consecration] there was formerly no dispute over this subject. The Greeks and the Latins were convinced that the species [of bread and wine] were changed into the body and blood of our Savior in virtue of the words of the Canon of the Mass, without examining the precise moment at which this change occurred, nor just which of the words [of the anaphora] effected it as over against other [words]. One side said the change was effected by the prayer and invocation of the priest; the others that it was the words of our Lord when he instituted this august sacrament. And they in no way believed that these different ways of expressing themselves were opposed to each other (and indeed they were not, as would be easy to show). But we shall leave that to theologians to treat. . .
Since that time, a steady stream of Catholic theologians have moved toward the view that the formula of eucharistic consecration comprises the prayer over the gifts in its entirety. I do not have the space to list these theologians here—those interested can find their teaching in Vincentian Father John McKenna’s thorough review of the question [Eucharist and the Holy Spirit
]. The most recent study by Dom Burkhard Neunheuser, OSB, monk of Maria Lasch, and professor emeritus of Sant’ Anselmo in Rome, furnishes not only the most explicit and emphatic justification of the return to the original tradition of the undivided Church, but also does so with full respect for the traditional Catholic teaching on the centrality of the Words of Institution within the anaphoral context.
As Neunheuser is careful to point out, this renewal is already found reflected in official Catholic magisterial texts in the aftermath of Vatican II. Paragraph 54 of the November 18, 1969 Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani
, the reformed Roman Missal, says of the Eucharistic Prayer, “Now begins the summit and center of the whole celebration, namely the Eucharistic Prayer itself, that is, the prayer of thanksgiving and sanctification. . .
” “Sanctification”, of course, means in this context “eucharistic consecration”. The May 25, 1967 Instruction Eucharisticum mysterium
reflects the same return to tradition. And Pope Paul VI in his June 18, 1968 Apostolic Constitution Pontificalis Romanni recognitio
, does so, too, when he affirms that the “form” of the sacrament is the entire ordination prayer and not some isolated formula within it: “The form. . . consists in the words of the very prayer of consecration”.
This renewal found ecumenical agreement in Part I, Section 6 of the July 1982 Munich Statement of the Orthodox-Catholic Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue: “. . .the Eucharistic mystery is accomplished in the prayer which joins together the words by which the Word made flesh instituted the sacrament and the epiclesis in which the Church, moved by faith, entreats the Father, through the Son, to send the Spirit. . . “ This is reflected most recently in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church
(Sec. 1352), which refers to the entire anaphora or eucharistic prayer as “. . . the prayer of thanksgiving and consecration (. . .prex nempe actionis gratiae et consecrationis
)”, and says that the consecration is effected “by the force of the words and actions of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit (vis verborum et actionis Christi, et Spiritus Sancti potentia
So the whole undivided Church of East and West held that the Eucharistic gifts were consecrated in the Eucharistic Prayer, even if the theologia prima
in the Eucharistic prayers of the East and West expressed this differently as early as the 4th century. The theologia secunda
or theological reflection of these prayers in the East and West was also different. The West stressed the Verba Domini
, the East stressed the epiclesis while not denying the necessity of the Words of Institution. Problems arose only in the Late Middle Ages when the Latin West unilaterally
shifted the perspective by dogmatizing its hylomorphic theology. These points are not theory but demonstrable historical facts. It is now recognized that this Western innovation narrows the early teaching of the undivided Church, and Catholic teaching has for over a century been moving towards recovery of the view that what an earlier theology was pleased to call the “form” of a sacrament is the central prayer of the ritual, and not some single isolated formula. This prayer can be understood and interpreted only within its liturgical context. The Words of Institution are not some magical formula but part of a prayer of the Church operative only within its worship context. In the East and the West, this context was and is and will remain diverse within the parameters of our common faith that Jesus, through the ministers of his Church, nourishes us with the mystery of his Body and Blood.