St. Thomas and the Sacrament of Charity

The feast of Corpus Christi is a perfect time to contemplate more deeply the effects of the Eucharist in the lives of the faithful.

Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron participates in a eucharistic procession in 2021. On June 19, 2022, the feast of Corpus Christi, archdioceses and dioceses across the U.S. will hold eucharistic processions to launch the U.S. bishops' three-year National Eucharistic Revival. (CNS photo/Rosa Maria Zamarron, Detroit Catholic)

Before establishing the feast of Corpus Christi in 1264, Pope Urban IV called upon the services of St. Thomas Aquinas for the composition of prayers and hymns for the liturgical celebration of the feast. These compositions alone could be the object of a profound study of Eucharistic theology and spirituality. Yet St. Thomas also wrote of the Eucharist in many of his theological works, “synthesizing the patristic heritage of the Greek and Latin Fathers” and playing “a defining role in the development of Western eucharistic theology.”i

Saint Thomas treats of innumerable points of Eucharistic theology in his writings, including transubstantiation, the matter and form of the Sacrament, understanding the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the fruits of the Mass and of the reception of Holy Communion (just one of St. Thomas’s characteristic distinctions), a discussion of “sacramental” and “spiritual” reception of the Eucharist, and many other topics.ii

Saint Thomas also gives considerable attention are the effects of the Eucharist, including the spiritual nourishment and refreshment the Sacrament gives, the grace it bestows, and the relationship between the Eucharist and salvation. Among the effects of the Eucharist are the perfection of charity and union with Christ in the Church. As with other Eucharistic themes, in St. Thomas’s theology, this perfection is closely tied to an understanding of the Mass as a sacrifice, as well as the sanctification and salvation made possible by Christ’s Passion.

For St. Thomas, holiness of life consists largely of perfection in the theological virtue of charity.iii According to St. Thomas, the Holy Eucharist is the “sacrament of charity”. This is “one of Aquinas’ favorite designations of the Eucharist in the Summa,” according to Joseph Wawrykow.iv The power communicated through the instrumentality of the sacraments originates in the supreme act of charity, Christ’s Passion, which stands united with the Eucharist at the center of salvation history. To varying degrees, every sacrament is intrinsically related to the Passion. As Aidan Nichols writes,

In the Thomistic theology of the sacraments, no sacrament bears grace except inasmuch as it is related to the passion of Christ, the all-perfect satisfying, reconciling deed of God for our salvation in the humanity of the Son.v

Saint Thomas makes explicit the connection between the Eucharist, Christ’s Passion, and charity. First, he shows the relationship between the physical, historical reality of the Passion and its effect through the sacraments: “Christ’s Passion, although corporeal, has yet a spiritual effect from the Godhead united: and therefore it secures its efficacy by spiritual contact—namely, by faith and the sacraments of faith.”vi

Secondly, he brings together the Eucharist and the Passion by means of the union the sacrament causes between the faithful and Christ. “The Eucharist is the sacrament of Christ’s Passion according as a man is made perfect in union with Christ Who suffered,” St. Thomas writes. “Hence, as Baptism is called the sacrament of Faith, which is the foundation of the spiritual life, so the Eucharist is termed the sacrament of Charity, which is the bond of perfection (Col. 3:14).”vii

Man is ordered by grace to a “twofold union” with Christ, spiritual and corporeal.viii The Eucharist brings man into this union by making Christ himself and his Passion sacramentally present in and through the ritual and the appearances of bread and wine. ix The Sacrament nourishes man for the sake of his spiritual growth and brings him into union with Christ. “The Church’s sacraments are ordained for helping man in the spiritual life,” St. Thomas writes, and he describes the Eucharist as “spiritual food”. x

He also quotes St. John Damascene in making the connection between the Eucharist as food and the communion effected by partaking of this food: “We communicate with Christ through (the Eucharist), both because we partake of His flesh and Godhead, and because we communicate and are united to one another through it.”xi

In another question from his treatment of the Eucharist in the Summa, St. Thomas claims that “the effect of this sacrament ought to be considered, first of all and principally, from what is contained in this sacrament, which is Christ.”xii Commenting on St. Thomas’s Eucharistic theology, James O’Connor makes an important point connecting Christology, sacramental theology, and soteriology: “Since the Eucharist is Christ, it is with the Eucharist that one must be united, actually or in desire, in order to be saved.”xiii

Saint Thomas also distinguishes between the “immediate” and “ultimate” effects of the sacrament. The immediate effect is Christ himself, present in the Eucharist, while the ultimate effect is the unity of the Church, Christ’s mystical body.xiv Obviously, these effects are closely intertwined. The Real Presence and the union with Christ and the Church are bound to each other, and together contribute to man’s salvation. Saint Thomas writes, “The reality of the sacrament is the unity of the mystical body, without which there can be no salvation.”xv

The Eucharist is not merely about spiritual enrichment, then, but about man’s ultimate destiny, his salvation and his future state of glory: “For this reason, St. Thomas calls every reception of the Eucharist viaticum (and not merely one’s last holy communion, at the hour of death) because what this sacrament gives us is the power to reach glory, the vision of God.”xvi Saint Thomas treats of salvation and glory as they relate to the Eucharist in the Summa Theologica.xvii The Eucharist brings faithful into union with the Passion of Christ in order that they might share in his glory. xviii Furthermore, Anscar Vonier writes that it is not sufficient to employ the standard Thomistic definition of a sacrament—that it is an “external sign of internal grace”—unless “by ‘internal grace’ we also mean the cause of grace—Christ’s passion, and the goal of grace—eternal life.”xix

There is a final effect of the Eucharist we might do well to mention here. Nichols writes of a two-fold movement, a dynamism inherent in the Eucharist which is tied to the concept of glory, but has chiefly to do not with man being glorified but in giving glory to God through worship. He asserts that in the Eucharist there is a “catabatic” or downward movement of grace from God to human beings, and then an “anabatic” movement upwards towards God. “It is to such anabatic glorification that the sanctifying divine action is ultimately directed” he writes, and supports this claim on Christological grounds:

The example of our great high priest tells us so. Christ’s entire life and passion was directed chiefly to the glorification of the Father: even the salvation of the human race was subordinated to this goal.

The sacraments draw the faithful into Christ’s own worship of the Father. xx Man’s sanctification consists in his share in Christ’s glorification of the Father. xxi

There are many ways to think about the Church’s “Sacrament of sacraments,” the Holy Eucharist. Considering the effects of the Eucharist is one essential way of approaching this great Mysterium Fidei. And one way of summarizing these effects, as St. Thomas Aquinas presents them, is to say that the Eucharist sanctifies and saves man by drawing him into union with Christ and the members of his mystical body precisely as that body is united in the worship and glorification of the Father. Christ’s Passion, represented in each celebration of the Eucharist, is the source of sacramental grace and is the sacrifice of praise in which Christ and his people are joined together in one act of heavenly worship.

Such a summary must include the truth of the Eucharist as spiritual food—a truth so important to St. Thomas’s understanding of the sacrament. The Eucharist nourishes man and prepares him to glorify God by sanctifying him and bringing him into transformative union with Christ who is present in the sacrament. As Christ teaches in His Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, the Eucharist is the “living Bread” and the “Bread of Life.”

The Eucharist is Christ, Who has died and is risen, and the Sacrament communicates the life of the crucified and risen Lord to the faithful who receive Him with faith and devotion.


i Roch A. Kereszty, O.Cist., Wedding Feast of the Lamb: Eucharistic Theology from a Historical, Biblical and Systematic Perspective (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2004), 134.

ii Saint Thomas’s treatise on the Eucharist comprises Questions 73-83 of the Tertia Pars. For the themes named above, see especially III, qq. 75-78 (transubstantiation and Christ’s presence in the Eucharist), III, qq. 74 and 78 (matter and form), III, q. 62, a. 5, q. 73, a. 4, q. 79, aa. 1, 5, and 7, and q. 83, a. 1 (the sacrifice of the Mass; one might also fruitfully consult III, q. 48, a. 6 entitled “On the Efficacy of Christ’s Passion”), III, q. 79 and (the fruits of the Eucharist), and III, q. 80, aa. 1-4 (sacramental and spiritual reception).

iii Summa Theologica IIaIIae, q. 184, a. 2. Saint Thomas here identifies three different kinds of perfection in charity: loving God as he ought to be loved, tending toward God completely in one’s affective faculty, and the removal of obstacles to charity. According to St. Thomas, only the third of these perfections is possible for man in this life. He also says that man may attain the second of these three perfections in heaven, while the first is possible for God alone.

iv Joseph Wawrykow, “The Sacraments Thirteenth Century Theology”, The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology, Ed. Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) 228.

v Aidan Nichols, “St. Thomas and the Sacramental Liturgy”, The Thomist, Vol. 72, No. 4 (October, 2008) 588.

vi Summa Theologica III, q. 48, a. 6. Thomas here cites Romans 3:25: “Whom God hath proposed to be a propitiation, through faith in His blood.”

vii Ibid, III, q. 73, a. 3.

viii Colman E. O’Neill, O.P., Meeting Christ in the Sacraments (New York: Alba House, 1991) 129.

ix For a discussion of the distinction between the presences of Christ in the Eucharist (“substantial”) and of his Passion in the Mass (“operative”), see Charles Journet, The Mass: the Presence of the Sacrifice of the Cross (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008) 59 ff.

x Summa Theologica III, q. 73, a. 1.

xi Ibid, III, q. 73, a. 4. See St. John Damascene, De Fide Orthodoxa, iv.

xii Ibid, III, q. 79, a. 1. The second consideration in St. Thomas’s schema is “what is represented by this sacrament”, the Passion, his third consideration is that the Eucharist is given as food, and the fourth consideration is the nature of the sacramental appearances, bread and wine. Each of these considerations points in its own way to the various effects of the sacrament.

xiii James T. O’Connor, The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005) 325. O’Connor cites Summa Theologica III, q. 73, a. 5, where St. Thomas writes, “Even though the Eucharist is received after Baptism, it is nevertheless first in the intention of Christ.” See also III, q. 73, a. 3 for St. Thomas’s treatment of the Eucharist as necessary for salvation.

xiv Kereszty, Wedding Feast of the Lamb, 135. See Summa Theologica III, q. 73, a. 3. Anscar Vonier succinctly expresses the causality between these sacramental effects when he writes, “Christ’s sacramental Body makes Christ’s mystical Body.” See Abbot Anscar Vonier, A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist (Bethesda, Maryland: Zaccheus Press, 2003) 168.

xv Summa Theologica III, q. 73, a. 3. That the union of the mystical body is not merely a “horizontal” union of the members of the Church but also a “vertical” union with the Head of the Body is clear in a statement of Aidan Nichols: “we can only conclude that the res sacramenti, the ultimate purpose and reality of this sacrament, is the grace of union with Christ.” See The Holy Eucharist, 81.

xvi Aidan Nichols, O.P. The Holy Eucharist: From the New Testament to Pope John Paul II (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1991) 81. See Summa Theologica III, q. 79, a. 2.

xvii See especially III, q. 73, a. 3 and q. 79, a. 2.

xviii Kereszty, Wedding Feast of the Lamb, 137. See Summa Theologica III, q. 83, a. 1, q. 48, a. 6, and q. 63, a. 6.

xix Vonier, A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, 16.

xx O’Neill, Meeting Christ in the Sacraments, 40. O’Neill writes, “The sacramental system of the Church is wholly centered on the heavenly worship of Christ.” He also writes of the entry of the faithful into the heavenly liturgy, “Their spiritual participation by faith in this worship is the natural presupposition and concomitant of the bodily participation made possible with the entry of Christ into the ritual action.” Ibid, 39.

xxi Aidan Nichols, “St. Thomas and the Sacramental Liturgy”, The Thomist, Vol. 72, No. 4 (October, 2008) 590. Nichols writes, “Our sanctification is nothing other than our incorporation into the glorification of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

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About Fr. Charles Fox 80 Articles
Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome. He is also chaplain and a board member of Saint Paul Street Evangelization, headquartered in Warren, MI.


  1. We read: “The immediate effect is Christ himself, present in the Eucharist, while the ultimate effect is the unity of the Church, Christ’s mystical body.”

    When St. John Maria Vianney asked an old farmer what he did in the church looking at the tabernacle, the humble man responded, ‘Nothing, I look at Him, and He looks at me.'” We even hear that as the consecrated Host is elevated, if we look and repeat: “My Lord and my God’,” we receive a plenary indulgence! (Under the normal conditions: Penance within 20 days, reception of Communion, and freedom from even venial sin.)

    Just another “reason” for Eucharistic coherence. As a Protestant minister once said: “If I believed what you Catholics say you believe, I would crawl up the aisle on my hands and knees to receive.”

    But, us? Some of us amble up half-distracted, sometimes in fashionably torn jeans, but others in suit-and-tie or a designer dress suit, and publicly advocating that physical bodies of unborn children should likewise be fashionably torn apart, in the womb, under the mandate of State power and even with tax funding.

    As if the white Host and the White House were one and the same thing. “I’m very Catholic and I support abortion,” says the Dragon Lady.

  2. Fr Fox’ end line, “The Eucharist is Christ, Who has died and is risen, and the Sacrament communicates the life of the crucified and risen Lord to the faithful who receive Him with faith and devotion” is what took decades to appreciatively understand. Perhaps it was Augustine [along with Maria Faustina’s diary in which she dialogues with Him after communion]] who said, The Resurrection was Christ’s most marvelous work that inspired focus on the risen, living Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
    Emphasis during consecration and receiving was on the sacrificial dimension. Interior prayer remained on the suffering Christ who dies for me because he loved me while committing sins that caused his passion and death. But cause only perceived as the fulfillment of his nature as love itself rather than consequential causality. His rising from the dead in response to murderous hatred [which sinning is about] that we might by grace turn to him and love him is beyond [at least in my capacity] our humanness. So he’s alive within us as we consume him as our bread and drink as he was when he walked with the Apostles before, and after the resurrection when he fed them by hand at the Sea of Galilee.

  3. So to honor Him, the Cause and Effect of Eucharistic Holiness, we have One Francis’ papal spokesman:

    “Due to the limitations imposed on the pope by his acute knee pain and the specific liturgical demands of the celebration, the Holy Mass and procession with the Eucharistic blessing will not be celebrated on the occasion of the feast of Corpus Christi,” declared papal spokesman Matteo Bruni in a statement to the press.

    Do the wheels on the papal chair need some chrism?

  4. A priest once lamented that a daughter of a friend, who was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools was attracted to a protestant church becuase they had a personal relationship with Christ. How sad that is and that so many many Catholics who don’t understand or comprehend the importance that Christ is present in the Eucharaist. Christ wants to be with us. A miracle occurs at each mass when the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ. It’s really is a sad commentary that this is taken so causally, which unfortuanately can include me. The Eucharist is the great foundation of our Catholic faith. It is vitally important that Catholic teaching on the Eucharist become a priority.

    CWR presenting this and other articles during this week is an important catechesis service that each parish should in some way replicate.

  5. This article of Fr Fox is an excellent doctrinal exposition (as his work always is), however, none of these beautiful thoughts will register with the average Catholic until we admit that several wrong turns have been taken in the past 50 years. When St Thomas composed his magnificent texts for this feast: only priests distributed Holy Communion; everyone received kneeling and on the tongue; the priest faced liturgical east. Every one of those practices has been eviscerated over the past half-century. Until we are willing to acknowledge that fact, no number of theological disquisitions will do anything, nor any number of Corpus Christi processions. The article I wrote for CWR months ago (Gutting the Mystery out of the Mystery) I sent to the chairman of the bishops’ committee for the “Eucharistic revival” twice — not once — and never received even the courtesy of an acknowledgment. Why? Because the very practices I outlined, which were deemed outrageous liturgical abuses 50 years ago, are now institutionalized practices — and no one is willing to admit that these are the very problems which have caused disbelief in the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist.

    • Yes. The Church still claims that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, but the unfortunate rubrics of the NO tend to implicate Him as less than He Is.

      One reason for turning to the practice of the TLM as offered by the priests of the FSSP is reverence for the Eucharist and the Sacrifice of the Mass. On Corpus Christi, when the City permitted a procession, the parish would. Now that the City denies permission, the procession still takes place outdoors, around Church property.

      The 3-hour fast is encouraged. Confession is offered prior to every Sunday Mass and even during Mass (except during the Consecration), and is encouraged frequently. Of course one receives on the tongue, only by the hand of the priest, kneeling, and with the beautifully individualized and specifically powerful prayer by the priest in Latin at the time of receipt. There are no silly hand-shakers on the way to receive. Interior ‘active participation’ (in the grace of God) is not drowned by debilitating drumming of Marty Haugen-like ‘songs.’ There is no scantily clad EEM with the smell of sanitized hands and jarring sound of “God bless you” after she gives the Host. You know the horrid and horrifying picture contrasted with that one of peace in repose and multiple tabernacles speaking silent and blessed praise and thanks.

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