Some readers of this column know that all of my weekly essays, spanning a period of just over four decades, are available on my Web site. The only limitation is that the current columns are not posted for at least two weeks, in deference to subscribing papers and parish bulletins.
I am indebted to Dr. Kern Trembath, who conceived the idea of placing my columns onto a searchable Web site; my longtime assistant, Mrs. Donna Shearer; and Kern’s twin sons, Alex and Cal (now first-year students at the University of California, Berkeley), and stepdaughter, Emily, for having worked diligently over the course of many months to prepare each column for the Web site, beginning with the very first one (July 8, 1966).
The Web site is now one of my own most frequently employed research tools. Each week, when I am trying to select a subject for the column, I check to see if I have addressed the topic in the past. Occasionally I have retrieved portions of old columns — for example, reflections at Christmas and Easter — to weave them together into a new essay.
I often tell my students that most of what passes for originality and innovation is really a matter of retrieval, or of what post-World War II French theologians referred to as “ressource-ment,” that is, a return to the sources. It is much like the experience of house cleaning. We find photos, letters and various other items that we linger over as if seeing them for the first time.
Years have sometimes passed since we last laid eyes on the items. We examine them afresh because we are not in the same place — intellectually, psychologically or emotionally — that we were in when the photo was originally taken or the letter originally received.
I repeated this same process in preparing this week’s column on one of the greatest theologians and saints in the entire history of the church, Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-74), whose feast we celebrate on the 28th of this month.
According to the search engine, for which I am indebted to Dr. Trembath, who also manages my Web site on a regular basis, I have made at least 48 references to Aquinas to date, the first in the column for the week of Dec. 23, 1966 — just over 41 years ago. The first substantial reference, however, came in a column for the week of Aug. 13, 1971, which I had tentatively entitled, “Ignoring Thomas Aquinas Today Would Be a Mistake.”
Already there was an opinion abroad in the early years of the post-Vatican II Church that St. Thomas had become pass√©, that he was “one of the casualties of the contemporary renewal.” I made the point in that column, which I was delighted to read anew, that, contrary to this “conventional wisdom,” Aquinas “had as much to do with the modern liturgical movement … as any other theologian or pastoral leader.”
“It was his fundamental sacramental principle that sacraments are both signs of faith and causes of grace and that sacraments cause precisely insofar as they signify, which provided much of the theological foundation for liturgical reform.
“If sacraments are signs as well as causes,” the column continued, “if indeed the sacraments cause by signifying, then it follows that the sign must be as clear and meaningful as possible. …
“The whole thrust of the liturgical movement over the past several decades has been to make the sign really convey what it is supposed to signify. Every liturgical change — whether the introduction of an offertory procession, the turning around of the altar, the more direct participation of the laity, etc. — was designed … to fulfill the basic Thomistic principle that the sacraments are signs of faith and that they are causes of grace insofar as they effectively signify.”
It also was St. Thomas who insisted that the principal effect of the Eucharist is the unity of the church. Therefore, “we do not come together at Mass simply to forge a sturdier personal relationship with Christ … but primarily to signify and intensify the unity of the church.”
So, too, it was Aquinas who identified the threefold temporal dimension of the Eucharist: as a memorial of what Jesus Christ accomplished through his passion, death and resurrection; as a sign of his grace-bearing presence here and now; and as an anticipation of the coming of the Kingdom of God at the end of history, as we gather to eat and drink the body and blood of the Lord “until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).
I predicted in August 1971 that the “eclipse of Aquinas is very likely a temporary phenomenon.” And indeed it has been.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.