Joseph A. Komonchak

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

By this author

Fifty years ago: Lumen gentium

Tomorrow will be the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of Lumen gentium, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which by some standards can be said to be the most important document issued by the Council.

Everyone expected that the Council would attempt to redress the imbalance in ecclesiology caused by the premature closing of the First Vatican Council which prevented that body from issuing the full statement on the Church that had been planned. The only document produced on the Church defined the supreme jurisdictional primacy of the pope and the infallibility of certain exercises of his teaching role. This restricted focus guaranteed that subsequent ecclesiology would be skewed, and it contributed to what Fr. Yves Congar called “the incredible inflation” of the papal teaching role. Vatican II, it was hoped, would redress the balance, particularly by rehabilitating the role of bishops as something more than “legates of the pope.”


An Orthodox member of the North American Orthodox Catholic Theological Consultation sent us these reflections written by a graduate of Harvard Divinity School who after graduation spent a year in a woman’s monastery in Greece. The gems of wisdom often reminded me of the sayings of the Desert Fathers. Just a few of them:

"The monastery is a spiritual hospital. And as you can see, some of the patients are chronic." (JAK: Substitute “Church” for “monastery”...)

The best Christian books?

 In the 18 October issue of the London Tablet, Peter Stanford’s column draws attention to the list of the 100 Best Christian Books compiled by the Church Times, which claims to be “the world’s leading Anglican newspaper.” A sidebar explains the process: regular reviewers were asked to submit nominations, and from more than 700 titles, 120 were ranked in accordance with the number of mentions received. A panel of eight judges then met and decided on a final list of 100 titles.

A Church Divided

Dominique Greiner, editor of the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, has a column commenting on a new book by Yann Raison du Cleuziou, Qui sont les cathos aujourd’hui?  The book offers an interpretation of a study undertaken under the auspices of Confrontations: Association des intellectuels chrétiens

The instinct of faith

The International Theological Commission has just published an important text entitled Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church,” which discusses the topic in some detail and in its many implications. Key to its treatment is a distinction:

O sacred banquet!

Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, transferred from the usual Friday after Trinity Sunday. The texts for the Divine Office and the Mass for the feast were composed by St. Thomas Aquinas, and they show the poetical side of the man, not often on view. The Antiphon for the Magnificat of Second Vespers is in prose but might as well be poetry: “O sacrum convivium, in quo Christus sumitur, recolitur memoria passionis ejus, mens impletur gratia, et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur–"O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his passion is recalled, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.” 

The antiphon has been put to music many times. Here it is in Gregorian chant; here by Tallis; here by Messiaen; here by Ludovic da Vladana ; and the one I came to love in the seminary, by Roberto Remondi, here, here, and here.  

As elsewhere in Aquinas's texts for this liturgy, there is profound theology in the antiphon, which he spelled out in his Summa theologica (III, q. 73, a. 4) in which he considered the question whether it was appropriate that the sacrament had more than one name. His crisp answer is Yes because believers have many names for the eucharist. And he explains:

This sacrament has a threefold sign-value. One is with regard to the past insofar as it commemorates the Lord's Passion, which was a true sacrifice... and this is why it is called the “sacrifice.”  A second sign-value is with regard to the present reality of the Church’s unity to which people are gathered through this sacrament; and this is why it is called “communion” or “synaxis.” St. John Damascene says that “it is called ‘communion’ because through it we communicate with Christ, because we share in his flesh and godhead, and because through it we are united with one another. Its third value has to do with the future because it prefigures our enjoyment of God in our homeland, and this is why it is called “Viaticus” because it offers us the way to get there. In this respect it is also called “Eucharist,” that is, good grace because God’s grace is life eternal, and because it really contains Christ, who is full of grace. In Greek it is also called metalepsis, i.e., “assumption” because as Damascene says, through it we assume [take on] the Son’s Godhead.

The historians argue over whether St. Thomas also composed the much-loved Adoro te devote.  Ann Olivier complained on another thread that we don’t ask enough of poets when it comes to translation.  Here is what two poets did with this hymn.

The Bible and its Traditions

 When I was in the seminary (just after the dinosaurs became extinct), a new French translation of the Bible sponsored by the École biblique in Jerusalem began to appear, first in individual fascicles and then as a single volume that would later be translated into English and published as The Jerusalem Bible. It was distinguished by its introductions and notes that were based upon the latest historical, textual, and literary scholarship but also reflected the Christian tradition of biblical interpretation.


Happy are those who dwell in your house. [Ps 83:5]... They will possess the heavenly Jerusalem without being confined, without being pressed, without boundaries dividing them from each other. All will possess it, and each will possess the whole....


“And you, Lord God, compassionate and merciful, long-suffering and most merciful, and true” (Ps 85:15)–because hanging on the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). Whom did he pray? For whom did he pray? Who was it that prayed? Where did he pray?

Unobligated generosity

[In Book 13 of his De Trintate, Augustine addressed the theme of our redemption by Christ. He introduces the subject by asking a question that may have been asked in every generation–it is still being asked today. As the following excerpt indicates, he was concerned to eliminate from the beginning the misunderstanding that has plagued some presentations of the atonement and I once heard summarized in these terms: “God was so alienated from sinful human beings that it required the blood-sacrifice of his Son before he could forgive them.” As always Augustine approached the subject on the basis of Scriptural teachings that he accepted as posing the real terms of the question.]

Some people say, “Did God have no other way to free human beings from this wretched mortal condition than that he should want his only begotten Son, God co-eternal with himself, to become man, to take on human soul and flesh, to be made mortal, and to suffer death?” To refute them, it is not enough to assert that this way by which God deigned to free us through “the Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5) is good and befits the divine dignity; we must also show, not that no other way was possible to God, since all things are equally subject to his power, but that there was not and ned not have been any way more fitting for healing our wretchedness.