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

Christmas paradoxes

I sent this in five years ago, and some liked it, so forgive me if I send it again:

The Word of the Father, through whom time was made, became flesh and made his birthday in time, and he willed a single day for his human birth without whose divine permission no day rolls round. With the Father he precedes all the spaces of ages; born this day of a mother he inserted himself into the courses of the years.

The maker of man was made man [homo factus hominis factor] so that

the ruler of the stars might suck at breasts,

Emile Poulat: Prayer, the poor, and peace

Emile Poulat died last Saturday at the age of 94. I do not know how well he is known by U.S. Catholics, apart, that is, from those who have taken a more than average interest in the sociology of 20th-century Catholics. They know him for his many works on the encounter between the Catholic Church and modern culture and society, especially in France.

Ordained a priest in 1945, he joined the ranks of the “worker priests” who departed from traditional ways of exercising the ministry and went to share the lives and fortunes of workers in factories and on docks.

Another anniversary: Unitatis Redintegratio

Today is also the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of Unitatis redintegratio, Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism. I’ll begin with a few personal anecdotes about relations between Catholics and Protestants in the 1940s and 1950s.

I grew up in Nanuet, a small town in New York State about twenty-five miles from Manhattan. I attended the small public grammar school where of the twenty-six in  my graduating class (1952) three were Jews, seven or eight were Catholics, and the rest were Protestants. We all got along very well. The atmosphere was generally Christian–this was before the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools--and we learned and sang Christian hymns at Thanksgiving (“We Gather Together”) and a month later Christmas carols. (I do not know what the three Jews made of it.) My older sisters remember that in the public grammar school they had attended, the day opened with the common recitation of the Twenty-third Psalm, in the King James version, of course.

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.