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The Theological Virtues: Part 1

Copyright © James H. Dobbins

When we think of the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity (Love), we have many conceptions of what they mean and how they interact in our lives, and what is required for living these virtues. If we ask ten people, we will likely get at least nine different answers, not all of them consistent. We need to understand what each is, on what each depends, and how we gain the benefits of these virtues.

We begin by recalling the difference between Mary and Lucifer. Lucifer said, "I will not serve." Mary said, "Be it done to me according to your word." Mary was, and is, the epitome of human obedience to the will of God, and this total submission to the will of God is the "secret of the whole spiritual life".

The supernatural virtues are those which unite us with God. The effect of these graces is to raise us to a supernatural mode of being through which we can become children of God. The key for us is understanding what these virtues are and how we gain their benefit.

We must first consider God's plan for us. God has a plan for each of us, for each of us is unique. But no matter what the plan is for each of us, His plan is always a plan for our sanctification, and "the whole of God's plan for our sanctification consists in making us living partners in the life and death of Christ". Through the operation of grace, we share in what Christ does, we share in what He has done, and we share in what He will do. His Life becomes our life in Him. It is only through His Life, as He told us in the gospel, that we have life. It is only through Him that we can come to the Father. But since "sanctification is a supernatural work in the strictest sense of the term, God alone can be its principal cause and agent". Our sanctification is a work done in us for God's glory. We give glory to God by cooperating with that sanctification process. We deny God the glory due Him when we reject our sanctification by our sins.

Christ told us in the gospel that He is the animating principal of the Life of our soul, for He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He gives us this supernatural Life through the operation of the grace derived from the three theological virtues. If God is the Life of our soul, we must share enough of His nature, must be merged in Him and He in us, for this Life to take proper effect. He does this, we do this and are sanctified by our humble obedience to His will for us. This humble obedience is how we express our love for God. Christ gave us Life, everlasting Life, His Life, and the more we cooperate in His sanctification of our soul the more of His Life we will share. There is no limit to this sharing, for His Life and His Love are infinite and He desires to share as much as we are willing to accept. We limit our own capacity for receiving His Life only by our sinfulness and our lack of conformance to His will for us. When we sin, we deny that real, substantial and supernatural change in nature conferred upon our soul by God through sanctifying grace; we deny the grace that makes us children of God. By denying that grace we step back away from the adoption process, delaying it and affecting its extent. When we commit mortal sin, we completely reject His Life, His nature, His adoption of us, His Love, and our participation in all He desires for us. We choose darkness. But He loves us enough to allow us to reject Him, and gives us the means to return to that Love through the operation of the grace of repentance, and the sanctifying grace we can receive through the sacraments.

We need to understand the relationship between the Mystical Body, our partnership with Christ, and the theological virtues. We have already considered the Mystical Body from several aspects. We have seen that through the Mystical Body, we can share in the merits of others, and can aid others who need help. Boylan addresses this same issue by posing the question, "How can one man take away another's guilt? How can one man actually render the offender pleasing in the eyes of the offended? How can one man actually merit in the name of another?" This is one of the fundamental mysteries of the Mystical Body. Boylan says that some have tried to use a 'ransom' argument, one that views Christ as buying back our souls from the devil. However, he says that we cannot take this very far or else "we would have God paying a price to the devil for our deliverance, which is unthinkable". This view has the devil in control and able to extract some form of deference to himself from God, and this is impossible. Boylan says that the answer lies in our becoming united with Christ, Him in us and we in Him. When we look at the gospel passages of John 14:18-23, 15:1-5, and 17:19-26, we see this more fully. In these gospel accounts we see the unity of Christ and the Father with us. We are in Them, and They are in us, and it is the result of our loving Them and keeping the word of Christ. We have the opportunity to enter into a mystical union with Christ, and a mystical evolution as He increases in us. The mechanism for this unity for each of us is the Mystical Body of Christ.

In John 15:19-26, we see the concept of unification and perfection. We are "made perfect in one" through the operation of sanctifying grace. Our perfection is not being perfect physically, but rather spiritually. We become perfect spiritually by doing as Christ did; by always conforming our will to that of the Father. We become united in Christ's Spirit, we participate in His nature, and we tend toward the everlasting union through operation of grace. Because we are all members of the Mystical Body, and all members are united to some extent with Christ, we need to see Christ in others, for His Life is the life of their souls. Even if a soul is dead to sin, Christ can infuse grace to bring the soul to repentance and through that repentance to participation once again in the sanctifying Life of Christ through the Eucharist. Through the Mystical Body we share in the Life of Christ in us, but we also share in the merits of each other through operation of grace and the merits of Christ who is the Life of the soul, the Life of the Church, and the agent of merit, for all merit comes through union with Him and through conformance with His will. "Conformity, then, to the will of God, is the fundamental principle of vital union with the Body of Christ, and every act of obedience to God's will is an act of real communion with Christ. There is the secret of the whole Christian philosophy and history." Clearly, those who work for the good of the whole, for the good of the Mystical Body, work for their own salvation, for those who serve the Mystical Body also serve the will of God.

Thus, each of us can say: The weaker I get, the stronger I become, for God is my strength, and His will is my will. My self-dependence and self-will serve to do nothing other than get in the way of God acting in me. Jesus is my Way, my Truth, my Life. I need to move myself out of the way, diminish myself, so He can increase in me, so He can increase as I decrease. Sometimes, when I sin, I spring a leak and let His grace pour out from me as I fill that space with the emptiness of my self-will. I leak, so I must plug the leak through the sacrament of Reconciliation and refill myself with Him through the sacrament of the Eucharist.

So we come to the question of participation in the Life of Christ and how it relates to Faith. Faith is a gift from God. It must grow because God is Life, God is Act, God is never static. His gifts never result in inaction and static response. Faith grows by investing it. We invest faith by sharing it with others and by our abiding trust in God operating in our lives. "Let it be clearly understood that Christ and His Spirit are not present in the soul inactively, merely as a dwelling; their desire is to share and to animate every single action of our lives." In the Eucharist, "He pours Himself into us, intimately unites Himself to us, and mingles His Body with us, so that we may be unum quid, one thing, one entity, as a body joined to a head; for this is the very desire and longing of ardent lovers."

If we read St. Paul, we notice that in several places he speaks of this unitive participation in and with Christ. He speaks of being baptized in Christ, and we suffer, and are crucified, and are made alive with Him. In doing so, in the Latin text St. Paul uses the prefix con, no the word cum. Cum means with, in the sense of two separate beings doing something with each other, such as they walk down the street one with(cum) the other. In the prefix con there is a unifying context, such as when we say the priests concelebrate Mass. They celebrate the Mass as if they are one being. A married couple is sacramentally conjoined together as one. This con implies a unifying action where multiples become as one, without necessarily losing their individual identity. The priests who concelebrate Mass still retain their separate natures as priests, and the couple who marries and becomes one spiritually still retain their individual natures. And so we are joined together with Christ in a unification that must be participative and substantial in order to take effect in us in a way which would allow us to truly become Children of God and share in the inheritance of Christ. This participative union with Christ is not mere fiction, but takes place in each of us in accordance with the capacity we each have to accept in humility the will of God for us. We become changed, we become truly transformed in Christ. We become unified with Christ in a way impossible for us to effect, but which Christ effects in us to the degree that we humbly live in accordance with the will of God.

All of this means we somehow know God. To love God is essential, but how do we as rational beings make God known to us sufficiently for us to love Him, knowing that as rational beings we cannot love what is not known? "In this worlds, the only way one can know God supernaturally is by faith. Faith alone can put us in vital contact with Him, for when we believe in God, we share His knowledge, we lean on Him, and draw our strength from Him."

In common parlance, faith signifies personal opinion, a certain level of conjecture, and all of it wrapped in some form of uncertainty. We say "I believe" that we will win a game, or go to a certain place, or that some event will occur, or some other such view. In all of these concepts of faith there is an underlying concept of accepting something as true on the basis of some testimony of another. We 'believe', perhaps, it will rain if the weather forecaster tells us it will, and we take action by carrying an umbrella. The less astute among us may 'believe' the outcome of a race will be as a racetrack tout said, and may bet a large sum of money on the belief of the credibility of this outcome forecast. The level of credibility of the one on whose opinion we rely tends to control the level of faith we have in that pronouncement. When it comes to supernatural Faith, to belief in God, the gospel is the revealed word of God Himself, and has infinite credibility. It is the revelation by God to His people that makes the Judeo-Christian body of faith so unique. We did not invent God. He revealed Himself to us. Scriptures are the history of that revelation. He is the one on whose testimony our Faith is based. "In supernatural faith, we accept truth on the testimony of God Himself, so that it leads to absolute certainty. ... it is the yielding of the mind to divine testimony." Without the revelation of God, we could not know God and could not have Faith. To have Faith takes an act of the will, since through free will our intellect is free to reject this truth. When we have Faith, we accept the revelation of God, believe in this truth because of the credibility of the one giving the testimony, and we act accordingly.

Once we have received the grace of Faith, and accept the testimony of God through our belief of His testimony as recorded in the inspired scriptures, we then are prepared for the gift of Hope.

The Theological Virtues: Part 2

In the last lesson we had a chance to look to a degree at the relationship between the operative effect of the Mystical Body and the virtue of Faith. We saw that the Mystical Body is not just an organization, but is a living mystical organism through which Christ communicates His Life to us and allows us to enter into a participative union with Him. We need Faith to put this into effect. St. Paul tells us that "Faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not."

St. Paul is here drawing a relationship between the theological virtue of Faith and that of Hope. Through Faith, we believe in the testimony of God, and have absolute trust and confidence in what God has revealed. We have Faith in the goodness and omnipotence of God since He has revealed this about Himself. The virtue of Hope, like Faith, is based on that knowledge of the goodness and omnipotence of God.

We need to examine what Hope means for us. Like Faith, there are some common street definitions of Hope, and there is the concept as it pertains to our relationship with God. In common parlance, we hope for many things, usually an uncertainty. We hope for good weather, or that we will win the lottery, or that our children will be virtuous and excel in what they do, or that our child's application to Harvard or Notre Dame is accepted. There is an uncertainty about all this. However, on a theological level, our hope is in God; period. The object of our Hope is God Himself. Our Hope is the Hope of union with God, and we have a reliance on God's goodness and omnipotence. Boylan says Hope is "possession of Him, and for the means to obtain it. We also hope in God, because it is upon His infinite power that we rely to bring us to Himself, and because it is upon His goodness and mercy that we count to move Him to do so, and not upon our own merit." This really says a lot in just a few words. Instead of hoping for some uncertain event to take place, we say that our hope is for salvation and this hope is founded, not on ourselves, but on the revealed goodness and omnipotence of God, and we rely on His mercy and on that goodness and omnipotence, knowing He wants this for us and has the power to accomplish it in and for us. It is then up to us to accept and use the means He has given us to accomplish this. Quite simply put, we need to have the humility to conform our will to His and to accept the sacraments He has given us to receive through them His sanctifying grace, His Life. We know through revelation that we need His help. So the activity of Hope (the theological virtues are never static and always imply action) is an inner reaching out to God, a stretching out of our hand so that He can each out to us through operation of sanctifying grace and extend His hand to us and pull us home with Him, where we belong. He is our Life, and our life preserver. We know He can do this because of His infinite power and goodness and His love for us, for He is Love.

One rather unique aspect of Hope is that even if we know we have rejected His grace through commission of mortal sin, we still have Hope because of His infinite goodness and power, and Hope in His mercy. Our Hope is the attainment of the ultimate good, God Himself, and the means He gives us to restore us to that state of grace necessary; the sacrament of Reconciliation. All it takes is enough desire on our part to want to return to Him, and we as His prodigal children are able to Hope in the grace we need to return to Him. We have to be humble enough to accept His help.

Boylan also ties Hope, like Faith, to the Mystical Body. He says that the members of Christ, the members of the Mystical Body, can call the infinite merits of Christ their own, and offer them to the Father for all their needs; and that special title to these merits, which is acquired in Baptism, endures as long as we are not in mortal sin. If this is so, is there any limit to our Hope? He says further that "the foundation of Christian Hope is not one's own merits, but the infinite merits of Christ; not one's own goodness and justice, but the infinite goodness and mercy of God."

This brings us to the virtue of Charity (Love). We know that when we have achieved our goal of being united in Heaven with God, Faith and Hope go away, but the virtue of love remains, for Good is Love. Possession of God is possession of Love.

The term, charity, generally means some form of humanitarian gesture or alms-giving. Boylan defines Charity as "that virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and by which we love our neighbor for God. It is the essential virtue of a living member of the Mystical Body of Christ." Remember how St. Paul says that no matter what else we do, or how good our works may be, if we do not have Love we have nothing. As members of the Mystical Body, we must live for the good of the whole, not for ourselves. Anything we do for the good of the Mystical Body must necessarily be also for our good as a member of that body. If our pride leads us to think that what we want for ourselves is more important than what is good for the Mystical Body, if we lack the humility to recognize the fallacy in this, then we will be spiritually strangling ourselves, cutting off our Life, and rendering ourselves one of the many branches which produce no fruit and which will be cut off and thrown into the fires, as Christ told us in the gospels.

This Love, this supernatural virtue, is "love of God for His own sake, and is beyond our nature. We need a special virtue infused by God to enable us to love Him as he should be loved." Think of what this is telling us. We cannot love God as we must, in the way demanded of us when we exercise the supernatural virtue of Love, unless God has entered our life, for we must receive this supernatural Love from God in order to use it to love Him in return. This presents us with an interesting paradox. To love God as we should requires a supernatural love. This means the love we need to give God has to come from Him. This Love we need to give God is a participation in the Love He has for Himself, the only Love proper for God who is infinite. We know that God's Love for Himself, the Love which exists between the Father and the Son, is the Holy Spirit. Therefore this Love of God for Himself is shared with us and comes into our heart through the power of the Holy Spirit. However, the love we have for God, to have merit, must be our love. Our Love for God cannot be only His Love, for then we would be Him. It must be our Love for Him. Our Love for God is the result of that unitive participation, that transforming union, that exists between us and Christ, whereby we retain our individuality but share in His nature by participation, and through that unification our Love for God becomes merged with and transformed by Christ and united to His Love for the Father. The Love we have for God must be our Love in order for it to be a proper tribute to God, and yet it must have the supernatural character of His own Love in order for it to be worthy of being offered to Him. This must happen through that unification with Christ. Since our Love comes from our heart, we must have Christ within us, in our heart, before we can love God, for without Him we have nothing meritorious to offer. If we reject God through sin, especially mortal sin, remove from ourselves the capacity to love God. This is another reason why the sacrament of Reconciliation is so vital to our spiritual life. Without it, we would remain spiritually dead, but with it we are brought back to life in Christ. The Love God shares with us through the action of the Holy Spirit in us unites us to God and makes us His partners, wherein "we are associated with the Holy Spirit so that we can give Him the love of our hearts, but still give Him a love, that can be truly called divine, for it is given to us by the Divine Spirit."

This love of our hearts "is something unique, something no one else can give Him". This is also an enormous privilege. Mankind is privileged with the gift of free will, through which we can reject God or love Him, through which we can serve in humility or rebel in pride, and through which we can offer Him a love which is truly ours and which no other creature can give Him, for no other created creature has free will. We put on the love God gives us, we make it ours, and return it to Him as a truly unique unification of our love with His Love, a love that is unique and different for each one of us. This is the secret of the gospel parable about the wedding guest who did not come properly dressed and was treated harshly by the host. In Christ's time, the bridegroom provided the garment for the guests. It was the gift of the bridegroom, and became the guest's garment, and the guest honored the host by wearing it and in a sense offering it back to him that way. To not wear the garment was an insult to the bridegroom, and so the bridegroom acted accordingly. Christ is telling us how God gives us Love so we can put it on and by making it our own so honor Him properly. We pray for the grace to accept His Love in humility and honor Him properly with our Love.

Love is so important that without it we are nothing. Boylan says, speaking of our works and quoting an earlier writer, that "whatever be its motive, unless it be derived from the love of God, it profiteth nothing." This is a most profound statement. Nothing we do, nothing at all, has any merit whatever in the eyes of God unless it is done for love of God. Whatever we do for God, for others, and for ourselves must be done out of love for God or it has no merit. Anything done that is not motivated by love of God is, pure and simple, wasted effort. How many people make philanthropic gifts and contributions for their own sake, to bolster their own pride, for their own tax advantage, with no hint of a love of God? We do things fore the love of God when we accept His will for us and are obedient to that will. That may be doing our job the best we can, accepting our station in life, accepting our gifts and thanking God for them, accepting our crosses and thanking God for them. It does not mean we have to constantly and at all times have God foremost on our minds, but rather doing things, living our lives the best we can, because that is God's will for us. It is avoiding those things, including people, we know are sources of evil for us, sources of temptation that take us away from God's vision. We try to live our lives according to God's will because we love Him. It is that simple; and that hard. "... for a healthy Christian life, all a man's work must be done with God, for God, and in God; the love of God is at once its source, its end, and its principal value."

Mother Angelica had an interesting view of Love on her show September 20, 1994. She said that Love is like the cross. We need to have in our lives a personal relationship with God, which is like the vertical beam of the cross. We also need to have a love relationship with others, and that is like the horizontal beam of the cross. The horizontal beam cannot stand, cannot remain in place, unless it is supported by the vertical beam. It is our love of God that supports and makes it possible for us to love each other with the kind of Love of which Christ speaks in the gospel.

And so we see that faith, Hope and Charity have a special nature. "They represent a power to perform an action which directly tends to God, and this power itself can be rightly described as a participation of God's own power. This threefold power is the first effect of our incorporation in Christ and consequent divinization of our souls by grace. ... yet this action depends also upon our own free will - so that we are truly authors of these acts, and cannot lose these powers except by our own deliberate choice."

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