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Abbot Vonier and the Christian Sacrifice | Introduction to Abbot Vonier's A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist | Aidan Nichols, O.P.

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Anscar Vonier was the most gifted dogmatic theologian writing—and preaching—in England during the inter-War years. By an unexpected blessing, the English Catholic Church had in its midst a German monk of outstanding competence and spiritual nobility. Born on November 11, 1875, Vonier had left his native Wuerttemberg (still a kingdom in 1888, though within the German Empire) so as to enter a French abbey: La Pierre-qui-Vire in the plateau du Morvan, a bleak and windswept corner of Burgundy. In fortuitous political circumstances he fetched up instead in the valley of the Dart, where that river sweeps down from Dartmoor to the open sea.

In one of the recurring Church-State crises which punctuated the history of the Third French Republic, the monks of Le Pierre-qui-Vire had abandoned France for (as was thought) a temporary exile in Britain. So it was Dom Vonier found himself a member of a new monastic foundation—or, rather, re-foundation, as the history of Buckfast goes back to the Anglo-Saxon period. This was by no means the end of squalls. As a young priest accompanying his abbot on canonical visitation to Argentina, he endured, off the Spanish coast, the shipwreck of the liner Sirio which took his companion's life on August 4, 1906. Anscar Vonier was elected abbot in his place at the extraordinarily early age of 31.

As his fame grew, it became impossible not to think of him as Abbot Vonier. He who had been the youngest reigning abbot in the Benedictine federation would remain in office until his death on December 26, 1938. To the ordinary English Catholic, he was best known as the rebuilder of Buckfast, which is still the only pre-Reformation monastic house in England to be reconstructed for its original purpose, with a great church worthy of the medieval abbeys. To cognoscenti of sermons on major Church occasions, Abbot Vonier belonged to a charmed circle of great preachers—Martindale, Jarrett, McNabb, Goodier, Knox—of the 1920s and 30s. That is eloquent of his mastery of what was in point of fact his third language. Endowed with a powerful charism of preaching, he made the English tongue a vigorous instrument for the exposition of Catholic truth. To Catholic readers, that is not least apparent in the prose works where he gave his theological vision, in equal share biblical and Thomistic, a lasting expression. In the priority he gave, within the round of monastic life, to the production of solid works of doctrinal theology for the use of both clergy and laity, he had—dare one say it!—a Dominican approach to the Benedictine way. Writing came next to the Opus Dei, the celebration of the liturgy, not least because it drew life from the liturgy, overflowed from it.

First published in 1925, A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist was evidently written as a Thomist rejoinder to the much-acclaimed and influential Mysterium Fidei, a study of the Mass by the French Jesuit Maurice de la Taille (Paris, 1921). Under the heading "A New Theory of the Eucharistic Sacrifice," the Dominican Vincent McNabb, writing in Blackfriars for September 1924, had already criticized one major feature in de la Taille's work. De la Taille had argued that the Last Supper constituted the priestly oblation by Christ of the flesh that, by bloody slaughter, was sacrificed on the Cross. This implies that, considered as the sacrifice of our redemption, Calvary was incomplete without the foregoing Supper and what took place there. It also implies that the first Mass, which the Lord Himself celebrated in the Upper Room, is more truly the opening phase of the Sacrifice of Christ than it is the sacramental presentation of that Sacrifice.

Discreetly, without ever mentioning de la Taille by name, Abbot Vonier seconds McNabb's criticism (whether by chance or through a conscious process I do not know). But his real target (if the phrase may be used of so thoroughly positive a book as the Key) is not de la Taille, the individual writer, so much as the entire school of thought which, particularly in France, sought to describe the Eucharistic sacrifice in terms drawn elsewhere than from sacramental theology.

Whether by looking to other portions of Christian dogmatics, especially Christology, or by attempting to find general definitions of sacrifice that would suit the case, such authors, in Vonier's view, missed the essential point. The Holy Eucharist is first and foremost the Holy Sacrifice not because it is something different from a mere sacrament but because it is, precisely as taught by Saint Thomas, the sacrament of the Sacrifice of Christ.

Vonier believed Saint Thomas's approach to be the right one because it gives the clearest account of all the realities involved in their inter-relation. Indeed, it is their ability to inter-relate the various doctrines of the faith, and the circumambient realities with which they deal, that makes both Aquinas and Vonier theologians worth following. But Vonier does not simply repeat Thomas's texts. Like all good disciples he is a thoughtful interpreter and not merely an unreflective codifier. So the eucharistic theologian Thomas Aquinas who emerges from Key is significantly different from any other. Above all, he is from first to last a theologian of the sign: what, in the early twenty-first century would be called a "semiotic" theologian. The world of natural reality and the sign-world of sacramental reality are two different worlds, and yet, in the case of the Eucharistic sacrifice, they yield up to us the same content. The sacrifice of the Mass is the expression in sign of all that our great high priest in his once-for-all offering on the Cross underwent, did, and was. Calvary and the Mass are the self-same reality, in two utterly different modes.

A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist provides the patient reader (this is no tract to be devoured in half-an-hour!) with a complete theology of the Holy Eucharist. This is so even if, as the author admits, the section on Holy Communion is too short. It is still true, even if, as the present writer would claim, Vonier's rejection of the notion of the sacrificium coeleste—any sense in which the exalted crucified Lord, now in heaven, remains in the posture of sacrifice before his Father—is too hastily made.

But the value of this book to the Catholic reader in the post-Conciliar period will not only be to give him or her an idea of how rigorous—and yet religiously exhilarating—the best Catholic theology can be. It will also be to recall them to the conviction of the Church of all ages that the Mass is not primarily assembly or common meal, not primarily Holy Communion or anticipation of the heavenly Banquet. It is primarily the Church's sacrifice, the Christian Oblation. It is on the identity of the Holy Eucharist with Christ's glorious Passion, offered and accepted, that all the fruits of the Eucharist depend, and all the other values and aspects liturgists see in Eucharistic celebration turn.

Find out more about A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist.

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Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., a Dominican priest, is currently the John Paul II Memorial Visiting Lecturer, University of Oxford; has served as the Robert Randall Distinguished Professor in Christian Culture, Providence College; and is a Fellow of Greyfriars, Oxford. He has also served as the Prior of the Dominicans at St. Michael's Priory, Cambridge. Father Nichols is the author of numerous books including Looking at the Liturgy, Holy Eucharist, Hopkins: Theologian's Poet, and The Thought of Benedict XVI. His most recent book is Lovely Like Jerusalem: The Fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ and the Church. An excerpt from that book can be read here, and an interview with Fr. Nichols about that book and related topics can be read here.

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