An Eschatological Horizon: The Eucharist and Consecrated Virginity

Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski, OP

Paper presented at the Fourth Truth of Love Conference “The Eucharist and the Logic of the Gift,” organized by the Franciscan University of Steubenville and the Veritas Amoris Project, Steubenville, OH, June 21, 2024


Both the Eucharist and consecrated virginity are realities that belong to this life. But they both point and draw us towards the life to come. The Eucharist signifies the perfect unity of the Church in eternal life. It effectively draws us towards this unity by the grace it gives. Consecrated virginity is also a sign of the eschatological unity of the Church and of each individual believer with God. It effectively deepens love of God in those who practice it as an ascetic discipline, shaping a life which involves prayer and offering for the holiness of the whole Church.

Neither the Eucharist nor consecrated virginity, in its exact current day form, passes that eschatological horizon. Christ will not be present sacramentally in the world to come, but rather in his natural bodily presence and as the God to whom the blessed are united in clear vision, rather than through sacramental veils.

Similarly, in the resurrection of the body, virginity will no longer be a state practiced as a discipline by a few, but the state of all who are saved. As Jesus says, there will be no marrying or giving of marriage in heaven (cf. Matt 22:30). You see, they are parallel in many ways. In this paper, I want to reflect on the Eucharist and consecrated virginity as related to each other and as related to our eschatological goal.

I should note that I am using the term “consecrated virginity” broadly to refer to all women’s consecrated life. There are distinctions which can be made here which are not my concern in this particular paper, but which do exist. As a good Dominican, I need to at least gesture towards the distinctions, even though I will be disregarding them.[1] I will also occasionally say things that apply especially to religious life, which is a subcategory of consecrated life. Religious life involves life in community, the profession of the three evangelical counsels by public vows as well as a few other elements that do not necessarily belong to consecrated life simply. The evangelical counsels so inform all of consecrated life, as canon law teaches, but not in the same publicly vowed form found in religious life.[2]

As a prelude to addressing this topic theologically, I want to approach it personally. One of the most decisive religious experiences of my life took place when I was 14 years old, praying after communion at Mass. I experienced a clarity, so I knew that wherever my life led, my relationship with the Lord, who was then with me in the Eucharist would be what gave meaning to my life. There was this sense of my life unfolding before me. I felt as though there were different paths I could take, but Jesus’ presence would be what would make any of them beautiful. And along with that came an invitation to anchor my heart and life primarily to Christ by choosing consecrated life. I experienced an invitation to entrust my life to him in this way as a response to the Eucharist presence he had given.

This was an experience that connected consecrated celibacy to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Religious life involves vows of obedience and evangelical poverty, but it is the commitment of the heart to Christ, expressed in the asceticism of ordering one’s life through celibacy, rather than marriage which historically is at the root of the consecrated vocation.

At one-point, chaste celibacy was the only commitment made in consecrated life, although there was an always awareness of an obligation to obey the laws of the Church and live simply. As time went on and consecrated celibacy began to be lived in community, the three vows were formalized as a way of configuring one’s life to Christ who was poor and obedient as well as celibate. By the Middle Ages, the vows came be listed in the order of poverty, chastity, and obedience. This ranking was thought to be from the less important to the more important, from the more external to more internal. Poverty deals with external possessions, chastity with the body, and obedience with the will.

Drawing on the older history, John Paul II usually re-orders the vows to place chastity first in his own writings. This fits with his Theology of the Body. He points to the original scope of this vow as the orientation of the whole of one’s life through a choice that involves a bodily commitment which is also a commitment of the whole person. And it is so that we will be considering consecrated virginity today.

To consider how the Eucharist draws those consecrated and the Church towards the eschatological horizon, I want to consider three points. First is the Eucharist as the source of the Church and of consecrated life. Second is the Eucharist as the presence of the power of Christ’s passion in the struggle of this life which ties to the asceticism of consecrated virginity. Third is the Eucharist as the source of an identity centered in eschatological hope. I will draw on insights from John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, Vatican II’s teaching on consecrated life, and perspectives from the medieval Dominican tradition.


The Eucharist is the source of the Church

Lumen Gentium 11 tells us that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the whole Christian life…. [The] unity of the people of God…is suitably signified and brought about by this…sacrament.”[3] When we look at the Eucharist as source, there are several levels of causality on which we touch. Christ’s passion, as meritorious and efficient cause is the source of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit which unifies the Church. The Eucharist is a further efficient cause through which members of the Church come to participate in this grace. At the Last Supper, Christ sacramentally expressed the giving of his life on the Cross. He demonstrated the love that will move others to respond to him. The liturgical celebration of the Eucharist visibly expresses and deepens the unity of the Church which is brought about through Christ’s sacrifice.

In his Commentary on John¸ St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that anyone who participates in the unity of the Church through baptism has the grace of the Eucharist in desire. Being a member of the Church means participating in the grace of the Eucharist.[4] Aquinas raises this in the context of the question how someone who has not received the Eucharist can be saved, since Jesus says that he who does not eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man does not have life (cf. Jn 6:53). The baptized person is oriented towards the Eucharist in habit and desire.

By actually receiving the Eucharist the Christian enters into the grace of unity with Christ and the Church more deeply.[5] St. Thomas will go so far as to say that the grace given by the Eucharist, its res tantum, is the spiritual unity of the Church.[6] The Eucharist is absolutely essential to the existence of the Church.

When we say the Eucharist is the source of the Church, we are already saying it is the source of consecrated virginity. The root of the consecrated vocation is baptism. Lumen Gentium says that one who enters religious life does it “that he may be more capable of deriving more abundant fruit from this baptismal grace.”[7] The vows taken by those in consecrated life are not a sacrament, but a commitment to live the baptismal consecration in a particularly radical way.

Thus, to say something about the identity of the Church is to say something about consecrated life. The consecrated life of women in particular way is rooted in the nature of the Church as bride of Christ, that is, as responding to his love. St. Albert the Great will say that the consecrated virgin signifies the Church, “in her guarding of love and conformity of mind” to Christ.[8] Albert’s Latin is beautifully ambiguous about whose love and conformity of mind this is: that of the consecrated woman or of the Church. And one is a participation in the other.

I remember, many years ago reading an article by a former religious sister. She said something like, “before Vatican II, we were taught that each of us was a bride of Christ, but then I learned that no, we were not, the Church was the bride of Christ.” And that changed her experience of consecrated life into something functional and unnecessary, and she left it. It was a very sad article.

Now, this sister was right that the Church is primarily the bride of Christ. But consecrated virginity is a participation in the commitment, service, and love of the Church for Christ—not something in competition with it. It isn’t like “oh, the Church is the first wife…where does that leave me!?” We are not doing polygamy here. Instead, consecrated life is participation in this spiritual relationship of love in the Church. The Church as bride precedes religious consecration and makes it possible.

John Paul II teaches that human marriage, by the “analogy of spousal love” signifies the mystery of the relationship of God to his people.[9] Here, you have a human relationship signifying something supernatural—a human relationship blessed by and imaging divine love.

Consecrated virginity through the spousal meaning of the body signifies the relationship of God and his people. That someone refrains from human marriage signifies and expresses that we are all called to spiritual union with God. But the supernatural relationship, which is love of God, is part of the relationship of God to his people. Thus, the consecrated woman lives within the reality of the Church which comes from the Eucharist. Canon Law affirms this with a practical norm telling religious to, “make every effort to participate in the eucharistic sacrifice daily, to receive the most sacred Body of Christ, and to adore the Lord himself present in the sacrament.”[10]


The Eucharist and consecrated virginity are realities belonging to this stage of salvation history

The Eucharist is a sacrament for our current dispensation. As a spiritual remedy for sin, it would not have been needed before the Fall. The Eucharist emerges from the passion of Christ. It comes out of his kenosis. Jesus becomes incarnate, reveals the Father through teaching, offers his life on the cross, and continues to make this grace present to the Church in the Eucharist. Kenosis is a Pauline word, but this descending trajectory of divine giving is also Johannine. And it is in John’s Gospel that we have the testimony given when the blood comes from the side of Christ, which has always been connected to the Eucharist. This divine giving reaches us in the sacrament as the “place” where we encounter the grace of the Passion.

In the Incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity brought material reality into a new relationship with the divine. Material things can be instruments of God’s grace in a new effective way after Christ. Aquinas talks about Christ’s humanity as a conjoined instrument of his divinity and the sacraments as separated instruments of divine power. Again, the Eucharist belongs to the Christian dispensation.

The Eucharistic offers us spiritual food for the journey of this life.  St. Albert teaches that we need to receive the Eucharist often, because we lose spiritual strength or energy, the way that we lose bodily energy by living.[11] St. Thomas agrees, teaching that the “refreshment of spiritual food and the unity signified by the species of bread and wine” which are made one from many signify perfect spiritual refreshment and unity in the world to come.[12] The Eucharist “gives us the power of coming [through this life] to glory.”[13] It is a sacrament for the journey towards eternal life.

There is also a strong ascetic dimension to the Eucharist. The Eucharist is Christ present in a hidden way. St. Albert says with mild irony, that the Eucharist is the “mystery of faith” because it requires strong faith to believe it.[14] The hidden presence of Christ supports maturation in virtue by inviting the Christian to respond to God in faith. The sacramental experience of the Eucharist in faith can correspond well to the dark nights of the spiritual life because it involves a certain darkness.

Consecrated life also belongs to our current dispensation. It would not have existed if not for the fall. A vow of celibacy presupposes that human sexual expression can be an obstacle to the love of God. It is a “no” for the sake of a “yes.” In the state of original innocence, this “no” would not have been needed. As John Paul II teaches, human marriage would have been always a clear sign of the love of God for his people.[15] All men and women would have married.

Lumen Gentium affirms the post-lapserian nature of consecrated celibacy by teaching that the vows free those consecrated from obstacles to the love of God.[16] The Eucharist is central to this life as a source of strength. Christ is the spiritual good which must be sought to fill the interior “space” that the denial inherent in the vows leaves.

While having an ascetical dimension, consecrated celibacy did not belong to the period of the Mosaic Law, which was a period of asceticism. Like the Eucharist, consecrated virginity is Christological. It is an imitation of Christ. It frees one for participation in his work “for the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:12). It is a charism flowing from the gift of Christ’s life. Canon law says that consecrated persons “are totally dedicated to God who is loved most of all, so that…dedicated…to His honor, to the building up of the Church, and to the salvation of the world, they strive for the perfection of charity in the service of the kingdom of God and…foretell the heavenly glory.”[17]

The work of the building up of the kingdom is a work done here and now. It is done for the sake of the advancement of the kingdom to eternal life. So, there is an orientation towards the eschatological horizon.

This theology is presented beautifully in John Paul II’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata. Here, he discusses the three vows as gifts from the Trinity that allow the consecrated person to share in the gift of the Incarnation. They also show the ascetic dimension of this life. I am going to read brief selections from each of the vows with the understanding that consecrated celibacy implies a self-giving that touches on all these aspects of life:

“The chastity of celibates and virgins, as a manifestation of dedication to God with an undivided heart… is a reflection of the infinite love which links the three Divine Persons …the love to which the Incarnate Word bears witness even to the point of giving his life…

Poverty proclaims that God is man’s only real treasure. When poverty is lived according to the example of Christ who, ‘though he was rich…became poor’ (2 Cor 8:9), it becomes an expression of that total gift of self which the three Divine Persons make to one another. This gift overflows into creation and is fully revealed in the Incarnation of the Word and in his redemptive death…

Obedience, practiced in imitation of Christ, whose food was to do the Father’s will (cf. Jn 4:34), shows the liberating beauty of a dependence which is not servile but filial, marked by a deep sense of responsibility and animated by mutual trust.”[18]

John Paul II shows a source in the Trinity, but also the Christological and ascetic dimensions of consecrated life which are thus Eucharistic. Consecrated life is a practice and a witness and an effective contribution to the Church as moving towards the eschatological horizon. Here again, it imitates the divine giving expressed in the Eucharist and draws strength from it.


The Eucharist and consecrated life not only move us towards the eschaton but allow for a certain participation in it

In the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, the body of Christ present in the Eucharist is his resurrected body. Christ died once; he does not die again. So, when we receive the Eucharist, we receive the resurrected Christ. If Eucharistic reception is a source of Catholic identity, this is an identity already touching the resurrection, although in a sacramental and incomplete way. Further, the grace communicated in the reception of the Eucharist is a participation in eternal life. The gift given in the Eucharist is the same love of God which will endure in glory. It is something of heaven now. There is a beautiful line from Aquinas’s Panis Angelicus: Duc nos quo tendimus per tuas semitas ad lucem quam inhabitas. Lead us where we are tending, through your paths, to the light which you inhabit. My favorite phrase is duc nos quo tendimus—lead us towards that to which we are already tending. The connection of the will with God, our final end is already present now.

In some ways, the vocation to consecrated virginity also already touches on the resurrected life. One argument about the resurrection is found early in Aquinas’s Summa, in his first part, question 100, article. 2. Aquinas argues that Adam and Eve could not have had the beatific vision of God before the Fall. One way we know this is because they would not have been able to sin and eat the apple if they had had the vision of God. But another reason is that Adam and Eve were called to be the first parents of humanity. Aquinas argues that were Adam to have seen the face of God in full vision, he would have entered the state of those in glory and would have been unable to be the father of children.[19]

This same idea is expressed in John Paul II’s discussion of the state of the resurrection of the body. He says “the eschatological situation in which ‘they will take neither wife nor husband’ has its solid foundation in the future state of the personal subject when, as a consequence of the vision of God, ‘face to face,’ a love of such depth and power of concentration on God himself will be born in the person that it completely absorbs the person’s whole psychosomatic subjectivity.[20] This is the spiritualized body about which St. Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 15.

It is not simply that after the resurrection of body, it is no longer the time for procreation. Human marriage is impossible in the resurrected state because of the beatifying, immediate fullness of the relationship with God.

Let’s look at this first in Christ. During his life, Christ (according to Aquinas, and also, I believe John Paul and much of Catholic tradition) had direct vision of the Father, but this did not overflow to beatify his body (this is why he can suffer on the cross). He was not fully living the spiritualized body. Yet, the Trinitarian love in which he participated surely is one root of his celibacy.

John Paul II suggests something parallel in regard to the call to the consecrated life. In Vita Consecrata, John Paul II posits a “special grace of intimacy which, in the consecrated life, makes possible and even demands the total gift of self in the profession of the evangelical counsels.”[21] With the transfiguration in mind, he suggests that this grace involves a glimpse of the eschatological beauty of Christ. “In the countenance of Jesus, the … reflection of the Father’s glory (cf. Heb 1:3), we glimpse the depths of an eternal and infinite love which is at the very root of our being. Those who let themselves be seized by this love cannot help abandoning everything to follow him.”

This is not the face-to-face encounter of the beatific vision. That would fix human choice and preclude the need for asceticism and the possibility of sin. It is something less, but something also rooted in a glimpse of the divine. This could take place on the level of contemplative prayer, an experience of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or simply a profound appreciation by faith of the portrait of Christ given in the Gospels. What is important is that this is a type of experience in which the divine beauty is recognized as spiritually attractive in a way that evokes a reciprocal gift of self, less intense than, but like and perhaps participating in the resurrected union with God.

John Paul II connects the sign-value of consecrated life to such a personal response to divine beauty. He says, “It is the duty of the consecrated life to show that the Incarnate Son of God is the eschatological goal towards which all things tend, the splendor before which every other light pales, and the infinite beauty which alone can fully satisfy the human heart.”[22] So this experience and the vocation which comes from it is not merely for the holiness of the individual. It is meant to teach all members of the Church something about their ultimate calling.



And this brings us back to the Church and to my conclusion.

While the Eucharist and consecrated life belong to this life as ascetical realities and signs, they both touch the Eschatological horizon and draw the Church towards it. The Eucharist is sign, source of grace and presence of the resurrected Christ in a powerful but hidden sacramental way. The consecrated life participates in the nature of the Church which has its source in the Eucharist. It stands in the Church as a sign, as a source of grace through effective prayer and as a witness to the experience of the transforming beauty of Christ.

The Eucharist is Christ giving himself for the salvation of the world. Consecrated virginity is meant to be a participation in the Church receiving from Christ the grace to respond with a giving of life to Christ and to his mission. Consecrated Virginity thus participates in and shows one important aspect of the nature of the pilgrim Church moving towards the eschatological horizon as a response to Christ’s gift of his own life.


[1] You will also notice that I do not take up the distinctions in meaning which exist between the terms “consecrated virginity,” “vowed continence” and “vowed chastity.”

[2] Cf. CIC 573.1 and 2.

[3] Lumen Gentium, 11,

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Super Ioannem, ch. 6, l. 7.

[5] Cf. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae III, q. 65. a. 3, co.

[6] Cf. Gilles Emery, The Ecclesial Fruit of the Eucharist in St. Thomas Aquinas, Nova et Vetera, English Edition, Vol. 2, No. 1 (2004): 43–60.

[7] Lumen Gentium 44.

[8] Albert the Great, Super IV libros Sententiarum (ed. Borgnet, 1893-4), 4, d. 27, a. 21: “Unde virgo velata significat Ecclesiam in custodia amoris et conformitate mentium.”

[9] John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein, (Pauline Books, 2006), 95B, p. 500-501.

[10] CIC 663.2

[11] Cf. Albert the Great, On the Body of the Lord, trans. Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski, O.P., Fathers of the Church Medieval Continuation 17 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2017), 124.

[12] Aquinas, SummaIII, q. 79, a. 2, co.

[13] Aquinas, SummaIII, q. 79, a. 2, ad. 1.

[14] Cf. Albert, Albert, De sacramentis, in Opera Omnia Sancti Doctoris Alberti Magni, ed. Albertus Ohlmeyer, vol. 26 (Münster: Aschendorff, 1958), tr. 5, p. 1, q. 3, a. 1.

[15] Cf. John Paul II, Theology of the Body, 19, p. 203.

[16] Lumen Gentium, 44. The other side of freeing from obstacles is promoting virtue. This sort of life requires the integration of the virtue of chastity, not merely continence. It requires faith and supernatural hope to live with energy and joy a life which does not involve the natural human project of building a family. It requires the love of God through prayer, and love of others in Christian charity and real friendship.

[17] CIC, 573.1.

[18] John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, 21 .

[19] Aquinas, Summa1, q. 100 a. 2.; cf. 1. q. 94, a. 1.

[20] John Paul II, Theology of the Body, 68, p. 395.

[21] John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, 16.

[22] John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, 16.

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Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski, OP

Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski, OP is member of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. She is an Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston where she also teaches at St. Mary's Seminary. Her main area of research is medieval sacramental theology with a focus on Albert the Great and Aquinas.

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