Saint Paschasius Radbertus

Jun 10, 2021 / Written by: Tonia Long


Theologian and abbot (785-865)

Nothing is known of St. Paschasius’ lineage, as he was an orphan found on the steps of the convent of Notre-Dame de Soissons.

Convent of Notre-Dame de Soissons
Remnants of the convent of Notre-Dame de Soissons

His childhood was quite unique, being raised by the nuns there. The child became especially attached to one nun in particular, the abbess, Theodrara. Theodrara’s brother, Adalard, was a monk at Corbie; Paschasius admired him greatly as well. At a fairly young age, he left the convent to serve as a monk under Abbot Adalard, at Corbie.

Paschasius focused on the monastic life, spending his time studying, writing and teaching. After a brief span of time (843-853) as abbot of the monastery, he resigned his title to return to his studies. He left Corbie for the nearby monastery of Saint-Riquier, where he lived for some years. No one knows why he initiated this change of residence, but it is probable that it occurred over factional disputes and misunderstandings between himself and the younger monks. He returned to Corbie late in life, and resided in his old monastery until his death in 865.

Paschasius' body was first buried at the Church of St. John in Corbie. After numerous reported miracles, the Pope ordered his remains to be removed, and interred in the Church of St. Peter, Corbie.

Paschasius, Theologian and Author

De Corpore et Sanguine Domini; the first lengthy treatise on the sacrament of the Eucharist in the Western world

The most well-known and influential work of St. Paschasius, De Corpore et Sanguine Domini was written between 831 and 833 and is an exposition on the nature of the Eucharist. Originally written as an instructional manual for the monks under his care at Corbie, Paschasius agrees with Ambrose in affirming that the Eucharist contains the true, historical body of Jesus Christ. Paschasius based his writings in the belief that God is truth itself, and therefore, His words and actions must be true. Christ's proclamation at the Last Supper that the bread and wine were His body and blood must be taken literally, since God is truth. This reasoning alone proves that the transubstantiation of the bread and wine offered in the Eucharist really occurs. Additionally, Paschasius wrote that only if the Eucharist is the actual body and blood of Christ can a Christian know it is salvific.

Stained glass depiction of the Holy Eucharist
Stained glass depiction of the Holy Eucharist, Body, Blood Souls and Divinity of the historical Jesus Christ. (Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, Belgium)

Paschasius believed that the presence of the historical blood and body of Christ allows the partaker a real union with Jesus in a direct, personal, and physical union by joining a person's flesh with Christ's and Christ's flesh with his. To Paschasius, the Eucharist's transformation into the flesh and blood of Christ is possible because of the principle that God is truth; God is able to manipulate nature, as he created it.

The book was given to Charles the Bald, the Frankish king, as a present in 844, with the inclusion of a special introduction. This simple gift became the impetus for a theological argument now referred to as the Carolingian Eucharist Controversy. (Chazelle, Celia. "Figure, Character, and the Glorified Body in the Carolingian Eucharistic Controversy," Traditio; studies in ancient and medieval history, thought, and religion 47 (1992): 1-36.)

Ultimately, however, the king accepted Paschasius' assertion, and the substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist became the authoritative belief in the Roman Catholic faith.

Understanding of the human body: Echoing Irenaeus

In opposition to other Carolingian authors, Paschasius locates the Imago Dei (the "Image of God") in the whole human being – body as well as soul. This view is in alignment with that of the second-century Church Father Irenaeus. Irenaeus believed that Jesus was the physical embodiment of God; the son is the image of the father. As such, humans represent the image of God not only in soul, but in flesh as well.

Unlike other theologians of the time, Paschasius does not teach that in order to become holy one must achieve a metaphysical detachment of the body and the soul. Instead, he believes that the human condition can actually contribute positively to achieving sanctification.

However, he did believe in a form of mitigated dualism, in which the soul plays a larger part in the process than the body. (Appleby, pg.15). Paschasius believes that life is an opportunity to practice for death; however, the concept that the body is a prison for the soul is practically non-existent in his work, and probably only occurs due to pressure from his peers.

Understanding of Christ's body: Word made Flesh

Paschasius taught that there is a distinction between veritas (truth) and figura (appearance). Christ's descent from heaven to earth was a movement from truth to appearance, from the realm of perfection to the realm of imperfection. He explained that though this would imply that Jesus in flesh is therefore imperfect, Paschasius asserted that not every figure is false. At one and the same time Christ is simultaneously both truth and figure: His external, physical self is the figure of the truth, the physical manifestation of the truth that exists in the soul.

Inscribed at the base of the altar of the Basilica of the Annunciation, in Nazareth, Israel.
“The Word became flesh” in Latin, inscribed at the base of the altar of the Basilica of the Annunciation, in Nazareth, Israel.

Our Lord Jesus Christ was subject to human needs: to eat, to sleep, and to be in company with others. In addition to this, however, He also performed miracles. These actions of Christ imply a duality in the concept of "Word made flesh."

Miracles, until then only performed by God, unburdened by physical form, were suddenly performed by a physical human being. The relationship between Jesus' humanity and His divinity is a mystery we term “incarnation,” explained by Paschasius as being analogous to the relation of the written letters of words to their spoken counterparts.

Therefore, Jesus in physical form is the visual representation, T-R-U-T-H, while His divinity is the spoken sound of those written letters together as a word. (Appleby, David. "Beautiful on the Cross, Beautiful in his Torments: The Place of the Body in the Thought of Paschasius Radbertus," Traditio; studies in ancient and medieval history, thought, and religion 60 (2005): 1-46.)

To this day we owe St. Paschasius a deep debt of gratitude. Out of one orphaned child God produced an instrument through which He could communicate to His Church the teachings on the Eucharist, the human body and the mystery of incarnation –the Word made flesh.

Header Image: Modern-day remnants of the convent of Notre-Dame de Soissons where St. Paschasius was left as an infant. It was founded between 658 and 666, but the community was dissolved and the building partially demolished during the French Revolution.