The Gift of Spiritual Communion
It is now for many Catholics around the world a primary source of our union with the Lord and his Church
The outbreak and spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) presents a major pastoral challenge in the weeks and months ahead. Public Masses have been suspended in all the United States dioceses since March 20, yet many implemented the measures some time before. And what’s worse, perhaps, is we really have no idea when it might let up. As we find ourselves in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, priests and pastors are uniquely equipped to help the faithful through this moment.
Priests will need to be creative in outreach to the faithful during periods of “social distancing” and beyond. Even once civil officials begin lifting various sanctions put in place to limit the spread of the virus, a good number of people — not least the most vulnerable among us — will likely remain reluctant to venture out in public, including to Mass and other Church-related events.
One of the greatest challenges we face is the lack of visible communion within our communities. The inability to gather for Mass in our parishes and the absence of sacramental holy Communion only reiterates all this in the minds of many. But the faithful must be reminded in the face of the crisis we face that Christ does not abandon his flock, nor does he deprive us of his grace.
One of the first blessings to emerge after the outbreak of the virus is live-streaming daily, or at least Sunday Masses, on the internet. It is of great consolation to the faithful to maintain a connection to their pastors at a time like this, and the spiritual potency of such a ministry should not be overlooked.
In connection to that, there needs to be the promotion of spiritual communion among the faithful as a means to remain united more intimately with the Lord despite their ability to receive him sacramentally. The devotion of spiritual communion has been a popular aspect of our tradition, promoted by popes and saints as a noble practice. These days, it takes on new meaning, however, beyond a pious practice of a few. It is now for many Catholics around the world a primary source of our union with the Lord and his Church. The time is ripe for catechesis on this practice.
On Receiving Communion
There are a variety of reasons why members of the faithful might not be able to receive holy Communion. But there is always a remedy to the situation. The sacraments are gifts from Christ, not rights, and we receive them on his terms — which is the Church’s terms — and never on our own terms. Such a perspective can be helpful when considering the times in which we might be unable to receive holy Communion for one reason or another.
Sometimes members of the faithful are unable to receive holy Communion because of mortal sin or not observing the Eucharistic fast. In other situations, it is because of illness or disability, food allergy, imprisonment, living in remote regions rarely visited by clergy or even war. And there are also dire circumstances, such as an outbreak of contagious disease, which leaves the faithful without the ability to regularly receive the sacraments for the sake of the common good.
It is noteworthy that the frequent reception of holy Communion is a more recent phenomenon, commonly tied to the encouragement of the practice by Pope St. Pius X (pope from 1903 to 1914). For many centuries “regular” reception of holy Communion was not very regular at all. Take, for instance, St. Louis IX (1214-70), the French monarch renowned for his own sanctity, who received holy Communion only six times a year — and that was thought to be frequent at the time.
In such an extreme situation as we now find ourselves, how might Catholics achieve unity with the Lord? Spiritual communion has arisen in the Church’s tradition as a path for those who are without the sacraments for one reason or another.
An Act of the Whole Church
It is important for the faithful to be reminded that all the baptized share in the work of the Church’s worship of God. All members of the Church — the members of Christ’s own body — are united with him in each and every Mass. As such, all the faithful are offered to the Father in sacrifice, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
“In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering” (No. 1368).
In these days, especially, it is important for the faithful to know that every time you celebrate Mass, the faithful are mystically present and offered to the Father, “whole and entire” (No. 1368). The faithful often do not realize that the whole Church shares in the spiritual benefits of each and every Mass celebrated throughout the world, nor the mystical ability to unite themselves to Christ’s sacrifice through spiritual communion.
It is important to note that for Catholics unable to attend Mass and receive holy Communion because they do not have priests to celebrate the sacraments regularly or are prevented from doing so by some extremely dire circumstances (such as an inability to celebrate public Masses in times of war or pestilence), the Church taught, in a 1983 letter to bishops from the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that the faithful “do not thereby lack the grace of the Redeemer.”
“If they are intimately animated by a desire for the sacrament and united in prayer with the whole Church, and call upon the Lord and raise their hearts to him, by virtue of the Holy Spirit they live in communion with the whole Church, the living body of Christ, and with the Lord himself. Through their desire for the sacrament in union with the Church, no matter how distant they may be physically, they are intimately and really united to her and therefore receive the fruits of the sacrament,” the letter stated.
Practicing Spiritual Communion
When the faithful are unable physically to attend Mass, they should be recommended to practice “spiritual communion” — an act to which the saints have given a consistent witness.
Spiritual communion is a traditional practice of expressing to the Lord our longing for him and our desire for him to enter our hearts. St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) said: “When you do not receive Communion and you do not attend Mass, you can make a spiritual communion, which is a most beneficial practice; by it the love of God will be greatly impressed on you.”
How might the faithful go about making a spiritual communion? St. Peter Julian Eymard (1811-68), the French “apostle of the Eucharist,” suggested the following format:
“If you do not receive (holy Communion) sacramentally, receive spiritually by making the following acts: conceive a real desire to be united to Jesus Christ by acknowledging the need you have to love his life; arouse yourself to perfect contrition for all your sins, past and present, by considering the infinite goodness and sanctity of God; receive Jesus Christ in spirit in your inmost soul, entreating him to give you the grace to live entirely for him, since you can live only by him; imitate Zacchaeus in his good resolutions and thank Our Lord that you have been able to hear Holy Mass, and make a spiritual Communion; offer in thanksgiving a special act of homage, a sacrifice, an act of virtue, and beg the blessing of Jesus Christ upon yourself and all your relatives and friends.”
While there is no formula prescribed by the Church to make an act of spiritual communion, prayers composed by various saints are part of the Church’s rich treasury of devotions. One of the more popular acts of spiritual communion comes from St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787):
“My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the most Blessed Sacrament. I love you above all things and I desire to receive you into my soul. Since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace you as if you were already there, and unite myself wholly to you. Never permit me to be separated from you. Amen.”
Living in Communion
Attendance at Mass and receiving holy Communion are acts of the worship of God. As we are conformed to Christ in the sacraments, we must conform our very lives to his. With that in mind, St. Paul says our moral life, when properly ordered, is an act of worship.
The faithful need to be reinforced in the understanding that we receive the Eucharist in order to live Eucharistically. And so, by our lives, we can worship and live in communion with Jesus. He says, “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1).
Here, as Pope Benedict XVI taught, echoing St. Paul, “Our body, with his [Christ’s], becomes God’s glory, becomes liturgy … the true liturgy is that of our body, of our being in the Body of Christ, just as Christ himself made the liturgy of the world, the cosmic liturgy, which strives to draw all people to itself.”