By Father Pat Traver, Diocese of JuneauCatholicAnchor.org
Of all the limits on our activities imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, for many Catholics, one of the most distressing has been their inability to participate at Mass and receive our Lord in Holy Communion. Indeed, the vehemence and anger that some of our brothers and sisters express when confronted with this situation has been quite remarkable for me, with bishops and priests being accused of endangering the salvation of their people by not offering Holy Communion to them on demand, whatever the risk.
Of course, receiving our Lord in Holy Communion is the greatest gift that he has left us, and one that is essential to our lives as Catholic Christians. For me, as a priest, celebrating the Mass and offering the Eucharist to Christ’s people gives meaning to my life. But it is also important to remember that the Christian life and the attainment of salvation do not necessarily require the frequent reception of Holy Communion to which most American Catholics have long been accustomed.
In fact, in many times and places, Catholics have lived holy lives despite receiving Holy Communion only rarely, either by choice or due to the circumstances in which they have found themselves. For example, in many small remote communities in rural Alaska, a priest can fly or sail in to celebrate Mass less than once every month or two. Our Catholic brothers and sisters in situations of persecution have often in the Church’s history been deprived of the Holy Eucharist, and continue to be to this day in many parts of the world. Yet, they have clung to their faith heroically, offering examples to all of us of true holiness. For many centuries in the medieval and modern periods, Catholics—including a large number of saints— refrained from receiving Holy Communion more than a few times a year. Here in the United States, when I was growing up, and in several countries such as Poland, even now, many Catholics have not received Holy Communion without first having received the Sacrament of Penance a short time before. They believe it to be necessary to obtain fresh pardon for their sins before each reception of the Eucharist. Also, when I was growing up, the three-hour fast required before Holy Communion would, if mistakenly broken, be an obstacle to receiving the Sacrament. (I still remember how, on the morning of my First Communion, my mom left a prominent sign on the breakfast table warning me: “DON’T EAT!” It was easy to forget!)
In circumstances such as these, Catholics over the centuries who could not receive sacramental Holy Communion developed a pious practice known as the act of Spiritual Communion. We learned about it very early in our Catholic education during the 1950s and 1960s. The Baltimore Catechism from which so many of us learned of our faith assured us: “A spiritual communion is an earnest desire to receive Communion in reality….Spiritual Communion is an act of devotion that must be pleasing to God and bring us blessings from Him.” In Spiritual Communion, we consciously and deliberately direct our desire to receive sacramental Communion to share in the graces of the Masses being celebrated anywhere in the world. Saint Teresa of Avila wrote: “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.”
Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that Spiritual Communion “is an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Holy Sacrament and a loving embrace as though we had already received him.” Saint Alphonsus Liguori, Saint John Vianney, Saint John XXIII, Saint Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio), Saint Josemaria Escriva, Saint John Paul II, and many other saints have shared their own experiences of the benefits of Spiritual Communion in their teachings and writings.
Over the past fifty years, as the availability of frequent sacramental Holy Communion has become the norm for most Catholics in the western world, Spiritual Communion has faded in prominence in our catechesis and religious practice. Now, however, with the deadly COVID-19 pandemic and the measures that have become necessary to inhibit its spread, sacramental Communion has once again become unavailable to most Catholics who had become used to receiving it frequently.
Recognizing this, Pope Francis has urged us to revive the practice of Spiritual Communion. Indeed, during Communion time at his livestreamed Masses from the Vatican, he reads a prayerful act of Spiritual Communion for the benefit of those watching from afar, imploring the Lord to allow us to possess him in spirit. This is something that we can all do, recognizing that our Lord is always present in our hearts through the Holy Spirit we received at Baptism and that he can do wonderful things in us if only we open ourselves to receive his many gifts.
We hope, of course, that it will not be long before we can once again participate in the Eucharist and receive Holy Communion as readily as in the past. Perhaps, however, this experience of separation can help us to recognize more fully the wonderful gift that Holy Communion is: the gift, too often taken for granted, of our Lord’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity; the gift that offers us a taste of eternal life here on earth.