Amid the social-distancing restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been reintroduced, or introduced for the first time, to the practice of spiritual communion. As attending Mass in person has given way to watching broadcast or video-streamed liturgies at home, Catholics have been encouraged to make an Act of Spiritual Communion to receive at least some of the graces of receiving the eucharistic host at Mass.
We all hope soon to be able to attend Mass again, but let’s learn a few facts about spiritual communion to help us even when the pandemic passes.
Its theology is rooted deep in Church history. In the fifth century, St. Augustine distinguished between the visible sign of the Eucharist and its unseen spiritual power. By the Middle Ages, when it was common for laypeople to receive Communion only once a year, they were encouraged to make a spiritual communion at Mass. St. Thomas Aquinas, who favored frequent communion, recommended spiritual communion as a means of preparation for actual reception of the sacrament.
It compares to “baptism of desire.” Aquinas likened spiritual communion to baptism of desire, in which a catechumen who dies before baptism can be saved through his desire for the sacrament. A member of the faithful, then, could desire the sacrament of the Eucharist so strongly as to reap grace from that desire alone.
The idea was affirmed by an ecumenical council. In the 16th century, the Council of Trent noted three ways of taking part in communion: sacramentally only, by those who receive the host but are not properly disposed or prepared; spiritually only, by those who are prepared but do not receive the host; and both sacramentally and spiritually, by those who both prepare spiritually and receive the host. Spiritual communion is the middle way.
It’s not quite the same as receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist. While highly beneficial, spiritual communion does not bring us the fullness of the effects of the sacrament. Therefore, it is not a “substitute” for actually receiving holy communion but rather a devout practice whereby we may receive some of the graces the sacrament would otherwise provide.
It’s not just for extraordinary situations. Spiritual communion is a wonderful practice during a pandemic, illness or other situation that keeps us from attending Mass. However, it also is useful for those who do attend Mass but refrain from holy communion due to a serious unconfessed sin or involvement in a marriage not recognized by the Catholic Church. But it’s not limited to these circumstances either.
You can receive it every day — or even more often. Spiritual communion is best used either: (a) as a preparation for receiving the Eucharist, or (b) at a time when you are not able to receive the Eucharist. There is no limit to how often you can do this. You can pray it daily, or several times a day. Saints have encouraged the practice anytime you feel the desire to unite to Christ more fully, and St. Francis de Sales is said to have made a spiritual communion every 15 minutes in order to offer all the events of his day to Christ.
There is no set prayer or formula. Aquinas described spiritual communion as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Holy Sacrament and a loving embrace as though we had already received him.” A number of prayers for spiritual communion have been composed, but it is sufficient to express in your own words the desire to receive Christ and to be filled with his love. Even prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament can be a form of spiritual communion.
Perhaps the most popular prayer for spiritual communion was written by St. Alphonsus Liguori:
“My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the Most Holy Sacrament. I love you above all things, and I desire to receive you into my soul. Since I cannot at this moment 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.
Gerald Korson, a veteran Catholic journalist, is a member of the Knights of Columbus in Indiana.
Published in a special bi-weekly edition of Knightline, a resource for K of C leaders and members. To access Knightline’s monthly archives, click here
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