The world is currently facing a pandemic that has the potential to kill millions of people and permanently change the way we live. Not surprisingly, many employers, in efforts to promote “social distancing,” are transitioning to largely virtual office settings, where people can work remotely and connect with their colleagues via video chat or instant messenger. Many Catholic bishops have also taken precautions by limiting public celebration of the Mass or dispensing with the regular Sunday obligation for the faithful in their dioceses.
While some don’t recognize the necessity of such precautions, many who are currently living through the worst of it, including those in Italy, are trying to get the word out. Mountain Butorac, also known as “The Catholic Traveler,” makes a living taking tourists around Rome. Early in the crisis, he posted on his blog that the crisis was overblown, but recently he published a video on Facebook explaining how he has changed his mind about the severity of the crisis and begging others to listen to the authorities and to self-quarantine.
Still, however necessary social distancing may be, it carries potentially serious negative implications, such as the impact on our economy and the emotional stress that comes with isolation. Many Catholics online have expressed confusion or anger about their bishops’ decisions. Some Catholics inexplicably deny the seriousness of the threat. Others are legitimately and understandably disappointed that they are unable to receive the Eucharist.
In the face of our current situation, I would like to remind my fellow Catholics we can still welcome God into our hearts through what is called spiritual communion. Even more, spiritual communion may be how God is asking us to receive him at this time.
To be absolutely clear: the sacraments are indispensable means by which God reconciles his people to himself. The Church teaches that the sacraments necessary to our salvation and growth in holiness. At the same time, the fruits of the sacraments are not confined to the physical signs of the sacrament (cf. CCC 1258). God does not limit himself to these means of grace he established for our benefit. We need the sacraments; God doesn’t. This is the principle behind Catholic teaching on “Baptism of blood” and “Baptism of desire.” This principle is also why we have a legitimate hope for the salvation of those who die before receiving Baptism, including the unborn and catechumens.
Spiritual communion is similarly understood. Many who are unable to receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist for varying reasons find themselves desiring communion with God in a sacramental way. The teachings of the Church and the writings of the saints express a singular conviction that God nourishes those who desire him with his Eucharistic presence, including even those who cannot be physically present at Mass. In 1983 then-Cardinal Ratzinger, who was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote about this in a letter to the bishops, saying,
Individual faithful or communities who because of persecution or lack of priests are deprived of the holy Eucharist for either a short or longer period of time, 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; whereas those who would wrongly attempt to take upon themselves the right to confect the Eucharistic Mystery end up by having their community closed in on itself.
During this pandemic, we should remember the teaching that spiritual communion is a valid way to receive the “fruits of the sacrament.” We should also recall another important aspect of the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist. While the Eucharist is fundamentally a sacrament of communion with God and neighbor, St. John Paul II taught that the Eucharist “cannot be the starting point for communion; it presupposes that communion already exists.” He goes on to say,
Invisible communion, though by its nature always growing, presupposes the life of grace, by which we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4), and the practice of the virtues of faith, hope and love. Only in this way do we have true communion with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Nor is faith sufficient; we must persevere in sanctifying grace and love, remaining within the Church “bodily” as well as “in our heart”; what is required, in the words of Saint Paul, is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Keeping these invisible bonds intact is a specific moral duty incumbent upon Christians who wish to participate fully in the Eucharist by receiving the body and blood of Christ.
One cannot legitimately receive the Eucharist if, by doing so, one is harming the invisible bonds of charity that form a community. One cannot legitimately receive the Eucharist if it means that one is putting others at increased risk of death. The Eucharist gradually makes perfect the love of God and neighbor that is already in our hearts through faith in Christ Jesus; it does not, and cannot, supplant our gross negligence or selfishness.
There are a variety of circumstances and difficulties with this virus in particular that seem perfectly suited to create a global crisis. Typically, during cold and flu season the Church simply encourages the sick and elderly to remain at home, and normally this limits the spread of illness to vulnerable populations. One notable problem with COVID-19, however, is that we are still uncertain to what extent it can be transmitted before symptoms show. In addition, the rapid spread of the disease and the lack of a vaccine could very easily lead to our healthcare systems becoming overwhelmed.
And that’s the rub: while a single person, particularly a young and healthy one, may not be at a great risk of death as a result of contracting the virus, it is still important for everyone to practice social distancing to ensure that those who are at greater risk have access to quality healthcare when they need it. Avoiding the public celebration of Mass may be necessary as an act of love toward others, as we could unintentionally be contributing to the rapid spread of the illness and to the death of even more people. Similarly, while it is not something that should be dealt with lightly, bishops have the obligation to consider both the holiness and health of the faithful in their diocese when deciding whether to cancel the public celebration of Mass.
Finally, there seems to be outrage directed toward some bishops who have made the decision to limit public Masses. While I don’t want to belabor the point too much, St. John Paul II reminds the faithful that the Eucharist can only be legitimately celebrated by those in communion with the Pope and bishops. He writes,
The ecclesial communion of the Eucharistic assembly is a communion with its own Bishop and with the Roman Pontiff. The Bishop, in effect, is the visible principle and the foundation of unity within his particular Church. It would therefore be a great contradiction if the sacrament par excellence of the Church’s unity were celebrated without true communion with the Bishop.
Priests and lay faithful should carefully consider this in those dioceses where the local bishop has made the decision to cancel public celebration of Mass.
The threat posed by this coronavirus unfortunately puts the Catholic Church into an awkward position in many places: they must decide whether they should continue to celebrate the Sacrament of God’s love while putting people at risk, or decide to cancel public celebrations of Mass as an act of love. (It is worth noting that priests are continuing to celebrate Mass, at least privately!) No one can deny the importance of the Eucharist; it is truly the source and summit of the Christian life. But such as it is, the same love that the Eucharist nourishes in us may require us to avoid it for a time. For many of us, the practice of making a spiritual communion–daily if possible–has become more necessary than ever before. Let us pray that, through our spiritual communion with Christ, the Holy Spirit may bless us with the fruits of the Sacrament so that we might live in greater faith, hope and love.