The Covid-19 pandemic has upended our society in nearly every way imaginable. Many people are out of work and unable to feed their families. Others have been evicted from their homes. Some lay in ICU beds, gasping for air or on a ventilator, as hardworking doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers try everything to keep them alive.
This year we’ve had to get used to being apart in order to keep each other safe. Business meetings, prayer meetings, and family gatherings such as weddings and funerals have been conducted via Zoom, Facetime, or Skype. Some of us have had the privilege to work from home while others haven’t. Those who continued going to work are some of our most essential workers: grocery store employees, sanitation workers, farmers, healthcare professionals, truckers, mailmen, and delivery people.
We’ve endured lockdowns and school closings. Restaurants and stores shut down. All of these had been essential parts of our functioning society. For much of the year there have been many arguments about how best to handle the pandemic. The Church has been no exception. During this crisis, the Church had to get creative. For a short time, from late March to May, all the dioceses in the United States shut their doors to the public. Some parishes responded to the pandemic by having outdoor Masses, drive-through confessions, and livestreaming Masses.
Connecting to each other through digital media was an indeed an opportunity for the Church. Yet we must remember this is not the way the Church should function in normal circumstances, as Pope Francis indicated in an April homily:
I say this because someone made me reflect on the danger that we are living in this moment, this pandemic that has made us all communicate, even religiously, through the means of communication. Even this Mass, we are all communicants, but not together, we are spiritually together. The people gathered are few. There is a large number of people: we are together, but not together. The Sacrament too: today you receive the Eucharist, but the people linked up with us, only spiritual communion. And this is not the Church: this is the Church in a difficult situation, which the Lord permits, but the ideal of the Church is always with the people and with the Sacraments. Always.
It is the Church’s norm that we gather together in community and participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in person. But there are times when that’s not possible. Many of our brothers and sisters live in very difficult situations, whether in war-torn countries or in very isolated communities like the Amazon, where people don’t have ready access to the sacraments on a frequent basis.
In fact, at many times in history, the average lay person might have only received communion once or twice a year, if that. Yet, the faith still flourished, even in difficult times. This is one of those times. It’s not always safe to gather, and some of us—due to health problems or taking care of a high risk loved one—still can’t attend Mass in person, even when restrictions have begun to relax. So what are they to do?
Digital communication can be problematic, but it does offer a means whereby we can participate in some ways. It can allow us to enter into community, albeit imperfectly. The Church teaches that God is not bound by the sacraments, and so in extraordinary times, the Church offers us another way to participate: through Spiritual Communion. This does not replace the Holy Eucharist, but for those who can’t attend Mass for whatever reason, this a way to unite with Our Lord in the Eucharist and can receive the graces offered by the sacrament. For some people, especially during this crisis, the only way they can experience this unity and participate in the Mass is through Spiritual Communion. Livestreamed and televised Masses help facilitate this.
Uniting with Christ through an act of Spiritual Communion can also be an act of solidarity with our Catholic brothers and sisters who don’t have ready access to the sacraments. Pope Francis encourages us to act in solidarity with each other but it’s not always easy to do this. What does solidarity mean?
In his general audience on September 2nd, Pope Francis defines solidarity as,
“Something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity”. Much more! “It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, 188). This is what “solidarity” means. It is not merely a question of helping others — it is good to do so, but it is more than that — it is a matter of justice (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1938-1949). Interdependence, to be in solidarity and to bear fruit, needs strong roots in humanity and in nature, created by God; it needs respect for faces and for the land.”
Solidarity is acknowledging that we must depend on each other and that we’re all interconnected. COVID-19 has revealed this in a stark and painful way. Our actions have many consequences. They can mean the difference between life and death. Knowing this, we need to be in solidarity with each other more than ever. We should consider how solidarity relates to Spiritual Communion.
Let’s face it: Catholics in developed countries often take the sacraments for granted. There are many reasons for this, but one is their ready accessibility. In many ways, we’re spoiled. We’ve treated the Eucharist as if it belongs only to us. Sometimes, it’s even treated almost like a drug, or as something we’re entitled to. I admit that I’ve sometimes thought the same thing. For over twenty years, I took going to Mass as a given. When COVID came, I had a profound sense that this was a wake-up call. The Eucharist is not my property. The Sacrament is Our Lord Jesus Christ, the source and summit of our Faith, and yet many of our brothers and sisters can’t receive the sacraments on a regular basis.
In October 2019 many Amazonians came to Rome for the Amazon Synod. They expressed their desire for more access to the sacraments, since they lived in remote villages in the forest. Pope Francis and the other synod fathers listened, and perhaps in time the people of the Amazon will have more access; but for now, they have to make do with their services, Spiritual Communion, and other prayers. Just a few months later, as COVID swept through the world, many Catholics were also bereft of the sacraments. And for many of them, it was traumatic. How could it not be? Some complained. Others made do with what was available by taking up the Liturgy of the Hours, watching a livestreamed Mass, and even visiting the Blessed Sacrament from a distance at drive-in adoration.
I truly believe that all these extraordinary alternatives do give grace during this difficult time. For some, it’s the only solace they have. So while Covid continues to rage, let’s commit to doing acts of Spiritual Communion and offer it in solidarity with all our brothers and sisters who are in remote locations, refugee camps, war-torn countries, homeless, or fighting for their lives in the ICU. This is an opportunity for grace and love. In fact, Pope Francis encourages us to emerge from this plague better than before, so let’s start now. As Francis told us, “To emerge from this crisis better than before, we have to do so together; together, not alone. Together. Not alone, because it cannot be done. Either it is done together, or it is not done. We must do it together, all of us, in solidarity.”
As we await Our Lord in the manger and celebrate Christmas, let’s unite ourselves with Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and in solidarity with all the people who need love.
In closing, here’s a prayer for Spiritual Communion (click here for printable versions of two prayers for Spiritual Communion):
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.
—St. Alphonsus Ligouri