In its pastoral document Celebrating the Mass, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said:
Even though some in the assembly may not receive ‘sacramental’ Communion, all are united in some way by the Holy Spirit. The traditional idea of ‘spiritual’ Communion – that a deep spiritual communion is possible even when we do not share together the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ – is an important one to remember and reaffirm. (para 212)
This is particularly true at this time when our churches are closed and no one can go to Mass because of the coronavirus.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that:
The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. (It) is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and that unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being. In brief, the Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith.(from para’s 1324, 1325, & 1327)
Given that at the moment no one can receive holy communion and may not be able to do so for the foreseeable future, what can be done to address these circumstances in which we find ourselves?
Through the ministry of priests the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful is completed in union with the sacrifice of Christ the only Mediator, which in the Eucharist is offered through the priests’ hands in the name of the whole Church. (para 1369 of the Catechism)
Priests are expected to celebrate Mass every day – it’s what we do – and therefore it doesn’t matter where we are, as long as we have our “Mass kit” with us we can celebrate Mass. I supposed it was possible to take that freedom and ability for granted until the coronavirus pandemic came along and suddenly we were celebrating Mass on our own – public gatherings were banned and therefore no one else could join us. I have to admit that the thought has crossed my mind that that puts priests in a particularly privileged position: not only the basic privilege of being able to celebrate Mass by virtue of our ordination, but also the privilege of being the only Catholics celebrating Mass and receiving holy communion at this time. The next thought was “Why us?” when everyone else is deprived of the eucharist? To which I suppose the answer is that we are priests, it’s what we do, and people would expect it of us. At least Masses are still being celebrated and hopefully the people of our parishes are comforted by the knowledge that that basic foundation of their faith continues to be offered for their needs and intentions even if they themselves can’t be physically present.
The question then became: is there any way, to any extent, that people could be “present” at our celebrations – not physically but somehow? And that’s where a little ingenuity and creativity entered in as thoughts turned to the internet. It was the Second Vatican Council after all that addressed the subject of social communication in its decree Inter mirifica, and as enthused as it was about the use of the media to spread the message of the gospel, it was only thinking about the press, radio, and television, because it was 1963 and the internet and social media hadn’t even been invented. Imagine what more it might have said if it had been. As it was it had this to say:
Man’s genius has with God’s help produced marvellous technical inventions from creation, especially in our times. The Church is particularly interested in those which directly touch man’s spirit and which have opened up new avenues of easy communication. It is the Church’s birthright to use any of the media which are necessary or useful for the formation of Christians and for pastoral activity. (from para’s 1 & 3)
By its very nature the eucharist is a communal celebration, but in our current circumstances there is no way that people can gather in church – they aren’t even supposed to leave their homes – and so how, and how fully, might we priests be able to bring Mass to them? The answer has been live-streaming the celebration of Mass to the internet so enabling those with home computers, iPads, or smart phones to watch and participate in the celebration of Mass – whether streamed from their own parishes or elsewhere – as the only viable alternative to not celebrating Mass at all. Being able to do this has hopefully restored even just a little bit of normality to people’s lives as they have watched the eucharist being celebrated in their name and have participated in it as best they could.
What bothers me a little bit about streamed Masses is the possibility of them seeming to be “exclusive” in the sense that only those with access to the internet can take part in them. But, firstly, perhaps that’s better than no one at all being able to if they weren’t streamed, and, secondly, I would probably be pleasantly surprised at just how many people these days do have internet access – just look at how many smart phones are out there – and are quite tech savvy. Also I think I might feel a bit guilty if I didn’t make a Mass I was celebrating available for people to take part in via the internet if I knew it could be done.
Of course the only thing missing from streamed celebrations is the people watching them being able to physically receive holy communion. But that’s where they have been reintroduced to the traditional practice of making a spiritual communion, something many of us learned about in school but may have forgotten over the years. At the time when those of us “of a certain age” were in school, people were quite familiar with the concept of spiritual communion because they didn’t always go to communion on a regular basis, a situation resulting from a combination of people feeling (or even being taught) that they had to go to confession before they could receive communion and many hadn’t, and, in those days, having to fast from midnight before going to communion. Consequently many made a spiritual communion rather than actually receiving the sacrament.
Because those caveats no longer apply, these days whole congregations will go to communion every time they are Mass – indeed Church teaching is that we should if we are in a state of grace. Consequently the only people who would be encouraged to make a spiritual communion instead would be those who, for whatever reason, aren’t able to receive the sacrament, or who through no fault of their own aren’t able to get to Mass.
In the current situation resulting from the coronavirus, people aren’t able to physically receive communion at Mass because they can’t physically go to Mass, and therefore making a spiritual communion is the only option left to them – and a practice that should be encouraged. It demonstrates a desire to receive the fruits and graces of the sacrament, and our faith and trust in God’s desire to bestow them. We can, of course, say our own prayer at communion time, but the traditional “Act of Spiritual Communion” from St Alphonsus Liguori provides a guideline:
My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the Blessed Sacrament. I love you above all things and I desire you in my soul. Since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. As though you were already there, I embrace you and unite myself wholly to you; permit not that I should ever be separated from you. Amen.
Nothing, of course, can fully take the place of actually receiving Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, a unique experience and privilege that we will hopefully be able to enjoy once again very soon. Hopefully also, this entire situation will bring about a renewed appreciation of the eucharist now that people have experienced what life, and especially their spiritual life, was like without it.
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