A lot of Catholics want to know the meaning, significance, and efficacy of Spiritual Communion. Can it still be practiced after the lockdown? Can priests grant parishioners the dispensation to participate in spiritual communion rather than physical attendance to Mass? Let’s discuss the theology of this practice, which became popular during the COVID.
One afternoon in the middle of the May, during the stay-at-home order in Baltimore caused by the corona-virus, I was came upon a woman standing outside the doors of church, which were locked. I cheerily said hello to the woman, but when she turned towards me, I realized that she was crying. She said, “I need to see Him!” She was referring to Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. Parishioners had not been permitted to receive Holy Communion, or even to pray in church before the tabernacle, for nine weeks. As Catholics, we have friendship with Jesus in the Eucharist. It is His presence on earth with us. And she missed Him!
During the three months that churches in the United States were closed to public worship, our bishops recommended the practice of spiritual communion while watching Mass live-streamed online. Though people could not receive Jesus sacramentally in Holy Communion, they could receive Him spiritually. Even though churches reopened this past June and public Masses have resumed, many people are still confined to their homes, so this is still a relevant question.
Let us consider a few questions about Spiritual Communion.
What is “communion?”
Communion is the meaning of life! God made humans with the intent that we would have communion with one another and with Him. Communion means being “in union with.” Our souls are to be linked. We are to love one another and love God. We are meant to be in communion with one another and with God during this life on earth, and eternally in heaven.
Marriage is one powerful way to be in communion with another, not just spiritually or emotionally, but also physically, through the uniting of the bodies of the husband and wife. Similarly, the Sacrament of Holy Communion is a powerful, visible way to be in communion with God; when we consume the body of Jesus he becomes part of our body and soul.
What is a “spiritual communion”?
It is the act of inviting the presence of God into your soul. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) described it as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the most holy sacrament and lovingly embrace him” at a time or in circumstances when we cannot receive him in sacramental Communion. St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) said, “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.” St. John Vianney (1786-1859), patron saint of priests, said “when we feel the love of God growing cold, let us instantly make a spiritual communion. When we cannot go to the church, let us turn towards the tabernacle; no wall can shut us out from the good God.”
Catholics understand that God doesn’t simply want to exist outside of us, but rather within us, in our souls. He wants to dwell in us. The Holy Spirit of God enters our soul anytime we receive a Sacrament. We can also receive the Holy Spirit anytime we pray, inviting Him into our souls.
The act of spiritual communion, however, expresses a desire to receive the effects of Holy Communion, even when the Sacrament itself is not available. It is a request for the direct blessing of Jesus, such as that given through Holy Communion.
Scriptural references to spiritual communion
While the Bible does not use the term “spiritual communion”, it does make different references to God’s desire to dwell within us. Jesus speaks of this at the Last Supper, the night before he died, as recorded on John’s Gospel. I pray not only for them . . . that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us. . . . I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one. John 17:20-23
St. Paul also speaks about the desire of the Holy Spirit to dwell in us. [He] who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through His Spirit that dwells in you. Romans 8:11 We also see this in his letter to the Corinthians, Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God. 1 Corinthians 6:19
Where and when to make a spiritual communion
Normally we would make a spiritual communion when attending Mass or watching a televised Mass.
Here are some scenarios of those attending Mass who could ask God for the benefit of a spiritual communion:
- a Catholic who attends Mass but has not fasted an hour beforehand and so cannot receive Holy Communion
- a Catholic who has committed a serious sin and so needs to go to Confession before returning to Holy Communion
- a non-Catholic who attend Mass, such as an RCIA candidate or someone married to a Catholic spouse
Here are some scenarios of those watching Mass from home who could make a spiritual communion:
- a parent who needs to stay home from Sunday Mass to care for a sick child
- an elderly or infirmed person who is confined to their home and thus unable to get to Mass
- a person unable to attend Mass because churches are closed due to the coronavirus
For televised Masses, it is strongly recommended to watch a live Mass and to pray along. There is a difference between watching Mass and praying Mass.
It is possible to make a spiritual communion even if not participating in Mass. One good practice is to make a spiritual communion whenever driving past a Catholic church. Recognize that Jesus is present in that church in the tabernacle, make a sign of the cross, and offer a spiritual communion prayer.
Permission for a spiritual communion?
A spiritual communion is a private act of reverence, and thus does not require permission. It can be made at different times for different purposes. But you do need a dispensation for missing Sunday Mass. This dispensation can be given by your parish priest for individual cases, or can be given by your bishop for the diocese as a whole.
How to make a spiritual communion
St. Peter Julian Eymard (1811-1868) suggested the following format:
“Conceive a real desire to be united to Jesus by acknowledging the need you have for His love; arouse yourself to perfect contrition for all your sins; offer a prayer for spiritual communion and invite Jesus into your inmost soul, entreating Him to give you the grace to live well; offer a prayer of thanksgiving and beg the blessing of Jesus Christ upon yourself and all your relatives and friends.”
Here is the Spiritual Communion Prayer recommended in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which was written by St Alphonsus Liguouri (1696-1787):
My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the most holy Sacrament. I love you above all things and 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.
As the woman in the church parking lot said with such emotion, “I need to see Him.” We are made for communion with God, through Jesus. Seek Him in Holy Communion when you are able to attend Mass and are properly prepared. And seek Him in spiritual communions as well!
[Biblical quotations are taken from the New American Bible]
Fr. Michael DeAscanis serves as pastor of St. Philip Neri and St. Clement Parishes. He is also the chaplain of the Catholic Medical Association in Baltimore. He studied at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, specializing in bioethics. Previously he worked as a Civil Engineer.