Today, many people may not even know about spiritual Communion. Yet it has a long history in the church.
We all know that we are not to receive holy Communion if we are conscious of mortal sin, until we have first received the sacrament of reconciliation. In the past, this sense of sin was more intense than it is today. So people often did not dare approach to receive the sacred host. Instead, they received it in a spiritual fashion.
In the 13th century, the great Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas described spiritual Communion as a deep desire to receive Christ in the sacrament and to embrace Jesus as if we had already received him. Aquinas added that the benefits of receiving the Lord could be gained even before physically receiving sacramental Communion: “a man can obtain salvation through the desire of receiving it… ” the saint wrote.
Many saints have addressed the benefits of spiritual Communion and how, unlike the bakery analogy, it can be the same as “the real thing.” St. Catherine of Siena (d. 1380) wrote about having a vision in which Christ told her that her sacramental Communions and her spiritual Communions appeared to him as two chalices — “one gold and one silver” — both equally precious in his sight.
St. Jeanne-Marie Vianney (d. 1859) spoke of spiritual Communion as beneficial to the soul: “like blowing a fire that is beginning to go out, but that has still plenty of hot embers; we blow (by receiving spiritual Communion), and the fire burns again.”
Even Christians of other faiths have acknowledged the benefit of spiritual communion. For example, the 1951 U.S. Episcopalian Church’s “Armed Forces Prayer Book” contains directions on how to receive spiritual Communion.
In 1916, Bishop Cecil John Wood, Anglican bishop of Melanesia, wrote about spiritual communion as “a special effort to realize the presence of Jesus in your soul … remembering how at countless altars of the church the holy sacrifice is being pleaded and souls fed sacramentally by the body and blood of Christ.” Finally, the bishop said, “… Ask Jesus for the spiritual gifts you most need.”
So spiritual Communion is a tool by which we can welcome Jesus and join ourselves to him at any time and in any place — especially considering we cannot spend every moment in church. (We can, though, make a spiritual Communion at any moment we desire.)
However, the practice of having spiritual Communion — instead of actual sacramental Communion — got out of hand. Many people developed an exaggerated sense of unworthiness and avoided receiving the sacrament in a physical form. Confusion arose.
As Pope Pius X wrote in 1905, “The result of such disputes was that very few were considered worthy to receive the holy Eucharist daily, and to derive from this most health-giving sacrament its more abundant fruits; the others were content to partake of it once a year, or once a month, or at most once a week.”
Things were such that the pope had to forcefully state that receiving frequent sacramental Communion was required of Catholics and he even called the choice of spiritual communion over sacramental Communion as sometimes infected with “the poison of Jansenism … (which) under the pretext of showing due honor and reverence to the Eucharist, had infected the minds even of good men…”
Because of Pope Pius X’s efforts, sacramental Communion became more frequent. He also saw to it that first Communion was offered to children at a younger age. After the Second Vatican Council, sacramental Communion became even more frequent — and was again offered under both species to lay Catholics.
However, spiritual Communion — inviting Jesus into one’s heart and soul when one cannot receive him sacramentally — is still of great benefit.
In 2003, Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical on the Eucharist and the church, wrote, “it is good to cultivate in our hearts a constant desire for the sacrament of the Eucharist. This was the origin of the practice of ‘spiritual Communion’ …”
Spiritual Communion can be made when one cannot attend Mass because of health or other circumstances — such as that storm in Madrid. It can also be practiced at any time of the day whenever the desire to be close to Jesus comes to us. The Mass is celebrated around the world at all times and one can, in spirit, be united to the sacrifice of the Mass at any time.
Franciscan Fr. Stefano Manelli wrote that, “A special advantage of spiritual Communion is that we can make it as often as we like — even hundreds of times a day — when we like — even late at night — and wherever we like — even in a desert, or up in an airplane.”
All we have to do is desire our Lord — approach him with love and contrition for our sins — and he comes to us. As St. Pius X said “Holy Communion is the shortest and the safest way to Heaven.”
Sources: “Jesus Our Eucharistic Love”; fatima.org; Catholic News Service; “Summa Theologica”; vatican.va; fisheaters.com; EWTN.com; anglicanhistory.org; National Catholic Register, 11/20/11.