Catholics in many regions – more or less all of Canada – can no longer attend Mass, or receive Holy Communion, with few exceptions. There are certain ‘private’ Masses being said, with some permitted in attendance, in religious houses, for example, monasteries, convents and such. And we may hope that every parish priest is still saying his daily Mass, for his people, whatever small group may, or may not, be in attendance.
But we, the hoi polloi, the laity, are denied access to the Eucharist, even just to watch from a distance. So what are we do to, until things get back to normal, if they ever do? For the ‘new normal’ will not be quite like the old, methinks.
One option, in these tough times – one priest quipped that this is the Lentiest Lent that ever Lented – is to develop one’s home prayer life, turning the family into a true ecclesia domestica; to set up an intentional prayer corner, if not a chapel; to pray some at least of the Liturgy of the Hours; and to follow the Mass devotionally, meditating over the prayers, the readings of the day, and, as the tradition of the Church has it, make a spiritual communion.
Saint Thomas in his treatise on the Eucharist (III. Q. 80, ff.) states that there are three ways to receive Communion: First, sacramentally, which is how everyone receives who takes the host, for the real Presence of Christ is there, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. Even the most reprobate and unrepentant sinner, yes, even those at purported ‘Black Masses’, or, less horribly, in Thomas’ own quaint example, the little church mouse nibbling at a consecrated Host, receive Christ so. For the Lord is truly present under the species of bread (and wine), Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.
Of course, the ideal is to receive the reality of Christ both spiritually and sacramentally, receiving not just the reality, but as well the salutary effects and benefits of the Eucharist, all the graces, strengths, and blessings that flow from this sacrament of sacraments. For in this one Food, we do not assimilate the substance to ourselves, but rather, Christ makes us more like Him, if we are even remotely disposed and open to such a transformation.
There is much talk now about the third way of ‘receiving’ Christ, in spiritual communion alone, which seems now most people’s only option for the foreseeable future. That is, taking Christ into our hearts and souls, without the actual reception of the Host, and asking for the graces we might have received otherwise.
Such reception by desire and intent, is good, salutary, beneficial, but not as good as actual reception, for nothing can ever fully substitute for the reception of the very flesh and blood of the Saviour.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. (John 5: 53-56)
There are some who are saying that this imposed ‘Eucharistic fast’ is a good thing, as some of us, used to weekly or even daily reception, have perhaps become too complacent, and one author even claims that such ‘regular reception’ should be curtailed.
There is some truth in this, but the argument overall is unsound: We should recall that the sacraments work primarily ex opere operato, from the ‘work having been worked’, or from the work of Christ Himself, which He does through the ‘reality’ of the sacraments. They provide grace to the soul even with the minimum of disposition on our part, though we should dispose ourselves to receive more devoutly. Further, without the sacraments, we are never quite as certain what we have, or have not, received, and the normal means of graces are missing. Finding Christ in the trees and rivers, or even within our own hearts, is not the same, and never will be the same, as finding Him in the Eucharist. (And this reasoning holds for devotional confessions and such).
That is why Pope Saint Pius X, in Sacra Tridentina, advocated for daily reception of the Eucharist, if possible, following Christ in His own prayer (‘give us this day our daily bread’). All that is required is that we do not receive purely out of habit – or worse – but, as the Pope puts it, that we receive recta piaque mente, with a ‘right and pious mind’, that we want to grow in holiness, in grace and in love with God.
My point is that we cannot live for long with just spiritual communion. Yes, God can provide the grace of the sacraments outside of the sacraments – but we should keep in mind that the sacraments are for our good, not God’s: They are God’s gift that we may be certain of receiving grace, of being forgiven, of becoming members of the Church, of gathering together to worship as a community. The saying holds true: ecclesia supplet defectum sacramentorum, that ‘the Church supplies the defect in the sacraments’. But this holds generally when the defect is not our fault, and does not last interminably.
We will need the real thing, sooner rather than later. On this Good Shepherd Sunday, it is fitting to pray that our pastors may soon once again, even in the face of difficulties and dangers, feed their sheep.