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Spiritual Communion in a Time of Coronavirus

For many people, it looks likely that the next few weeks will not offer a realistic opportunity to go to Mass. Our chaplain joins us for a conversation about the powerful option of “Spiritual Communion” during this time, and any time.

Did you miss Fr. Hugh and Cy on our episode of Focus last week? Check out “Coronavirus and the Catholic Church”.

You can find Fr. Hugh’s latest book, 20 Answers: Prayer, here.


Spiritual communion in a time of coronavirus. Father Hugh Barbour is next.

Cy Kellett:
Hello again, and welcome to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host, and I hope all is going well, that you are getting through this time of coronavirus without it being too eventful or interesting. Maybe a little bit of boredom now is good. Of course, in many places people are not able to make it to Mass now. If folks over 60 for example, I think probably a bad idea to go to Mass and some places Masses are, in fact closed. We thought we’d spend some time with Father Hugh Barbour, a Norbertine priest, former Prior of St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County and our chaplain, to talk about something called spiritual communion. Father Barbour, thanks for being with us.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Great to be here.

Cy Kellett:
Some of the saints I had noticed, because I read up a little bit about this before coming into this conversation with you. Jose Escrivá in particular and also Padre Pio recommend regular spiritual communion. What is it that they’re recommending? What is that?

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Well, the term spiritual communion refers to, and of course it recommended by St. Josemaría who is the founder of Opus Dei as you know, and then Padre Pio of course, but by many, many, many saints and the church herself. Included in indulgences has an indulgence for those who make a spiritual communion in the midst of their day’s activities. What it is very simply is an act, an interiorly expressed or exteriorly expressed act of desire to receive the Blessed Sacrament and to receive the effects of the Blessed Sacrament. That is, what are the effects of the Blessed Sacrament? Well, they are spiritually speaking the equivalent of what the effects of food are. It is nourishment or strengthen for the soul. And then of course, since the sacrament contains Christ himself, a closeness or union or sweet union, personal union with the Savior himself. The spiritual communion is nothing other than an act of desire for this nourishment and for this sweet union with Jesus as he is present under the appearances of bread and wine.

Whenever we make a prayer or an act interiorly of desire for that sacrament, we receive the grace of the sacrament. It’s not a small thing. That is because how do we receive the sacrament when we receive it visibly? We receive it by faith and love. That is, the visible sign is not the what of what we receive. Jesus in his body and blood, in his soul and his Godhead is the what we receive and that is accessed by faith and charity. Whenever we focus our love and faith on Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, we receive the effects of the sacrament. It’s a very powerful thing, much more powerful than we would think. It’s not like a second best, you know, well, if I can’t get to Mass, I can make a spiritual communion.

That’s true. But we have to realize that it can be as fruitful and as intense as being present and receiving visibly and bodily the sacrament. It’s a very powerful thing. To give an example. The term in St. Thomas for receiving a sacrament and desire is precisely the same term as is used for what we call baptism of desire. We know very well that someone who can’t be baptized but desires to be baptized but isn’t able to get someone to baptize them for whatever reason, receives the grace of the sacrament by their desire. And so you see how powerful that is because that’s a sacrament necessary for salvation. The desire to be baptized is what’s called baptism in voto. It means in a vow or in a desire about a future thing if it were possible.

The same goes for confirmation. If you can’t get confirmed, you can make an active desire for the graces of confirmation until you’re able at some future point to be confirmed. Our acts of desire mean that if I could receive the Blessed Sacrament, I would, and I hope to at a future point. But right now I desire the effects of that sacrament through a closer union, a nourishing union with the Savior. And it works. It works because it’s still in the order of the sacraments.

Cy Kellett:
Well, let me ask you this then, because it’s recommended to us, for example, if for some reason we didn’t keep the fast and not for just reason, or it’s recommended to us if we can’t make it to Mass, and this is the current case where many people cannot go to Mass. Or it’s recommended if we are sensing or maybe even know that. I don’t know if … you would correct me on that … that we’re not currently in a state of grace. We’re not disposed to be able to receive the sacrament. If that’s the case, in the later of all those, say that I know that I just did something horrible. I need to get to confession, but I’m here at Mass and I decide to make a spiritual communion. In what way does that benefit me?

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Well, it’s very important to consider that if you … it’s a question of grace. First you make an act of contrition. Then, of course, an act of desire for Holy Communion and your participation in the Mass. Pope Benedict XVI mentioned very clearly that one of the big things that could help people who are not able to receive communion, maybe because they are in an invalid marriage. To participate in the Mass is to realize that the sacrament is itself perfected in the consecration of the bread and wine in the sacrifice of the Mass. Then everything following on that consecration and the priest’s communion, is a use of the sacrament. You can commune with our Lord in the sacrament by faith when it’s lifted up at the elevation to be adored, but also to be loved and to be believed in.

As our Lord says, “If I be lifted up from the earth, I’ll draw all things to myself.” We can definitely mitigate or lessen the discomfort or literally lack of comfort of not being able to receive the sacrament visibly for whatever reason, but particularly on account of our sins, by making that act of desire and recognizing that if we love the Lord, he’s already pardoned our sins and simply awaits our confessional participation so that we can receive the sacrament visibly. We can be restored to grace and begin to participate in the graces of the sacrament simply by our act of contrition and our spiritual communion, as we call it, or an act of desire for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. It works very, very well. We should hasten to do that, especially when weakened by our own sins.

Cy Kellett:
Now let’s say I’m at home watching Mass on EWTN because this is the situation we’re in now. Don’t go to Mass, stay home. How might I make a spiritual communion watching the Mass or maybe listening to it on this radio station?

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Well, of course we don’t have to be watching a Mass or listening to it on the radio to make a spiritual communion. But that could be a great aid to a spiritual community because of course it’s impossible not to think about going to communion and adoring the Blessed Sacrament if we’re watching or listening to a broadcast Mass. It’s a particular aid you might say, to our participation as it gives us a closer connection with the liturgy that surrounds the sacrament, the readings and also just the prayers and gestures of the Mass. The essential part is that our heart desires that union with our Lord and he bestows it on us. Interestingly, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas says regarding babies who have been baptized but have never been to communion, the question is asked, “Well how can the babies be saved because they haven’t been communion and the Lord says unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you will not have life within you?”

The worry was well babies are baptized but they don’t go to communion, at least in the Roman Rite, in the Latin Church. He answers, “Well because in virtue of being in the state of grace, they habitually desire union with Christ through the Eucharist and so they receive the grace thereby.” That’s a very strong example of where he asserts the reality of a communion of desire or a spiritual communion. All communions are spiritual of course, but spiritual in the sense that you’re not visibly receiving the visible species of bread or of wine, but rather you are desiring that union with Christ who is present under those visible species. That’s of course what we do when we actually do go to communion. The difference is you might say from a certain point of view, slight. That’s why when you hear people criticizing the Middle Ages, “Oh, all they did was look at the host at Mass. They looked at the elevation and they only met communion twice a year or four times a year.”

Well actually, if you’re living in God’s grace and you love Jesus very much and you are looking upon the host at the elevation and asking for his grace and assistance, you’re doing awfully well and you’re receiving the graces of the sacrament itself. That is, you’re not being cheated out of something if you’re not able to receive visibly or sacramentally. Our Lord wouldn’t permit that if your heart is truly desiring it. Sometimes it’s even better to refrain for a little bit from visible communion so that we’ll appreciate more when we actually do approach the altar to receive the Blessed Sacrament.

Cy Kellett:
In a certain way it almost sounds like you’re saying that a spiritual communion made with genuine faith and maybe even a specific act of faith, it might be more valuable than even a physical communion made in the absence of any real attention or act faith.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Oh, to be sure. A spiritual communion made with an act of faith and love is definitely more fruitful than one made with inattention and out of mere habit or human respect. That’s for sure. That’s why although we can go to communion every day if we’re in a state of grace, we still have to discern whether or not we’re always disposed to receive as frequently as we do because we need to be actively engaged in desiring those graces. Now, that doesn’t mean if we have distracted busy lives or if the kids distracted us right when we went up to communion that we’re not getting any grace, I’m talking about culpable, deliberate you might say, inattention. It’s like the marital embrace. Sometimes it’s good to abstain for a while so you appreciate better when you get back together. The same with the Holy Eucharist. You can sometimes forego communion in order to appreciate better the reality of that union.

That’s what is particularly clear in the practices, say of some of the Eastern Rites where their requirements for the reception of Holy Communion, especially among the Orthodox but also amongst many Catholics, are a little more stringent and so people are used to the idea of not going to communion because they need to prepare more by fasting or prayers. Whereas we are not trained that way nowadays. People have very little sense that they need to prepare or pray beforehand or pray after. The practice of spiritual communion can really make up for that lack. If we’re constantly making spiritual communions every day, then we will be better prepared when we actually receive the Holy Communion visibly.

Cy Kellett:
Is making a spiritual communion with Christ in the Eucharist something that is comparable then to the making the physical communion in that I should only do this once a day?

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
No, with the spiritual communion you could do it as often as you want. That’s part of the issue is that ideally someone who receives communion should continue that spirit of communion throughout the course of the day. In fact in a certain sense, you could say that all devotion to the Blessed Sacrament is a kind of spiritual communion because what are you doing when you go to adoration? You’re praying for a lot of people and what not. But basically you’re nourishing yourself by the real presence of the Savior and communing with him sacramentally in a true sense, in the sacramental order of things. That is, it’s not just a psychological desire, it’s actually an action of your soul, which having the character of baptism and often enough confirmation, is able to receive the graces of the Mass of the Blessed Sacrament simply by desiring them as sacramental graces. It’s not like an if only, it’s an actual occurrence in the sacramental order, although not as perfect liturgically or sacramentally as receiving visibly, but still real. It’s not just, I wish I were, I wish I might.

Cy Kellett:
But real.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
It’s a real participation. Right.

Cy Kellett:
Is there anything that I don’t get? If I’m engaging in a spiritual communion with Christ in the Eucharist, is there anything that I don’t get that I would get were I’m making the physical communion?

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Well, what you don’t get is the full complement of what is offered to our human nature by our Lord’s instituting the sacrament in a visible sign. That is, all those things motivate us to a greater appreciation of the gift of God and that greater awareness that he is for us nourishment, life. That he comes into our very bodies and unites himself to us as a bridegroom to his spouse. All these things which are very powerful motivations in the sacrament are more clearly indicated or signed, if you will, by the actual visible signs of the Eucharist.

But, that being said, we don’t lack anything essential if we are offering ourselves in faith and love in accordance with our Lord’s own words, that if we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we will live because of him. And that Eucharistic life can be simply a question of the life of the Spirit and then directed towards the future reception of the sacrament. That’s the one point. It’s always directed towards a future reception. It’s not the forgoing of reception. It’s looking forward to the next time. But you can look forward to it as often as you want and that’s fruitful for our soul.

Cy Kellett:
This sounds like something that if one is in fear of death, it would also be a really good thing to know how to do. To make a spiritual communion.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Absolutely. Not just make an act of contrition to have your sins forgiven. The act of contrition is so written, the traditional one at least, is so written so that it gives the motivation that brings about the forgiveness of sins. Namely, that we’re sorry not only because of punishment, but also because we love God and then that obtains for us the restoration of grace. But that’s on the condition again, that we receive the sacrament of penance when it comes. In a certain sense, an act of contrition is like a confession of desire, but it works. That is, the whole role of desire in our spiritual life ought to be carefully examined because it’s very, very powerful. Because when it’s connected to the sacraments instituted by Christ, it’s not just a wish or a desire in the normal human sense, it actually links us to the Savior and his power. Certainly if you make an act of contrition, you ought to just right away make an act of spiritual communion. And so you receive an abundance of graces of union with the Lord and consolation in the midst of trials.

Cy Kellett:
Maybe Father, a couple things. First of all, just on a practical level, maybe just give us a little lesson in how to make a spiritual …

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Sure.

Cy Kellett:
… communion before we go. And then also any words you might have on the actual moment that we’re in. People in some dioceses, don’t know when they’ll be able to go to Mass again. And so how to persist and live the faith fully in the absence of being able to go to Mass.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Well, on the first point we can just make an act of spiritual communion together. I can just pray and you can hear how I do it and that might be one model. There isn’t an official prayer. It’s really basically a question of whatever your heart moves you to say, or even just a movement of the heart that’s explicit in your soul, but we can pray.

My Lord Jesus, I thank you for the great grace of your presence in the Sacrament of the Alter. And since I’m unable to receive you now visibly, I ask you to come to me spiritually. I believe in you. I hope in you. I love you, and I wish to possess you, body and soul in my next Holy Communion when your Providence allows that to happen. Lord Jesus, I thank you again and I put all my trust in you that I’m going to be nourished and completely filled with your loving presence. Amen.

Cy Kellett:
Amen.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
And then as far as how to view this, well, think of what happened with our ancestors who braved the storms of the Atlantic Ocean or the Pacific Ocean or came across the whole continent to find a place for their families to live and work to do. They had to go long periods without the consolation of a priest or someone to celebrate Holy Mass or give them communion. They went and built those communities and then when they were able, they called for a priest who came to serve them. When we have to wait a while because we’re detained from coming to Holy Mass, even though the churches for us at least to very near and the priests are not too far away, we might consider how much good they did and how strong their faith was and how great their desire for the sacraments was.

That even after all that traveling and all those difficulties and trials and work, their primary desire was to build a place where they could have a Catholic Church and the celebration of Holy Mass. That you can see all the way across the United States. Especially if go through the Midwest and Kansas and all those places, you see one spire after another on the horizon of these Catholic Churches that are built. The same in the Latin American world. I would say that that spirit that they had, we can also have, trusting that our Lord will take care of us and strengthen our faith even when we lack the ministrations of his visible minister.

Cy Kellett:
Thank you Father Hugh Barbour.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Thank you.

Cy Kellett:
I don’t know how you do social distancing in a monastery, but good luck with that.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
The peace of the Lord be with you always. Peace be with you and with your spirit. Yes, that’s what we do. Yes, that’s what we do, actually. Funny little chuckle.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah. Father Hugh Barbour has been our guest. As I said, he’s a Norbertine priest. You can find out about the Norbertines and their magnificent monastery just by looking up St. Michael’s in Orange County on the internet. You can also find out … EWTN has a written prayer that if you would prefer that for how to make a spiritual communion, just search spiritual communion EWTN and you’ll find that on their website. I am Cy Kellett, your host, delighted to have been with you. Thank you so much for joining us. And hey, if you’re in quarantine right now, perfect time to give us five stars wherever you get your podcasts. And maybe … Is this manipulative, Father?

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
No, no, no, no, no, no. You’re going to offer your spiritual communions for all the people that do that.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
And by the way, you may offer them to the souls in purgatory too. I forgot to mentioned that. Okay.

Cy Kellett:
Oh.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
They desire more than anyone else.

Cy Kellett:
Well, praise God. Thank you, Father.

Fr. Hugh Barbour:
Okay.

Cy Kellett:
All right. We’ll see you next time right here, God willing, on Catholic Answers Focus.

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