By James R. Wood
Pastors and theologians are searching for options for sacramental celebration while under social distancing regulations. Some proposals, such as “virtual Communion,” further perpetuate the individualistic tendencies that pervade American Christianity by obscuring the ecclesial contours of the sacrament. The Eucharist is intended to be celebrated in the gathering of the Church and it symbolizes and effects ecclesial unity. There is an intrinsic relation between the Eucharist and the Church; they stand as cause and effect of one another. This was the great insight of Henri de Lubac, who helped retrieve a eucharistic ecclesiology.
In some contrast to virtual Communion, many, especially here at Covenant, have proposed a recovery of “spiritual Communion.” Yet, isn’t this also individualistic? Doesn’t it sidestep the insights of eucharistic ecclesiology?
That would be a strange charge to level at popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI — both of whom were significantly influenced by de Lubac’s eucharistic ecclesiology and both of whom endorse the practice of spiritual Communion. John Paul II devoted an important encyclical to the relation between the Eucharist and the Church. It is precisely in this context that he argues that the practice of spiritual Communion developed to “cultivate in our hearts a constant desire for the sacrament of the Eucharist,” and has a particular relevance when one is unable to attend Mass (no. 34).
Benedict XVI expands the teaching of his predecessor, that “full participation in the Eucharist takes place when the faithful approach the altar in person to receive Communion.” Spiritual Communion, though, is recommended “in cases when it is not possible to receive sacramental Communion.” The reason he gives for recommending this practice in such circumstances is that “participation at Mass remains necessary, important, meaningful and fruitful” (no. 55).
So spiritual Communion is a commendable but less-than-ideal participation in the Eucharist. It can serve to elicit deeper desire for the gathered celebration of the Eucharist, maintaining the difference between itself and the latter, thus intensifying a longing for fullness even as it provides a partial approximation.
We can better understand spiritual Communion by considering its historical and theological foundations. A key element undergirding it is the tradition of sacraments “by desire,” given expression in the teachings of Augustine, medieval Scholastics, and especially Thomas Aquinas. According to Thomas, those who lack access to the rites of Baptism or Eucharist can still receive the spiritual fruit of these sacraments if the desire for the sacramental reality is operative. Thomas further insists this does not render receiving the sacraments superfluous. Spiritual Communion is an emergency provision that grants a partial share in the fruits of the Eucharist. When possible, sacramental reception should be sought; when impossible, such reception should still be desired and pursued as quickly as circumstances allow.
The Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx helps us to see more clearly the ecclesial dimension of sacraments by desire. He argues that the “fundamental meaning” of each sacrament is “living contact with the visible Church,” which is the visible manifestation of God’s grace to humanity. In circumstances that preclude the sort of visible encounter with the church that the sacraments ordinarily involve, a sacrament of desire is an initial stage of longing to receive the sacrament in fullness; and the actual reception of the sacrament at a later time is a completion of that longing. Spiritual Communion is a “manifestation of an explicit eucharistic desire” which implicitly looks forward to fullness of actual reception. It is not a permanent substitution but a provisional stop-gap that must be transcended and fulfilled in sacramental eating within the physical gathering when possible.
So spiritual communion is an imperfect but real participation in the Eucharist, looking forward to fullness. In a certain sense this dynamic is already true of any eucharistic celebration — even in “normal” circumstances. Any gathering of the Church is but a provisional anticipation of the shared meal with the whole fellowship of God’s people in the new heavens and new earth (this is not even to mention the lamentable fact of our divided tables in a fragmented Church). And yet, our gatherings really do share in that future feast. Hence, just as every Eucharist anticipates and elicits longing for the wedding supper of the Lamb, so spiritual Communion anticipates and elicits desire for fuller sacramental Communion within the ecclesial gathering.
To best maintain the intrinsic relation between the Eucharist and the Church, I propose that spiritual Communion be connected to an in-person service where the minister consecrates and distributes the physical elements to a people gathered, who represent the whole church community, while those absent participate through a guided prayer which is prayed simultaneously with the celebration.
De Lubac’s eucharistic ecclesiology makes room for such an idea. While highlighting the communal effect of the sacrament, he also links this closely to the idea of sacrifice and corresponding notions of representation. The Eucharist, which continually constitutes the Church — as “The Heart of the Church” — is a sacrifice. The community offers the sacrifice of itself in Christ. The priest both speaks in the name of the whole community and also consecrates the sacrifice as a sacramental representative of Christ. The priest’s ordination is received for the purpose of consecrating the eucharistic sacrifice, which is performed for the sake of everyone. This sacrifice offered to God by the Body of Christ — who unites its sacrifice with the sacrifice of Christ — is accepted by God who realizes the church in the Eucharist.
In a section titled, “The Sacrifice of Unity,” de Lubac adds a particularly relevant insight: At the altar is performed the sacrifice of the whole Church — pastor and people, those present and “absent.” While he most certainly does not have in mind the practice of spiritual Communion proposed here, his theology of eucharistic sacrifice can link up with the tradition of Eucharist of desire to underwrite a form of spiritual Communion during social distancing. Physical Communion can still take place by a small representative gathering in the presence of the minister; spiritual Communion can be practiced by those who are forced to remain absent.
This is not a retreat into individualism. Instead, it simply serves as a provisional means of participating in the Eucharist which makes the Church in an extraordinary time when the Church is limited in its ability to gather.
The Eucharist makes the Church; the gathered community makes the Eucharist; those absent are represented by that gathering and participate through spiritual Communion.
The Rev. James R. Wood is a doctoral student at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto and a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America. His writings focus on political theology and ecclesiology and have appeared in the Journal of Reformed Theology, Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, Pro Ecclesia: A Journal of Catholic and Evangelical Theology, and at Mere Orthodoxy (online).