A note on the theology of Spiritual Communion

Source: District of Asia

The pious practice of Spiritual Communion is indeed very rich in doctrine. It is better to practice Spiritual Communion than to know it. And yet it is good to know also.  The best of all is perhaps to have both the practice and the knowledge, the piety and the doctrine. The one without the other is perilous to our spiritual life. The following is an attempt to give small note on the theology of Spiritual Communion.

Teaching of the Magisterium:

“Now as to the use of this Holy Sacrament, our Fathers have rightly and wisely distinguished three ways of receiving it. For they have taught that some receive it 1) sacramentally only, to wit sinners: 2) others spiritually only, those to wit who eating in desire that heavenly bread which is set before them, are, by a lively faith which worketh by charity, made sensible of the fruit and usefulness thereof: whereas 3) the third is receive it both sacramentally and spiritually, and these are they who so prove and prepare themselves beforehand, as to approach to this divine table clothed with the wedding garment”. (Trent, Session 13, Chapter 8)

"She (the Church) wishes in the first place that Christians —especially when they cannot receive (actual) Holy Communion—should do so at least by desire”. (Mediator Dei, #52, 1947)  

Definition and Distinction:

Spiritual Communion is defined as a pious desire to receive the Holy Eucharist, at a time when we cannot actually receive it. This act can be made only under the following conditions: 

  1. the person must be baptized, since baptism is the door to the sacraments;
  2. the person must be old enough to make a formal will-act, since a free act of faith and love are absolutely required.
  3. the object of this deliberate desire must be the Holy Eucharist; (Since the Sacraments are propter homines, an angel could not make a Spiritual Communion) 
  4. the person must be in the state of grace, since this is a necessary condition for Holy Communion, and also because this desire is essentially an act of love of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

Also, it is at least a prayer of petition for the effects of Sacramental Communion which are desired even though the Sacrament cannot be received. Authors agree that the effects produced in the soul by a Spiritual Communion are the same as those provided by a reception of the Sacrament. The only difference, the rest being equal, consists in the amount of grace produced and the manner in which these graces are produced. Almost all authors maintain that grace is effected exclusively ex opera operantis – in no wise ex opera operato.  The reason they give is that since the Sacrament itself does not exist (is not received), it cannot exert any effective instrumental causality on the soul. The entire effects, therefore, would be due to the subjective disposition of the individual who entertains this good desire.

If these are the necessary conditions for a Spiritual Communion in the strict sense of the word, what reasons can we give for the efficacy of such an act? First of all, let us see on what theological principles Spiritual Communion is based. There seem to be two:

  • First principle: Catholic faith in the Real Presence assures us that Holy Communion is a powerful source of spiritual life, of loving union with Christ and our fellow-communicants. It is a natural conclusion therefore to desire to receive such benefits; to recognize that this bread is meant to nourish us spiritually is to will to bolster our strength by means of this food from heaven.

  • Second principle: This principle is less evident perhaps, but it seems to be solidly founded on the analogy of faith.  It is this: under certain circumstances, when it is impossible to receive a Sacrament, the desire to receive it can supply the same graces.

An important distinction, it would seem, has to be made between a Spiritual Communion in the strict sense and a Spiritual Communion (in a wide sense) that consists of any act of love of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, to which is added some desire to receive Him in Holy Communion. There seems to be a great difference between a desire for Communion made by a man who cannot actually receive the Sacrament, and a desire made by someone who has actually received Holy Communion that day; in other words when a desire for Holy Communion is a real substitute for actual reception, the case is different from a merely devotional  desire which is over and above the reception of Holy Communion. As a matter of fact, a person is not allowed to receive more than once a day. And this law of the Church must be based on the nature of this supersubstantial bread.

We recall the theological principle that a desire for a Sacrament can substitute for it when the Sacrament itself cannot be received. Now, when we speak of receiving Holy Communion, we understand one Communion per day. And so, it seems that a Spiritual Communion in the strict sense can occur only when it has to substitute for the manducatio realis. In other cases, it is an ordinary act of private devotion and it is clear that the Spiritual Communion is a real substitute for the Sacrament. It is clear then that the efficacy is merely ex opera operantis. When, on the contrary, the Spiritual Communion is a real substitute for the Sacrament, it would seem then that the proper res sacramenti is received in desire and that therefore the Sacrament itself causes grace – in other words it produces grace not merely ex opera operantis.

From this it is evident then that one must prepare for this ‘Spiritual Communion’ at one particular, fitting time and place. He could fast for an hour at least and devote that time that would be needed for a Mass.  He must spend sufficient time for thanksgiving.  In the case of Spiritual Communion in the wide sense, he could be united with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament through acts of faith, hope, and charity, as a preparation for the future Communion or as a thanksgiving for the ‘Communion’ received.  Without deviating from the merit of a fervent Spiritual Communion, we must remember that this type of Communion is only a substitute for actual reception of the Sacrament. We must have the fervent desire when the impossibility is removed to go to the communion rail and to receive Our Lord in Blessed Sacrament.