Some Thoughts on Spiritual Communion

In a recent PrayTell post, a passing criticism was made of St. Alphonsus Liguori’s “Act of Spiritual Communion” which, in many places, is being prayed at the time of communion during livestreamed Masses. While hardly the main point of the original post, it did touch off some discussion in the comments, which led me to ponder this notion of “spiritual communion.”

The prayer under discussion goes as follows:

My Jesus,
I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament.
I love You above all things,
and I desire to receive You into my soul.
Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally,
come at least spiritually into my heart.
I embrace You as if You were already there
and unite myself wholly to You.
Never permit me to be separated from You.

In general, “spiritual communion” is the eucharistic analogue to “baptism of desire.” That is to say, in both cases the Church teaches that one who desires the sacrament but who for some reason cannot share in the sacramental sign, can still receive the ultimate effect of the sacrament. At least in the case of baptism, this view is present in the early centuries, first with regard to catechumens who were martyred and later with regard to those who died of natural causes.

In the scholastic era, both spiritual communion and baptism of desire are discussed in terms of the threefold distinction of sacramentum tantum (sacramental sign), res et sacramentum (immediate effect), and res tantum (ultimate effect). Because God is gracious, one can receive the ultimate effect without receiving either the sacramental sign or the immediate effect. So, in the case of Baptism one can receive the grace of justification (res tantum) without being washed in the name of the Trinity (sacramentum tantum) or receiving baptismal character (res et sacramentum); in the case of the Eucharist one can be united with Christ in love (res tantum) without consuming the eucharistic elements (sacramentum tantum) or Christ being present sacramentally (res et sacramentum). Thomas Aquinas used these distinctions also to account for how Christians can receive Christ sacramentally–consuming not only the sacramental signs but also Christ really present–and still fail to receive the ultimate effect of the sacrament, and so “eat and drink judgement against themselves” (1 Cor. 11:29).

I realize that scholastic distinctions are not everybody’s cup of tea, but these at least help show that a prayer like St. Alphonsus’s Act of Spiritual Communion is not, despite some of its phraseology, simply a bit of sentimental piety, but is rather undergirded by a robust theological account of God’s gracious agency and the role of human desire in the sacraments. This is not to say that St. Alphonsus’s prayer is a perfect expression of our understanding of the Eucharist. At the very least, it does not say everything that might be said.

Fr. Anthony noted in the comments of the earlier post: “[Real Presence is] always a Presence FOR something, it always points to and leads to something bigger…That bigger thing is that, in Christ, we are united to each other, we become the Body of Christ, we are united to all of Creation which God wishes to reconcile to himself.” To put his point in scholastic language, it might be the case that St. Alphonsus’s prayer expresses the res tantum too narrowly. The unity with Christ that is the ultimate effect of the sacrament is union with the totus Christus, the whole Christ, both head and members. It is not merely my personal union with Jesus, though it is indeed that, but it is also an ecclesial union in which, as Henri de Lubac put it, the Eucharist makes the Church. It is likewise an eschatological union, by which we are joined to the future fullness of God’s reign and share in the banquet of the Lamb along with all of redeemed creation.

I am confident that St. Alphonsus’ believed these things about the Eucharist. But they remain at best implicit in his Act of Spiritual Communion. Were we to make them explicit, it might run something like this:

My Jesus,
I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament.
I love You above all things,
and I desire to receive You into my soul,
to be in communion with Your body, the Church,
and to feast at the Lamb’s sacred banquet in the new creation.
Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally,
come at least spiritually into my heart.
I embrace You as if You were already there
and unite myself wholly to You.
Never permit me to be separated from You,
build up the bonds of charity among your people,
and bring us all to the feast of heaven.

Of course, not every prayer has to say every possible thing. And since the Eucharistic liturgy itself is replete with ecclesial and eschatological language, I don’t think any great harm is done by using St. Alphonsus’s prayer as written. Indeed, I rather think that it could likely do great good for those who feel sorely deprived of sacramental communion.

6 comments

  1. Thank you so much Deacon Fritz! I particularly appreciate the inclusion of the eschatological frame that is the necessary liturgical one.

    1. This is a useful and helpful post for me personally. It rings true for me. That said, I do appreciate Fr Anthony’s perspective. It reminds me of Berdyaev’s famous line that bread for myself is a material question but bread for my neighbour is a spiritual question.

      And I do think in traditional Catholic piety the greater purpose of our mission and life is sometimes lost in the interior and not integrated very well . But I tend to like more contemplative styled Divine Liturgies and by temperament I just prefer this style even though in life I am more active

      But somehow both have to be present. I don’t have all the answers but recently have reverted back to Byzantine Catholic Liturgy and spirituality as that tends to speak to me more. As I grow and mature, I appreciate the diversity of liturgy in the Church and maybe this is how it should be.

      V II was basically correct that it isn’t desirable that there be a one size fits all model,

  2. I wonder if it’s worth noting that St Alphonsus did not in fact say “I desire to receive You into my soul” but “I desire Thee in my soul” (ti desidero nell’anima mia). It could be that the prayer has been hijacked at some point to make it speak more about the actual reception of Communion.

    In a similar vein, the original does not say “Since I cannot at this moment receive you sacramentally” but “Since now [ora] I cannot receive thee…”.

    In other words, the original thrust of the prayer may be a more general desire for spiritual communion with the Lord, rather than a substitute for the physical act of receiving at this particular moment in time (i.e the distribution of Communion at Mass).

  3. Thanks, Fritz. I like your revised version, except for one phrase: “as if you were already there.” This is not in the original Italian which has “Come gia venuto”, which means “As already having come.” There is no “as if.” Jesus is already with us, as he promised he would be all days.
    Thanks, Paul, too, for your corrections of the Italian.
    The closing of the prayer has: “non permettere che mi abbia mai a separare da te.” “Separare” is not passive, “be separated”, but active, so the sense is rather: “Never ever permit that I ever separate from you.” The double negative in Italian: “non … mai” does not become a positive, but reinforces the negative.
    There are slight word variations in the Italian versions, but of little significance. Here is the full prayer:
    Gesù mio,
    credo che sei realmente presente nel Santissimo Sacramento.
    Ti amo sopra ogni cosa
    e ti desidero nell’ anima mia.
    Poiché ora non posso riceverti
    sacramentalmente,
    vieni almeno spiritualmente nel mio cuore.
    Come già venuto, io ti abbraccio
    e tutto mi unisco a te,
    non permettere che mi abbia mai a separare da te.

  4. A prayer of spiritual communion to which Pope Francis this morning (Tuesday 28 April) invited those who are unable to receive Communion.

    Ai tuoi piedi, o mio Gesù,
    mi prostro e ti offro il pentimento del mio cuore contrito
    che si abissa nel suo nulla e nella tua santa presenza.
    Ti adoro nel Sacramento del tuo amore, l’ineffabile Eucaristia.
    Desidero riceverti nella povera dimora che ti offre il mio cuore.

    In attesa della felicità della comunione sacramentale,
    voglio possederti in spirito.
    Vieni a me, o mio Gesù, che io vengo a te.
    Possa il tuo amore infiammare tutto il mio essere per la vita e per la morte.
    Credo in te, spero in te, ti amo.

    My Jesus, at your feet
    I prostrate myself, and I offer you the repentance of my contrite heart
    which goes deep in its own nothingness and in your holy presence.
    I adore you in the Sacrament of your love, the Eucharist which is beyond all words.
    I desire to receive you in the poor dwelling which my heart offers you.

    In anticipation of the happiness of sacramental communion,
    I long to possess you in spirit.
    Come to me, my Jesus, so that I may come to you.
    Let your love inflame the whole of my being in life and in death.
    I believe in you, I hope in you, I love you.

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