Confusing Communion Eucharist Catholic , Christian, Sacramental S

Posted on May 6, 2020


Online Communion Can Still Be Sacramental

Christians Questions

Can ministers bless the Lord’s Table over Zoom? The worldwide pandemic provides all-new context for this theologically untested—and for some unthinkable—question. It may be time to consider what we mean by “presence.”

National guidelines now limit gatherings to 10 people. Churches have transitioned to online services and Zoom meetings. The sermon livestream is no problem—we’re comfortable with the Word transferring digitally. A recent study from the Pew Research Center easily pulled together 50,000 online sermons from Pentecostal to Catholic. Eighty-three percent of American protestant pastors agree that viewing a livestream is an acceptable option for the sick.

The controversy is with the latter half of Word and Table. “This is my body”—Christ’s words make our faith explicitly physical. But COVID-19 has transformed our physical bodies and gatherings from blessed unity to social-distanced partitioning. Hugs and hands convey fear instead of love. The bread and the cup elicit worry of viral transmission.

With physical gatherings canceled, congregations with quarterly Communion may slide the schedule a bit. But many evangelical Lutherans, Anglicans, and Presbyterians celebrate with bread and wine weekly. The shared Table is ordered and integral to worship. What now? Do you have to be present to partake of the presence?

Some “low church” nondenominational churches like Saddleback have long offered instructions to follow along with your own grape juice and livestream. Never mind 1990s HTML wonders like eHolyCom. While the United Methodist Church wrote exploratory papers in 2013, most sacramental denominations have relegated online Holy Communion to an exotic theological issue—akin to “Can extraterrestrials be saved?” (or to virtual cathedrals in the immersive Second Life video game). John Dyer offers a recent and extensive John Dyer offers a recent and extensive survey.

For many, online Communion is untenable. The Westminster Confession 27.4 forbids it. A conservative reformed professor told me, “The situation you describe is essentially private Communion.”

Today’s situation forces a reconsideration. COVID-19 may be the spark, but the kindling fueling the fire burning isn’t theological discourse. It’s in that last “I love you” text message you sent your spouse. The white-on-blue bubble carries an instantaneous reality, a moment of intimacy and presence that moves our heart and mind more than any adjacent physical stranger in that coffee shop (or perhaps that pew).

The means of digital communication have become ordinary and invisible to our most meaningful relationships. We laugh and cry and express intimacy and frustration with a cross-cut of iMessage and emojis, FaceTime and Instagram stories. We challenge our best friend on workout apps and ask private medical questions via telehealth.

The essential word is presence—along with the dramatic and sustained cultural shift in our understanding of it. A daily digital culture has shaped our interactions to the point that human presence is not synonymous to physicality.

Communications scholars have long understood this. It’s our words, yes, but also the verified identity of our interlocutor—that photo and number so you “know it’s them.” It’s real-time interactive signals like those three dots that appear when your relation is typing a response. It’s both low-resolution icons like a thumbs up and high-resolution facial expressions when we switch to video—those incredibly important nonverbal eyebrow lifts!

This new normal has changed us. New technologies that first appear as toys (we play with them) soon turn into tools (we use them) and then become our technological terroir—that assumed background environment wherein something like “texting” becomes the conversation (or argument!). These “environmental” technologies shift the focus from the tech back to the substance of human presence. Being present doesn’t require being in person.


Spiritual Communion

Those watching Mass online are encouraged to make a spiritual communion since they cannot physically receive holy Communion. For more information and for a spiritual communion prayer, click here.

We know that each of the Catholic sacraments produces its own special effect or effects. If the purpose of all sacraments were simply to give a single kind of grace, one sacrament would be enough; there would have been no need for our Lord Jesus to have instituted seven.

The sacrament of the Holy Eucharist was instituted as a food, a spiritual food.

That is why the outward sign of this sacrament—the appearances of bread and wine—is a sign of nourishment, just as in Baptism the outward sign is water, a sign of cleansing.

The action by which we as individuals receive the Holy Eucharist is an act of eating. We swallow the appearances of bread and wine under which Jesus is present. This is the action which we call Holy Communion.

As the Catechism’s section on Holy Communion and the Eucharist says:

The Lord addresses an invitation to us, urging us to receive him in the sacrament of the Eucharist: “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.” [Jn 6:53] (_Catechism_, 1384)

Union with the Lord

Since the Holy Eucharist is a spiritual food, it does for the soul what physical food does for the body.

When we eat physical food, it becomes united to us—it is changed into our own substance and becomes a part of us.

In Holy Communion something analogous happens to us spiritually, but with a great difference: in this case it is the individual who is united to the Food, not the Food to the individual. The lesser is united to the Greater.

We become one with Christ.

This sacramental union of ourselves with Jesus is more than the mere physical union between our body and the Sacred Host which we have swallowed. More importantly, it is a mystical and spiritual union of the soul with Jesus. This is produced in the soul by our physical contact with the sacred Body of Jesus.

This marvelous blending of the soul with Jesus is a very special kind of union. Obviously we do not become “part of God.” It is much more than the “ordinary” union with God which the Holy Spirit establishes in us by sanctifying grace. Yet it is less than the ultimate and most intimate union with God which will be ours in the beatific vision in heaven.

This union is simply called Communion.

The Mystical Body

Being united with Christ in this close and personal union, we are necessarily united also with all others who are “in” Christ—all others who are members of His Mystical Body.

Union with Christ in Holy Communion is the bond of charity which makes us one with our neighbor.

When we grow in love for God through our union with Jesus, we also necessarily grow in love for our fellow man. If we have the right dispositions, our Holy Communions should produce fruits in ourselves that we notice over time: a lessening of racial and national prejudices, of neighborhood resentments; an increase in neighborliness, in compassion, in patience and forbearance towards others.

The very sign of the sacrament symbolizes our total oneness in Christ:

  • Many grains of wheat have been compounded together to make the one bread which has become the Body of Christ.
  • Many grapes have been crushed together in the press to make the contents of the one chalice which has become the Blood of Christ.

We are many in One—and that One is Christ.

“And the bread that we break,” says St. Paul, “is it not the partaking of the body of the Lord? Because the bread is one, we though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17).

Communion’s sacramental grace

It is characteristic of every sacrament either to give or to increase sanctifying grace.

Each of the other sacraments however has a specific purpose of its own in addition to the bestowal of sanctifying grace:

  • Baptism cleanses from original sin
  • Penance forgives mortal sin
  • Confirmation strengthens faith
  • Matrimony sanctifies marriage…

…and so on.

But in the Holy Eucharist we have the one sacrament whose principal purpose is to increase sanctifying grace, repeatedly and often, through personal union with the Giver of grace Himself.

That is why the Holy Eucharist is preeminently the sacrament of spiritual growth, of increase in spiritual stature and strength.

A state of grace is required

That also is why the soul already must be in the state of sanctifying grace when we receive Holy Communion—in other words, free from mortal sin.

Physical food cannot benefit a dead body, and the Holy Eucharist cannot benefit a dead soul.

Indeed, a person who knowingly would receive Holy Communion while in the state of mortal sin, would add a new dimension of guilt to his already sinful state: he would commit the grave sin of sacrilege. In the very act of outwardly offering himself to Jesus for the union-in-love which is the essence of Holy Communion, he would be opposing Jesus by that rejection of God which is inherent in all mortal sin.

A grace that protects

However, the reception of the Holy Eucharist will forgive venial sin—presuming of course that the communicant has sorrow for his venial sins.

Here again it is love that does the work. What we might call the “charge” of love which Jesus unleashes upon the soul in this moment of personal union, is a purifying force; it purges the soul from all lesser infidelities. Whatever accumulation of venial sin may encumber the soul, it is dissolved and annihilated (if repented) as Christ’s love makes contact with the soul.

Another effect of Holy Communion is to preserve the soul from spiritual death, to preserve the soul from mortal sin.

The strength of our inclination to sin (called concupiscence) is also reduced each time we receive the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

A rich banquet of the Lord

Holy Communion unites us with Christ and intensifies our love for God and for neighbor.

It increases sanctifying grace. It remits venial sin, lessens concupiscence, and thus preserves us from mortal sin.

Finally, as good food should, it readies us for work. A frequent communicant who receives worthily and fruitfully cannot possibly remain wrapped up in himself. As love for Christ more and more fills his horizon, he feels the urge to do things for Christ and with Christ. Powered by the graces of Holy Communion, he becomes an apostolic Christian.

Holy Communion is indeed the Bread of Life, a banquet overflowing with grace and richness:

Posted in: Uncategorized