Coronavirus revives the old, ushers in the new in Catholic practice

With the coronavirus forcing church closures and limiting access to sacraments, the Catholic Church has dusted off some old practices that perhaps had fallen into disuse, while also availing itself of new means of ensuring faithful can access the essentials.

With increasing numbers of people confined at home with no access to Mass or confession, pastors everywhere, Pope Francis included, have turned to some little-known, or at least little-used, concepts and practices, including “spiritual communion,” indulgences and general absolution.

There’s also, perhaps, a fresh impetus to revisit the idea of “baptism by desire.”

All are practices the Church ordinarily has little reason to emphasize, but which increasingly are coming in handy as the coronavirus continues to spread.

From the moment public events were cancelled and Masses suspended in China and Hong Kong, spiritual communion was something the bishops and priests stressed heavily in place of being able to attend Mass physically.

An ancient practice described by St. Thomas Aquinas as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Holy Sacrament and a loving embrace as though we had already received Him,” spiritual communion is a way for people to access the grace of the Eucharist if they are unable to physically receive it.

Traditionally, Catholics are required to attend Sunday Mass, while spiritual communion has been encouraged only in certain cases, including parishioners who attend a parish without a priest; non-Catholic Christians who can’t receive the Catholic Eucharist; home-bound persons due to illness or disability; and divorced and remarried Catholics without an annulment, who were barred from the Eucharist until Pope Francis in 2016 opened a cautious door in his document Amoris Laetitia.

Spiritual communion was also emphasized by St. John Paul II in his last encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, and Pope Francis has recently urged quarantined viewers tuning into his daily Masses to make an act of spiritual communion.

Though he doesn’t do it every time, the pope has frequently recited aloud a prayer for those watching at home that says, “My Jesus, I believe you are truly present in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar.

I love you above all things, and I desire you in my soul. Because right now I cannot receive you sacramentally, at least come spiritually into my heart. As you have already come, I embrace you and unite myself to you. Don’t not allow that I am ever separated from you.” Continue reading

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