Communion and the Coronavirus-COVID 19 Pandemic.
Recently, against the background of the Novel Coronavirus, COVID19, I posted (in the Diocesan WhatsApp group) some thoughts in response to the concerns articulated by sections of the Church’s membership, arising out of the Archbishop Gregory’s Pastoral letter which called the clergy to administer communion in one kind only, i.e. under the species of bread. Some have asked for a further explanation, which I will seek to give, via this medium.
Receiving communion in One Kind- the host.
Many of us are aware that it was or is the norm for the Roman Catholic laity to receive communion in one kind under the species of bread. Although this practice became popular in the Middle Ages, the post-Vatican II reintroduction of clergy and laity receiving in both kinds (bread and wine) once again became the norm.
While the New Testament church received in both kinds (read first Corinthians 11:23-26), historical documents indicate that there developed a custom of communicating under the species of bread only, when administering communion to the sick. There was also the practice of persons taking home only the consecrated bread after the Sunday celebration to communicate during the week. Naturally, it would be easier to journey with the consecrated bread than with the consecrated wine.
The Roman Church’s pastoral reasons for communicating under the species of bread only are noted in the Roman Catholic Catechism of 1566 i.e. Catechism of Trent – The Sacrament of the Eucharist. These include . . . easy distribution of the Sacrament, especially in large congregations and protecting the consecrated wine from being profaned. The concern here is expressed as to the spillage of the consecrated wine. If the consecrated bread drops to the ground it can easily be recovered; it is not the same with the consecrated wine. Some of the reasons given in the Catechism may be questionable, they give pause for dialogue, setting the precedence for a pastoral response.
The current situation in our world and country, resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, demands a pastoral response as called for in the Archbishop’s letter. In the present situation, the Church must exercise responsible care, particularly towards the most vulnerable among – the elderly and those with pre-existent health issues. The actions being recommended, while not predicated on the measure of our faith, are nevertheless anchored to the Christian virtue of love of neighbour. Wisdom and charity are gifts of the Spirit, as is faith; they must play an integral role therefore, in shaping our attitudes and responses at all times, including times of crisis.
It is important to note then that the Anglican Church has always administered communion in both kinds except where the situation demands otherwise – where because of illness, the communicant is able to receive only in one kind. It must also be noted that it is the custom to receive only under the species of bread at the Good Friday Liturgy and that generally, it is not recommended that large quantities of consecrated wine be reserved.
In the current Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, paragraph 1390, we have the following teaching indicating that Christ is present under each of the species and that the ideal is to receive communion under both species of bread and wine.
Since Christ is sacramentally present under each of the species, communion under the species of bread alone makes it possible to receive all the fruit of Eucharistic grace.[ the bold is my emphasis] For pastoral reasons this manner of receiving communion has been legitimately established as the most common form in the Latin rite. But “the sign of communion is more complete when given under both kinds, since in that form the sign of the Eucharistic meal appears more clearly.” This is the usual form of receiving communion in the Eastern rites. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1992)
Receiving Communion under one kind then, while still not the ideal, conveys God’s grace; “the fruit of Eucharistic grace”, is no less available nor reduced by not receiving the other. This is also in keeping with the general Anglican position.
Sacraments a means of God’s grace.
The bread and wine in the Eucharist are means of grace. In the Catechism (CPWI Book of Common Prayer Pages 389-414) we are taught that . . . A Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace (page 409: 108). In the sacramental rite our words, our prayers, which expresses the community’s intention are also part of the outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace. It is interesting that in John’s Gospel the miracles and events in the life of Jesus are referred to as signs. Signs are not an end in themselves, they point to something or somewhere, in John’s case, to spiritual realities. We see examples of this point in the discussions Jesus had with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman and the man born blind. Nicodemus failed to understand what Jesus was saying; so, Jesus asked him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”
As creatures of matter, we naturally relate to things we can see and touch and communicate with by means of the physical. God communicates to us through matter viz, through the language and signs we understand. In the Incarnation God took on flesh (matter) in Jesus Christ- The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John1:14). God, however, is not limited to nor subject to matter. God transcends time and space. God is the Eternal One; whose grace is communicated through matter – the common things of life, water, bread, wine, oil and human beings.
The Sacraments communicate God’s grace to us then, in ways we can identify. Water symbolizes life, new life and cleansing. Bread and wine the food and drink necessary for our physical sustenance and growth. The sacraments, therefore, are for our benefit, not God’s. God in Christ has covenanted to be present to us in the Eucharist, but God is by no means limited thereto. Because we were created for fellowship with God, the Sacraments were instituted, in Christ, towards that objective.
Among the many things I learnt from the late Bishop Neville deSouza’s teaching is that salvation is ultimately union with God. This is made clear when we examine the two great sacraments of the Gospels i.e. Baptism and Eucharist. In Baptism we are made members of Christ and by feeding on Christ’s ‘Body and Blood’ in the Eucharist we are renewed and facilitated towards growing in that union. The good news is “God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”. (John 3:16) God desires fellowship with us and that we share in eternal life, which is in all intents and purposes union with God. Every Christian, therefore, should desire more than anything else, comm-union, with God. This leads me to the subject of Spiritual Communion.
Spiritual Communion is a desire for union with Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Since we cannot receive Christ sacramentally, we receive him spiritually. This is a rich tradition in the Church that goes back several centuries and embraced by many of the (modern)saints. It is practiced in preparation for the Holy Eucharist and by individuals who cannot be present at the service. I recall one of the modern saints of the church telling me, when I was a young man at the Cathedral Church, how she would take her Prayer Book and follow the service on a Sunday morning. When the bells were rung at the consecration of the bread and wine (these are the huge bells in the Cathedral tower that can be heard for miles around), she would approximate the time for the distribution and receive the sacrament spiritually.
During this time, therefore, when public gatherings are prohibited, it can be disheartening for those who have never had to go without the Blessed Sacrament. Spiritual Communion can become a way of making our communion with Christ and experiencing the peace and tranquillity that he offers. Jesus said,
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14:27)
Spiritual Communion is possible because of God’s love. God desires union with us. In the words of St. Augustine, [God is] “more intimate to me than I am to myself”, (Confessions). Spiritual Communion is something we can practice every day and not only on Sundays or those times when the community usually gathers for the Eucharist. Most spiritual directors will recommend four basic steps to follow when making a Spiritual Communion.
Using the Prayer Book as a guide especially for those who may be engaging in it for the first time and on the Lord’s Day, I recommend the following five steps referred to by Fr. Michael Hurley, O.P. a Dominican Friar with modifications to suit our context.
- Create the space where you are most amiable to receive the Lord Jesus. This should be a quiet space where you are free from distractions and can settle your heart and mind to receive.
- Pray the Collect for Purity, Kyries and the Collect for the day.
- Read through and spend some time meditating on the lessons.
- You may say the Creed, and spend some time in prayer for the church, world, local community, those suffering
- You may make your confession, and then pray the Lord’s Prayer.
- Then in the stillness and quietness make an act of faith. Ask the Lord Jesus to help you to entrust yourself to Him.
- The Prayer of Humble Access “We do not presume . . .” (CPWI page 146) would be helpful as you prepare to receive the Lord Jesus.
- Make an act of love. This is to offer yourself and your all to God, asking God to help you to be his servant and presence to others,
- Then invite the Lord to open the door of your heart in an intentional way. The following prayer, prayed by many before, may be helpful. A similar pray to this can also be prayed.
My Jesus I believe that You are present in the Blessed Sacrament. I love You above all things and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot now receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You have already there and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.
- Then have a moment of thanksgiving. Say thank you. You may find one of the three Post Communion Prayers (CPWI page 147-148) helpful at this stage.
I sincerely hope that the information I have shared will be helpful or light a spark within you, motivating you towards further reading/ investigation into the subjects raised therein. For easy access, information is available via the internet. You may wish to explore them with a spiritual director or a priest who could accompany you, as you make your journey through this process. Finally, let me encourage you also to explore the prayer lives of the early church fathers and mothers. A deeper understanding of their methods and practices could also be helpful.
Bishop Leon P. Golding.