GUEST COLUMN
How “Remarried” Catholics Can Validly Receive Communion

October 2017By Ines Angeli Murzaku

Ines Angeli Murzaku is Professor of Church History at Seton Hall University in New Jersey (http://academic.shu.edu/orientalia/). Her research has been published in multiple articles and seven books, and she is currently writing a book entitled Mother Teresa: The Saint of the Peripheries Who Became Catholicism’s Center Piece (Paulist Press, 2018). Dr. Murzaku is a regular contributor to media outlets on religious matters, including the Associated Press, CNN, National Catholic Register, Voice of America, Relevant Radio, TheCatholicThing.org, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, CruxNow.com, The Record, Stream.org, Radio Tirana, Vatican Radio, and EWTN.

Traditional Albanian weddings are epic. The celebrations last for several days. The custom is to celebrate two wedding parties. Saturday is the bride’s wedding dinner party; all her friends and relatives gather, and the groom’s family arrives around midnight. Sunday night is the groom’s wedding dinner party, with the bride’s family arriving around midnight. I was married at the height of the communist persecution of religious believers, in the only truly atheist country in the world. Whereas churches and religious buildings were preserved in other communist-bloc countries, in my native Albania, religious persecution and the violation of human rights were extreme. Churches, mosques, and tekkes of the Bektashi-Muslim brotherhoods were either destroyed or repurposed.

This was the case of the restaurant where my husband and I celebrated the groom’s wedding party. The restaurant was once St. Procopius Orthodox Church in Albania’s capital city of Tirana. The restaurant’s kitchen stood right over the old altar of the church. My husband’s grandmother, a devout Byzantine Orthodox who managed to preserve her faith, kept an improvised iconostasis inside an old cabinet until the end of her life. She was persistent in saying mental prayer (after all, the communists could not control mental prayer) and making spiritual communion with the Lord several times a day. For our wedding, she invited me and my husband to the kitchen/altar to bless our union, which, due to political circumstances, could not be a sacramental-canonical marriage celebrated in a church. Our marriage was a spiritual marriage. The same was true for the other sacraments I received: baptism (which was a baptism of desire), confirmation (or chrismation), and the eucharist, which came in the form of spiritual communion. The spiritual sacraments — and spiritual communion, in particular — helped keep the faith alive throughout Albania. They provided continuous nourishment during the decades of persecution and saved the faith of a martyred and severely tried people.

What Is Spiritual Communion?

Spiritual communion is an intense personal devotion that individuals use to express their desire to receive Holy Communion when circumstances impede them from receiving the actual sacrament. These circumstances include the inability to attend Mass for medical or age-related reasons, distance, persecution, etc. Yet, despite various impediments, what all those who resort to this devotional have in common is their desire to be united to Jesus Christ. Spiritual communion is an imperfect, incomplete, or lesser sacrament. In the Latin Church, it is classified as a sacramental; the Eastern Church considers everything that is in and of the Church to be a sacrament. Daily Communion was not common in the medieval Church — that is why spiritual communion was practiced and preached by several saints, including Bl. Jane of the Cross (1481-1534) and St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582). The Council of Trent (1545-1563) distinguished three ways of receiving the Eucharist: sacramentally, spiritually, and a combination of both — sacramentally and spiritually at once. Those who receive the sacrament spiritually eat in desire the heavenly bread set before them.

Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Mediator Dei (1947), criticizes those who do not want to have Masses celebrated unless the faithful communicate, or who consider the general communion of all present as the culminating point of Mass. Pius specifically mentions spiritual communion: The Church, he writes, “wishes in the first place that Christians — especially when they cannot easily receive holy communion — should do so at least by desire, so that with renewed faith, reverence, humility and complete trust in the goodness of the divine Redeemer, they may be united to Him in the spirit of the most ardent charity” (no. 117; italics added). Pope St. John Paul II, in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003), also encourages the practice of spiritual communion, which, he says, “has been a wonderful part of Catholic life for centuries and recommended by saints who were masters of the spiritual life.”

Spiritual Communion for Remarried Catholics

Pope Francis, in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (2016), makes the case that divorced Catholics who have entered into new civil unions should be made to feel part of the Church, as they are not excommunicated from the Body of Christ. They are, and remain, part of the ecclesial community. However, the exhortation’s problematic and highly debated footnote 351, which says, “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments,” is unclear. Many have interpreted it as the Pope’s endorsement of actual sacramental Communion for the divorced and remarried who lack an annulment of their first marriage. Can these couples receive spiritual communion? And if spiritual communion is what the Holy Father was alluding to in footnote 351 (and para. 305), can the spiritual sacrament gradually prepare these couples to receive the actual sacrament?

For a person to commune spiritually, certain conditions must be met: He must be baptized, confirmed, mature enough in age and faith to genuinely desire spiritual communion, and, most importantly, be in a state of grace. One cannot receive the sacrament spiritually without spiritually receiving its effects. Therefore, one cannot truly desire spiritual communion without truly desiring its effects. It must be said that spiritual communion is not, and cannot be, the same as actual sacramental Communion. The main difference between the two lies in the amount of sanctifying grace one receives. This, of course, depends on the spiritual disposition of the person who is communicating. However, humanly speaking, no one can discern the amount of sanctifying grace received or measure the disposition of the one who is communicating. The Lord alone judges a person’s spiritual disposition. The sacraments, which the Orthodox Church rightly calls “Holy Mysteries,” and the grace received by them, remain a mystery of the mystical relationship between God and the individual. That said, if a divorced-and-remarried Catholic couple is devout and desires spiritual communion, their disposition for grace in the soul might be far higher than that of the half-hearted, distracted, daily or weekly communicant who receives actual sacramental Communion.

It is safe to say that the spiritual sacraments are special causes of grace. They are not substitutes for the actual sacraments, and, all other things being equal, spiritual sacraments are less effective than the actual ones. Moreover, spiritual communion does not, and should not, entail automatic admission of couples in irregular marital situations to sacramental Communion. But the divorced and remarried, who remain part of the Church yet who are barred from actual sacramental Communion, might, more than others, need the spiritual nourishment that spiritual communion offers. The regular practice of spiritual communion might be part of their discernment, penance, and preparation for full reintegration into the Church. It could be an effective part of the pastoral care the Church offers real people with real problems. Indeed, spiritual communion could be seen as emergency care for the wounded souls that the field hospital — the Church — dispenses gratuitously. It could play a significant role in a couple’s gradual interior conversion that could potentially lead to an exterior conversion, culminating in the eventual surpassing of the impediments to receiving the actual sacrament.

Conclusion

The Holy Spirit is hard at work, and He might surprise us with the fruits He brings forth from divorced and civilly remarried couples. His works cannot be restrained or confined by our limited human perceptions. What St. Teresa of Ávila wrote in The Way of Perfection resonates with the profound effects of spiritual communion: “If we prepare ourselves to receive Him, He never fails to give in many ways which we do not understand. It is like approaching a fire; even though the fire may be a large one, it will not be able to warm you well if you turn away and hide your hands, though you will still get more heat than you would if you were in a place without one. But it is something else if we desire to approach Him. If the soul is disposed (I mean, if it wants to get warm), and if it remains there for a while, it will stay warm for many hours.”

As a Byzantine Catholic who received baptism, confirmation, communion, penance, and matrimony spiritually due to the extraordinary circumstances of persecution in my homeland, I can say that receiving the sacraments spiritually was enormously beneficial. The spiritual graces I received from frequent spiritual communion sustained me, and people like me, during the long decades of persecution. How much grace we received, and if it was enough to save our souls, the Lord will make known at our judgment. The important thing is that spiritual communion was there for us when we needed it most.

The communists could not restrain people from receiving the sacraments spiritually. It was through this devotional that the faith was kept alive in Albania. In the end, this is what matters most. For the divorced and remarried, spiritual communion might be a felix culpa (happy fault) that could end up having surprisingly beneficial consequences.



DOSSIER: Marriage, Divorce, Annulments & the Assaults on Marriage

DOSSIER: Pope Francis





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