With the suspension of public celebration of the sacraments across the country (and indeed, in many parts of the world), most of the faithful have been without the Eucharist and Confession for weeks. This situation, understandably, has been distressing to many. Catholics are taught that the sacraments are the “masterworks of God” (CCC 1116), and that “for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation” (CCC 1129).
How can we go without that which is necessary? How can we live our faith cut off from these “channels of grace”?
Yet these thoughts and feeling should not obscure or distort a correct understanding of the way in which God communicates His grace to us. While the sacraments are indeed the primary and ordinary means by which God communicates sanctifying grace to us, God is not limited by this choice. God is more than capable of communicating His grace to us apart from the sacraments or from our reception of them. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but He Himself is not bound by His sacraments” (CCC 1257, emphasis in original).
This is no innovation as this quote from the Catechism is a paraphrase from the work of Peter Lombard, the 12th-century Bishop of Paris and “master of the sentences”. And the early Church was certainly conscious of the fact that catechumens who either died or were martyred before their baptism were by no means lost, but still received the grace of justification through what they called “the baptism of desire” or the “baptism of blood”.
And this principle extends to the other sacraments as well. Our particular situation has brought to the fore three instances in which God offers His grace to us apart from the sacraments (though not separated from them, as we shall see).
First, with social distancing mandates in many places requiring that priests not hear confessions, many have wondered what they are to do if they find themselves in a state of mortal sin. Yet the Church teaches that perfect contrition—that is, sorrow for sins which “arises from a love by which God is loved above all else … remits venial sins [and] obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible” (CCC 1452). God always offers us the grace of His forgiveness, and while He wishes us to participate in the sacraments to receive the graces given through them, He does not refuse to cleanse the perfectly penitent heart before completing the sacrament.
This example also makes clear to us that while God operates outside of the sacraments, He does not operate separated from them. While perfect contrition obtains forgiveness even of mortal sins, an essential part of perfect contrition is the intention to participate in the Sacrament of Penance when possible. Thus by desire we remain connected and oriented to the sacramental life of the Church, even when circumstances prevent us from directly participating in it.
A second instance of extra-sacramental grace takes place in spiritual communion. The Baltimore Catechism defined this as “an earnest desire to receive Communion in reality, by which desire we make all preparations and thanksgivings that we would make in case we really received the Holy Eucharist” (q. 912). The Council of Trent defined spiritual communicants as “those to wit who eating in desire that heavenly bread which is set before them, are, by a lively faith which worketh by charity, made sensible of the fruit and usefulness thereof” (Session 13, Ch. 8). For those who are unable to receive the Eucharist because of the state of their soul, or because they are unable to attend, a spiritual communion is a way to open oneself to the grace of God made present in the sacrament.
Yet this is by no means a purely pre-modern or pre-conciliar practice. Pope St. John Paul II commended the practice of spiritual communion in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, nothing that it “has happily been established in the Church for centuries and recommended by saints who were masters of the spiritual life” (par 34). And Pope Francis has encouraged the faithful to pray this prayer (a traditional act of spiritual communion) during this time:
My Jesus, I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament of the altar. 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.
Once again, it is clear that we are not talking about a side-route past the sacraments to the grace of God. Rather, a spiritual communion seeks union with God in the Eucharist, in Holy Communion. As with baptism of desire, spiritual communion is driven by a desire, not just for union with God, but precisely for union with God through the sacrament, and that desire itself becomes the vehicle for grace into the heart.
This is connected to a third example. The suspension of public celebrations of the Mass initially led to a wave of online comments saying, “Mass is cancelled.” Yet this was not at all the case! Priests were still celebrating Mass every day. Parishes quickly set up the equipment to stream video of these liturgies on the Internet, and encouraged the faithful to watch.
Yet viewing a broadcast of the Mass should not turn us into mere spectators. We should remember that every Mass brings grace into the world; every Mass is a re-presentation of the salvific sacrifice of Christ on the cross. As the Catechism reminds us, “The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the making present and the sacramental offering of his unique sacrifice, in the liturgy of the Church which is his Body” (CCC 1362). The Mass is not another sacrifice, but Christ’s own: “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice” (CCC 1367).
The Mass is a prayer offered to the Father, and it is our own prayer united to that of Christ, presented with His sacrifice. That means that every prayer—every intention, every part of ourselves that we hand over to Christ—is carried to the Father wrapped in the supreme act of love that He made for us. And we need not necessarily be present at a particular Mass for this to be so. A traditional morning offering prayer states: “I offer You my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day for all the intentions of Your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world.” This prayer makes us conscious of the fact that every Mass is the same offering, and that we should be living our lives united to the Eucharist—even in times when we are unable to receive it.
With all the other pains and fears this current crisis brings, the loss of direct participation in the sacraments only adds to the difficulty. Yet perhaps some good can be brought out of this particular form of suffering. Perhaps the absence of the sacraments will make our hearts grow fonder for them. Perhaps our inability to physically receive them will lead us to understand the ways in which we can still be spiritually united to them, and to the God whose grace they bestow. Perhaps we will grow in awareness of the ways in which God acts on our hearts every day, preparing us for and drawing us toward the sacraments. God’s power is such that He can bring good things even out of evil times.
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