Photo below © Paix Liturgique: Cardinal Sarah and Bishop Laise
The office of Preserving Christian Publications is located near a village of approximately 2,000 inhabitants in upstate New York. On Holy Saturday of this year, the local parish church was locked, and there was a sign on the door indicating that the bishop had ordered all churches closed until Easter Monday. Although diocesan churches were to be locked on Easter Sunday, we travelled eighty miles to a Latin Mass celebrated outdoors by a priest of the Society of St. Pius X – after which the SSPX priests distributed Communion, because local civil authorities would not allow Communion to be distributed during Mass.
This sharp contrast on Easter Sunday, the most important feast of the year, is symbolic of the crisis that began in the Church in the 1960s. It is a contrast between the traditional liturgical practices of the Church, and a new spirit of liturgical change that began to emerge. Even before the introduction of a new rite of the Mass in 1969, an unauthorized practice of distributing Communion in the hand was begun in certain dioceses without permission, and the Holy See tried to prevent it from spreading, not by prohibiting it entirely but by trying to contain it. To do this the Holy See established clear norms that the bishops and the episcopal conferences were to follow. But in spite of these clear laws and regulations, episcopal conferences began to disregard the norms, and year after year the practice of giving Communion in the hand proceeded to spread throughout the world, in complete violation of the Church’s laws.
When the threat of the coronavirus began to emerge this year, our local diocesan bishop recommended that the laity receive Communion in the hand in order to prevent the spreading of the disease, even though the medical evidence would indicate that Communion in the hand would facilitate its spread rather than prevent it, as Bishop Athanasius Schneider has pointed out. But then a short time later the diocesan bishop ordered the churches locked, and a trend began whereby many bishops throughout the world were making it very difficult if not impossible for the faithful to receive the sacraments. After decades of liturgical change, the trend among the liturgical reformers had gone from advocating Communion in the hand to widespread infrequency in the distribution of Holy Communion.
Eight months before his death on July 22, 2019, Bishop Juan Rodolfo Laise, OFM.Cap added a new section to his original book, Communion in the Hand: Documents and History, to explain another practice related to Eucharist devotion, that of spiritual communion. The new section was written to clarify the need for proper dispositions for receiving sacramental Communion, but now it has acquired an added significance on occasions when it becomes impossible to receive Communion sacramentally. The book now has a new title, Holy Communion, with two subtitles: Communion in the Hand – Documents and History, and Reflections on Spiritual Communion and the State of Grace.
With the closing of churches due to the coronavirus, Masses have been shown on the Internet through livestreaming. While this is a means of focusing attention on the prayers and ceremonies of the Mass, it can never replace the actual attendance at Mass. For the very nature of the sacraments is that they are outward signs, which cannot be communicated electronically. Social communication was explained by St. Thomas Aquinas in a way that shows it as being rooted in human nature itself. Man has five senses, which according to St. Thomas are hierarchical, the most noble being that of sight, because it is the most spiritual (Sum. Th., I, 78, a. 3). Then comes the sense of hearing. According to St. Thomas, the spoken word is the most noble form of communication because when speaking, as opposed to writing, one sees the person who is speaking (II-II, 174, a. 3; III, 42, a. 4). Earlier modern inventions such as telephone and radio lacked this characteristic, and it is also true of television, the Internet and the cell phone – for although one can see images of those speaking or spoken to in these latter media, this can never equal the physical presence of the one speaking.
The traditional sacramental doctrine of the Church therefore speaks of the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, not a symbolic presence. Pope Paul VI defended the traditional doctrine of transubstantiation in his encyclical Mysterium Fidei, but the liturgical reform that followed opened the door to a new sacramental doctrine, leading to multiple abuses such as communion in the hand – which Paul VI opposed, but failed to suppress because a movement of change had been unleashed. The closing of churches due to the spread of the coronavirus reveals the ultimate direction of this movement. If bishops allow the closing of their churches indiscriminately, the sacraments cease to be seen as necessary means of grace but mere symbols. Livestreamed ceremonies on the Internet replace the reception of the sacraments because symbolism replaces the sacramental reality. In the meantime others have proposed distributing Communion in plastic bags, a proposal totally disrespecting the Holy Eucharist, and rightly condemned by Cardinal Sarah.
Bishop Juan Rodolfo Laise’s book Holy Communion presents a compendium of the Church’s doctrine on the sacraments, by showing the central importance of the Eucharist and the reverence due to It. For centuries, the Church taught the importance of spiritual communion in union with sacramental Communion. And then Pope St. Pius X introduced an emphasis on frequent and daily Communion, stressing the importance of receiving the Eucharist sacramentally. Bishop Laise’s treatment of both spiritual and sacramental Communion, and the reverence due to both, is therefore a timely message for our time – both when the Holy Eucharist is not shown the reverence due to It, and when the faithful are unable to receive the Eucharist sacramentally.