Home Catechetical Corner Question Corner: Explaining spiritual communion and whether or not priests can be...

Question Corner: Explaining spiritual communion and whether or not priests can be wrong

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Jenna Marie Cooper writes Question Corner for OSV News (OSV photo)

Q: We’ve been wondering about the wording in the prayer used for those who attend Sunday Mass virtually. The phrases: “Come AT LEAST spiritually into my heart” and “I love You AS IF You were already there” don’t reflect good theology. Don’t we believe that the Bible and our faith assure us of God’s constant presence and unconditional Love? Please address this question since it is used by most parishes every weekend. (Location withheld)

A: The prayer you mention sounds like what would be traditionally called an act of “spiritual communion.” That is, it’s a prayer that is meant to be said by those who would like to be receiving Jesus in the blessed sacrament, but who are unable to do this for whatever reason. It makes sense that this prayer would be said specifically for the benefit of those who are watching the Mass via livestream, since those who are not present at Mass are obviously not able, in that moment, to receive communion in the same physical way that most of the assembled congregation would be.

A prayer of spiritual communion is not meant as a global theological statement on God’s omnipresence in general. God is indeed present always and everywhere, and he loves us unconditionally no matter where we are. It’s not as though God is somehow absent from us unless (or until) we say a certain prayer.

Yet at the same time, as Catholics we believe in the doctrine of the “real presence,” meaning that the prayers of consecration at Mass literally turn the offered bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. Because the bread and wine become Jesus’s body and blood, we believe that during the Eucharist He becomes present to us in a uniquely intense and physical way; and that on an individual level, his presence to us is especially intimate when we personally receive him in holy communion.

Acts of spiritual communion are meant as a way for those who cannot receive communion at a particular point to try to “bridge the gap” between their current circumstances and their desire to receive Jesus sacramentally. You could look at a spiritual communion as a way of making ourselves especially open to God’s constant presence.

Q: Can priests be wrong? (Madison, Wisc.)

A: Taking your question at simple face value, yes, of course priests can be wrong! Priests are mere human beings, not all-knowing demigods or supercomputers running on perfect algorithms. And no priest is going to be an expert in all areas of knowledge. Like the rest of us, priests can and will be wrong about at least some things some of the time.

Priests do receive quite an extensive training in graduate-level theology, so – in general — when a priest explains church teaching, he is speaking as qualified professionals in his field. Many priests have roles of authority (like, for example, pastor of a parish) which empower them to make practical decisions. So even if we, e.g., believe that our priest is “wrong” in his prudential decision-making in a given instance, it may nevertheless be a choice the priest is legitimately able to make.

We Catholics also have a concept of “papal infallibility,” which means that the Pope is protected from error in certain very specific circumstances, namely when he “proclaims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals” (See Lumen Gentium, 25). That is, the Holy Father is infallible when he specifically and deliberately raises some aspect of established Catholic teaching on faith or morals to the level of infallibility. But this is a rare occurrence; the last time it happened was in 1950 with the proclamation of the dogma of Mary’s Assumption. There is no belief that the Pope would be infallible in areas unrelated to faith or morals.

Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to CatholicQA@osv.com.