A Catholic Survival Guide for the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic, Part One
The act of perfect contrition and spiritual communion
Rev Deacon Nick Donnelly
Recourse to the sacraments is essential to the supernatural lives of Catholics. This is even more true during life’s crises, such as many face due to the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic. This is why Archbishop Vigano is right when he describes the closure of churches in Northern Italy, and the suspension of public Mass and confession as, ‘a real unprecedented tragedy.’ For weeks now many Catholics living in China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau and Northern Italy have been unable to receive the Blessed Sacrament or the sacramental absolution of their sins. Not since the Protestant Reformation across Europe or the Communist persecution of the Church in Russia, Mexico and China, have so many Catholics been banned from the public celebration of the sacraments. Though this time churches have been closed to protect the physical wellbeing of Catholics, the drastic impact on the sacramental lives of the faithful cannot be exaggerated.
It is a frightening prospect to face the possibility of being denied the sacraments if instructed to self-isolate due to exposure to the COVID-19 coronavirus or being quarantined in hospital with life-threatening complications. It is highly unlikely that secular medical professionals will appreciate the stress suffered by Catholics unable to receive the pastoral care of our priests, especially the anxiety caused by the possibility of not being able to receive Extreme Unction at the hour of death.
However, we can do much to reduce our own anxiety and stress if we find ourselves in such a situation by following two traditional devotional practices — the Act of Perfect Contrition and Spiritual Communion. As Bishop Schneider observed in his recent Rorate Caeli essay on the coronavirus:
“In times of persecution, many Catholics were unable to receive Holy Communion in a sacramental way for long periods of time, but they made a Spiritual Communion with much spiritual benefit.”
Cardinal Johann Baptist Franzelin (1816-1885), the renowned Dogmatic theologian and Papal Theologian during the First Vatican Council, once admitted, “If I were able to traverse the countryside preaching the divine word, my favourite sermon topic would be perfect contrition.”
Now is the time to recover the wisdom and practice of these traditional devotions. Under certain conditions, they will enable us to receive the forgiveness of our sins, and the marvellous benefit of Eucharistic graces if — for example due to self-isolation at home or quarantine in hospital — we are denied the sacraments and the pastoral care of our clergy.
Trust that God wills to save all men
God in his providence has given the faithful these traditional means to receive absolution for our sins, under certain conditions, and the nourishment of Eucharistic graces because of His universal salvific will. As sacred Scripture tells us, God does not wish the death of sinners but our conversion and life (Ezekiel 18:23), and, He came into the world to save sinners and He wills to save all men (1 Timothy 1:15; 2:4.)
Our Lord has given special supernatural signification and effectiveness to the seven sacraments as unique signs and instruments of His saving grace that are necessary for salvation. However, St. Thomas Aquinas was clear that God has not restricted Himself to these sacraments (ST III. 64. a2.) In the Act of Perfect Contrition, which is intrinsically related to the sacrament of Confession and in Spiritual Communion, which is ardently focused on the sacrament of the Eucharist we receive his saving grace. The economy of salvation is much more varied and multifaceted than many Catholics nowadays assume, especially when we add in other sacramentals as well.
The Act of Perfect Contrition
As explained by the Baltimore Catechism, contrition ‘is sincere sorrow for having offended God, and hatred for the sins we have committed, with a firm purpose of sinning no more’, and, perfect contrition ‘is that which fills us with sorrow and hatred for sin, because it offends God, who is infinitely good in Himself and worthy of all love.’
The Theology of the Act of Perfect Contrition
A number of the Church Fathers taught the efficacy of contrition for the remission of sin, including St John Chrysostom who wrote:
“As a fire which has taken possession of a forest, cleans it out thoroughly, so the fire of love, wheresoever it falls, takes away and blots out everything that could injure the divine seed, and purges the earth for the reception of that seed. Where love is, there all evils are taken away”. (quoted by Rt. Rev. Msgr Joseph Pohle Ph. D. D., The Sacraments: A Dogmatic Treatise.)
Of course, the love that fires perfect contrition is the theological virtue of caritas, and so is already an expression of the working of divine grace in one’s life. The motivation of caritas explains why perfect contrition is also sometimes called the contrition of charity.
One of the passages of sacred Scripture that informs this understanding of perfect contrition is John 14:23, ‘Jesus answered, and said to him: “If any one love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and will make our abode with him.” The theological virtue of caritas leads those seeking Christian perfection to the contrition of charity and the consequent remission of sin that enables God to make his home in the soul.
St. Thomas Aquinas explicitly argued that perfect contrition could receive the pardon of sin outside of confession, ‘I answer that, Contrition can be considered in two ways, either as part of a sacrament, or as an act of virtue, and in either case it is the cause of the forgiveness of sin, but not in the same way. (ST Supplement. Q. v, a. 1.)
The Council of Trent went further by explaining the conditions that must be met for perfect contrition to remit sins, including mortal sins, outside of the sacrament of confession:
“The Synod teaches moreover, that, although it sometimes happen that this contrition is perfect through charity, and reconciles man with God before this sacrament be actually received, the said reconciliation, nevertheless, is not to be ascribed to that contrition, independently of the desire of the sacrament which is included therein.” (Council of Trent. Session xiv, Chap. 4.)
Pope St. John Paul II’s Catechism of the Catholic Church made this requirement of desiring sacramental confession as an element of perfect contrition explicit for the remission of mortal sin, ‘[perfect contrition] also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.’ (CCC 1452).
How to Make an Act of Perfect Contrition
The first thing to do is to be certain about the difference between an imperfect contrition and a perfect contrition. Father J. von den Driesch’s very helpful booklet on perfect contrition explains the differences. In summary:
Our contrition is imperfect if our motivation for repenting of our sins is due to fear of God because we think our sins will deny us heaven or will earn the punishment of Purgatory or Hell. Imperfect contrition originates from an imperfect love of God that puts our needs and desires and self-seeking love of favour before a true love of God.
Our contrition is perfect if we repent of our sins because when we think of God’s greatness, His beauty, His love, His holiness, we are aware of how offensive our sins are to God and how they caused the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross. Perfect contrition originates from the theological virtue of caritas, a self-forgetful love of God that rejoices in God’s holiness and redemptive love of sinful man, ‘For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting.’ (John 3:16).
In his 1930 booklet Perfect Contrition: The Golden Key to Paradise, Father J. von den Driesch explains the steps he considers necessary to make a perfect act of contrition:
- Perfect Contrition is a grace from our merciful God, so sincerely ask Him frequently throughout the day for this divine gift by repeating often, ‘My God, grant me perfect contrition for all my sins.’ God willingly gives this grace to those who ardently desire it.
- In reality or imagination kneel at the foot of a crucifix and meditate on Jesus’ Five Precious Wounds and His Precious Blood for a few moments and say to yourself: “Who, then, is nailed on this cross? It is Jesus, my God and my Saviour. What does He suffer? His mangled body covered with wounds shows the ghastly torments. His soul is soaked with pains and insults. Why does He suffer? For men’s sins and also for my own. In the midst of His bitterness, He remembers me, He suffers for me, He wishes to wipe away my sins.”
- Before the Crucified Christ recall your sins, and forgetting for a moment Heaven and Hell, repent of them because they have brought our Lord to His sufferings on the Cross. Promise him, that with His help, you will sin no more.
- Recite, slowly and with fervour, an act of contrition that emphasise the goodness of God and your love of Jesus. The following are well known or easy to memorise:
O my God, because you are so good, I am very sorry that I have sinned against you and by the help of your grace I will not sin again. Amen
I love you, Jesus, my love above all things, and I repent with my whole heart of having offended you. Never permit me to separate myself from you again, grant that I may love you always, and then do with me what you will. Amen.
- Make a firm resolution to go to sacramental confession as soon as practically possible. If one is undergoing self-isolation or quarantine in hospital or the churches are closed as a consequence of the coronavirus you should aim to go as soon as these restrictions are relaxed
Father J. von den Driesch explains:
“It’s true that perfect contrition produces the same effects as confession, but it doesn’t produce them independently of the sacrament of penance, since perfect contrition precisely supposes a firm purpose to confess the same sins that it has just pardoned.”
It is important that you develop now the habit of making acts of perfect contrition, throughout the day, and especially after an examination of conscience last thing at night. Then if you become critically ill or in danger of death without the assistance of a priest, you can readily make an act of perfect contrition sure in the knowledge that you have been forgiven your sins and that if you die you will do so in a state of grace. If you don’t die then you can make a sacramental confession as soon as circumstances allow.
As explained in the Baltimore Catechism, Spiritual Communion is ‘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. Spiritual Communion is an act of devotion that must be pleasing to God and bring us blessings from Him.’
The Theology of Spiritual Communion
St. Augustine is recognised as the first of the Church Fathers to touch upon spiritual communion in his homily on John 6:15-44:
“Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.’ This is then to eat the meat, not that which perishes, but that which endures unto eternal life. To what purpose do you make ready teeth and stomach? Believe, and you have eaten already.” (Tractate 25.)
St. Augustine makes it clear that belief in the Blessed Sacrament is fundamental to Spiritual Communion, ‘Believe, and you have eaten already’. For Augustine, faith and desire are inextricably linked — the greater our faith, the greater our desire for God, ‘The deeper our faith, the stronger our hope, the greater our desire, the larger will be our capacity to receive that gift, which is very great indeed.’ (Augustine’s letter to Proba).
St. Thomas Aquinas further developed St Augustine’s thought by focusing on ardent desire for the Eucharist as necessary for Spiritual Communion:
“The effect of the sacrament can be secured by every man if he receive it in desire, though not in reality. Consequently, just as some are baptized with the Baptism of desire, through their desire of baptism, before being baptized in the Baptism of water; so likewise some eat this sacrament spiritually ere they receive it sacramentally. Now this happens in two ways. First of all, from desire of receiving the sacrament itself, and thus are said to be baptized, and to eat spiritually, and not sacramentally, they who desire to receive these sacraments since they have been instituted…”(ST III. q80. a1).
The Council of Trent presented St Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of spiritual communion as desire for the Blessed Sacrament as one of three ways of receiving Holy Communion:
“For they have taught that some receive it sacramentally only, to wit sinners: others spiritually only, 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…”(Council of Trent. Concerning the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. Chapter VIII.)
Since Trent, a number of popes have emphasised the importance of ardent desire for the Eucharist as essential to Spiritual Communion:
“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.” (Venerable Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 117.)
“It is good to cultivate in our hearts a constant desire for the sacrament of the Eucharist. This was the origin of the practice of ‘spiritual communion’”. (Pope St. John Paul II. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 34.)
There are a number of ways that we can cultivate in our hearts a constant, ardent desire for the Blessed Sacrament. For example, while our churches remain open and before we may be self-isolating or under quarantine we can commit to daily devout reception of Holy Communion and frequent Eucharistic Adoration. We can also read dogmatic and spiritual books on the Eucharist, such as: Abbot Vonier, A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist; Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, God is Near Us: The Eucharist, The Heart of Life; Bishop Athanasius Schneider, Dominus Est: It Is the Lord!, and, Corpus Christi: Holy Communion and the Renewal of the Church.
How to Make a Spiritual Communion
There is some confusion concerning the nature of, and requirements for, Spiritual Communion. This has been caused by the contemporary recommendation, made by some clergyman, that individuals in a state of grave sin who cannot receive Holy Communion should instead make a spiritual communion during their participation in the Mass. For example, Pope Benedict XVI wrote in 2007:
“Even in cases where it is not possible to receive sacramental communion, participation at Mass remains necessary, important, meaningful and fruitful. In such circumstances it is beneficial to cultivate a desire for full union with Christ through the practice of spiritual communion.” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 55.)
This is a different type of ‘spiritual communion’ to the traditional devotion of Spiritual Communion which requires that ‘we make all preparations and thanksgivings that we would make in case we really received the Holy Eucharist’ (Baltimore Catechism). Such preparations would necessarily include the requirement of confession if we were aware of being in a state of mortal sin. Servant of God Fr. Felice Capello, S.J. wrote in his Tractatus Canonico-Moralis, “He who is in mortal sin” must at least “repent in his heart if he wishes to spiritually communicate profitably.” The necessity of being in a state of grace was also explained by Fr. Francis D. Costa, S.S.S.:
“The person [making an act of Spiritual Communion] must be in the state of grace, since this is a necessary condition for Holy Communion, and also because this desire is essentially an act of love of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.”
It follows from this that, if we are unable to have recourse to sacramental confession due to self-isolation or quarantine, we can prepare ourselves to undertake the devotion of Spiritual Communion by making an act of perfect contrition.
St. Leonard of Port Maurice, O.F.M., (1676-1751) recommended the following way of making a spiritual communion in his book The Hidden Treasure: Or The Immense Excellence of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Though his recommendations were written for spiritual communion during Mass when the priest communicates they can be adapted to spiritual communion outside of the Mass.
At the moment when the priest is about to receive Holy Communion at the same time ‘excite in your heart an act of sincere contrition’, and humbly strike your breast in acknowledgment of your unworthiness to receive so great a grace’. If self-isolating or in quarantine bring to mind in your imagination the sacred words and actions of the Mass, such as the consecration and elevation of the Host and Chalice or the priest’s communion. Know that as you imagine this in your mind’s eye somewhere in the world a priest is offering up the sacrifice of the Mass. Or if possible, participate in the Mass ‘virtually’ for example through the internet or TV.
Make all those acts of faith, humility, sorrow, adoration, love and desire that you usually express through prayers before Holy Communion.
Ardently desire, with earnest longing, to receive ‘your adorable Jesus who has deigned to veil Himself in the Sacrament for your spiritual and temporal welfare.’ Imagine that the Mother of God, or some one of your patron saints administers the adorable particle to you ; think that you are actually receiving it, and after embracing Jesus in your heart, say to him over and over again with heart-felt words dictated by love, such as the following prayer:
My Jesus, I believe that Thou art present in the Blessed Sacrament. I love Thee above all things and I desire Thee in my soul. Since I cannot now receive Thee sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. As though Thou wert already there, I embrace Thee and unite myself wholly to Thee; permit not that I should ever be separated from Thee. Amen. (St. Alphonsus de’ Ligouri)
After moments of silent adoration make all those acts of faith, humility, love, thanksgiving and offering that you usually express through prayers after Holy Communion.
One of the wonderful benefits of spiritual communion is that you can make it many times during the day and night. St. Maximilian Kolbe O.F.M., undertook this devotion at least once every quarter of an hour. St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) recommended receiving our Lord in Spiritual Communion throughout the day during one’s various occupations. To encourage this devotion he taught:
“Fly with your spirit before the tabernacle, when you can’t stand before it bodily, and there pour out the ardent longings of your soul and embrace the Beloved of souls, even more than if you had been permitted to receive him sacramentally.” (Padre Pio quoted by Vinny Flynn, 7 Secrets of the Eucharist.)
It will be a great consolation to receive Eucharistic graces through spiritual communion if we are unable to receive Holy Communion due to self-isolation, quarantine or the closure of churches for weeks on end. As St. Teresa of Jesus advised:
“When you do not receive communion and you do not attend Mass, you can make a spiritual communion, which is a most beneficial practice; by it the love of God will be greatly impressed on you”. (The Way of Perfection, Chapter. 35.)
Though these traditional devotions of Perfect Contrition and Spiritual Communion will really come into their own if we are denied the sacraments due to COVID-19, it is best to make them a daily practise now, even when we remain free to attend our parish churches. Cultivating these habits will make it easier for us to avail ourselves of their benefits if we become weakened through illness. Finally, if you find this article helpful please pass it on to other Catholics to help them prepare for any eventuality brought on by this pandemic.
In the second part of ‘A Catholic Survival Guide for the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic’ we will examine two more traditional devotions — Bona Mors, otherwise known as the art of dying happily, and, devotion to the Precious Wounds of Christ – as a means of uniting our sufferings with those of the Crucified Christ.
First published in Rorate Caeli