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A monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament is displayed on the altar during a Holy Hour at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City July 13, 2023. The liturgy was hosted by the Sisters of Life during the ongoing National Eucharistic Revival. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

“Since I cannot at this moment receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart.”

How many of us remember this prayer? During the time of Covid-19 it was recommended for those who participated in the Mass remotely, from their homes, and were not able to receive the sacrament with a congregation in church. It is called a prayer for making a “spiritual communion.”

How does one understand this prayer? What does it imply?

It would seem to indicate that physical, sacramental reception of the consecrated host is primary and that spiritual communion is secondary—a Plan B to be invoked in case of emergency. Whatever the case, the words “at least spiritually” identify a lesser class of participation or communion, one that is acceptable but not quite the ideal. When compared to “spiritual” communion, “sacramental” communion—as the prayer implicitly suggests—is to be preferred.

Is that specific, graduated order of sacramental and spiritual communion reflected within the broader traditional understanding of the Eucharist? According to St. Bonaventure, heir of the ancient Augustinian tradition, it is not. Quite the contrary.

For Bonaventure, in fact, it is the heart that receives the Eucharist: The most proper way to consume the Eucharist is not simply physically, with the mouth of the body, but rather “with the mouth of the heart.” To eat with the heart involves “chewing” by reflecting on the food given and “incorporating” or swallowing the food by reflecting “with the love of charity.” That is, to eat with the heart involves faith and charity. To participate in the Eucharist thus requires intention, awareness and prayerful preparation.

For Bonaventure, then, to eat spiritually is to approach eating the Eucharist both with faith and ultimately with the affection of charity in one’s heart. Participation in the “sacrament of charity” is thus above all spiritual. Otherwise one eats only physically with the mouth. The mere physical eating of the body of Christ, however, bears no fruit. Bonaventure writes:

Our capacity to receive Christ fruitfully resides not in the flesh but in the spirit, not in the stomach but in the mind. But the mind does not attain Christ except through understanding and love, through faith and charity, so that faith gives light to recognize him and charity gives ardor to love him. Therefore, if any are to approach this sacrament worthily, they must feed on Christ spiritually by chewing it by means of the recognition of faith and receiving it with the devotion of love.

And now, a few years after the pandemic, as we prepare in the United States for a eucharistic congress, the emphasis falls on real presence. Here one must be careful. An overemphasis, or a myopic focus, could be distracting and even misleading. As Bonaventure stresses, Christ invites us to a “spiritual banquet” to partake of “spiritual food.” The food eaten is not “meat from a butcher.” Rather, it is spiritual food that must be eaten spiritually—ultimately in the Spirit. “It is the Spirit of the Lord,” to echo St. Francis of Assisi, “that lives in its faithful, that receives the body and blood of the Lord. All others who do not share in this same Spirit and presume to receive him eat and drink judgment on themselves [see 1 Cor 11:29].” Augustine, too, complements this perspective: “We eat and drink for participation in the spirit...that we may be invigorated by his Spirit.” The goal of Eucharist is spiritual communion, that which the true body and blood of Christ mediates and communicates.

Is this goal not reflected in one of the official opening greetings at Mass? The celebrant greets the assembly: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” This early trinitarian scriptural invocation, based on 2 Cor 13:13, is itself indicative of how to understand and approach the Eucharistic mystery. The grace of Christ reconciles us to the Father. In this, the love of God the Father, “who so loved the world” (Jn 3:16), is revealed. Ultimately, then, we are invited and drawn into this love, that is, to enter into the communion of the Holy Spirit. At the very beginning of Mass, therefore, the fullness of the Eucharist into which we are invited is unveiled: “communion of the Holy Spirit.”

The Eucharist’s finality, in terms of communion and the Holy Spirit, emerges also in Bonaventure. His use of the traditional threefold sacramental structure in his theology of this sacrament makes this finality explicit. This threefold sacramental structure consists of the “sign itself (sacramentum tantum),” the “sign and reality (sacramentum et res)” and the “fullness of the reality (res tantum).” How does Bonaventure understand this structure of the Eucharist?

First, the “sign itself”: This is the external created elements of bread and wine. In other words, bread and wine constitute the foundational sign of the Eucharist. Second, the “sign and reality”: This is the true body and blood of Christ. Bonaventure thus understands the true body and blood of Christ as both a reality and yet a further sign. Third, “the fullness of the reality”: This is the communion of the mystical body, of which the true body and blood of Christ is a sign. This communion is thus the ultimate reality of the Eucharist, which is signified and mediated by the true body and blood of Christ. Accordingly, the union of the mystical body is, as Bonaventure teaches, the “one ultimate signification” of the Eucharist. What this means is that the true body and blood of Christ is, to be precise, not the goal of the Eucharist. It is, however, the center of the Eucharist. And as center (medium in Latin), it mediates.

Here the theology and function of the epiclesis—the prayer that calls upon the Holy Spirit during the Liturgy of the Eucharist—is relevant. In the post-synodal apostolic exhortation “Sacramentum Caritatis,” Pope Benedict XVI explains that the epiclesis is:

the petition to the Father to send down the gift of the Spirit so that the bread and the wine will become the body and blood of Jesus Christ and that “the community as a whole will become ever more the body of Christ.” The Spirit invoked by the celebrant upon the gifts of bread and wine placed on the altar is the same Spirit who gathers the faithful “into one body” and makes of them a spiritual offering pleasing to the Father.

He then goes on to say: “It is significant that the Second Eucharistic Prayer, invoking the Paraclete, formulates its prayer for the unity of the Church as follows: ‘may all of us who share in the body and blood of Christ be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit.’ These words help us to see clearly how the res of the sacrament of the Eucharist is the unity of the faithful within ecclesial communion.” The restantum—the fullness of the reality of the Eucharist—is realized in the gift of the Spirit that draws us into the communion of the mystical body. In effect, there is a double epiclesis. The first is transformative of the gifts of bread and wine. The second, which is prepared for by the first, is transformative of those who share in the body and blood.

Therefore, an emphasis on the presence of Christ that fails to cultivate explicitly the fullness of his presence in its mediating significance beyond itself actually diminishes his presence. We ask: Should the emphasis fall, then, not on the presence as real but on the true presence as mediating? In this way, attention would be given to the eucharistic presence of Christ inasmuch as it mediates its ultimate reality, res tantum of the sacrament, the communion of the mystical body. Otherwise what Bonaventure, drawing from St. Augustine and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, said in regard to the Apostles before Christ’s ascension would be relevant here: “The Apostles’ love for the flesh of Christ impeded the advent of the Holy Spirit.” Too focused on Christ’s corporeal presence, they failed to be aware of the intimacy in the communion of the Holy Spirit that awaited them.

How does Bonaventure understand this final res of the sacrament? His distinction between “sacramental” and “spiritual” eating, alluded to above, is helpful here. For Bonaventure, unlike normal corporeal eating, in which “the one eating converts food into himself,” spiritual eating involves a different dynamic “because the food is more worthy and more perfect and complete. Thus it is we who are changed and incorporated into the food rather than the other way around.”

In eating spiritually, we are brought into Christ’s mystical body. How does this mystery unfold? Ultimately, for Bonaventure, the answer is through charity. In his own words: “This sacrament contains Christ’s true body and immaculate flesh in such a way [ut] that it penetrates our very being, unites us to one another, and transforms us into it through a most burning charity.” We should not, therefore, celebrate the Eucharist simply because Christ’s flesh is contained therein. Rather, we celebrate the Eucharist because Christ’s true body is diffusive, unitive and transformative through charity.

The accent on charity links Bonaventure’s eucharistic theology with his theology of the Holy Spirit, “who is charity and is had through charity.” Indeed, Bonaventure admonishes us, when receiving the Eucharist, “to be inebriated, through the charity of the Holy Spirit.” This connection to the Holy Spirit does not come as a surprise. In his own encyclical letter on the Eucharist, “Ecclesia de Eucharistia,” St. John Paul II intuited similarly: “Thus by the gift of his body and blood Christ increases within us the gift of his Spirit, already poured out in baptism and bestowed as a ‘seal’ in the sacrament of confirmation.”

For Bonaventure, moreover, the union of the mystical body belongs in a special way to the mission of the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ at Pentecost to inflame his disciples with charity. Accordingly, just as Christ’s incarnate mission culminates not in the Ascension but in Pentecost—for which his Ascension prepares—so, too, does the Eucharist culminate in the gift of the Spirit. The sacrament of the Eucharist eaten spiritually mediates and so draws us into the communion of the Holy Spirit, the union of charity constitutive of the life of the church.

To draw this reflection to a close: Instead of praying to receive the Eucharist “at least spiritually,” let us rather ask God to help us receive “above all spiritually.” May this year’s eucharistic congress promote and foster not only a renewed faith in the true body and blood of Christ, but also in the gift that flows therefrom, the mystical body“brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit.” May it be a celebration of the full reality of the sacrament of the Eucharist—the sacrament of charity.

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