Estimated reading time ~ 7 minutes
Here’s the TLDR – God binds Himself to the sacraments, but He is not bound by them. Continue to receive God’s grace even without access to the sacraments through spiritual communion and acts of perfect contrition.
Beginning Wednesday, we will no longer be able to offer Confessions due to the Shelter-In-Place order of the Brazos County. At this time, it’s good to remember this theological principle: God binds Himself to the sacraments, but He is not bound by the sacraments.
God is faithful, and He will always give the grace of the sacraments when they are celebrated validly (see CCC 1128). In that way, He binds Himself to them. But He is not bound by the sacraments – they are not the only way that He can give grace. For example, immediately after the Catechism speaks of the necessity of baptism for salvation, the next paragraph mentions the potential of accessing the grace of baptism even without the water through a “baptism of blood” or “a baptism of desire” (see CCC 1257-1259).
So what about the grace of Holy Communion and the grace of Confession? How can we receive those graces without access to the sacraments? The Church recommends the practices of a spiritual communion and an act of perfect contrition.
Let’s look first at the practice of a spiritual communion. Bishop Vasquez has been recommending this practice to us in the time that the public celebration of Mass has been suspended. This practice stems from the truth that just as one can receive the sacrament of the Eucharist without receiving its fruits (see 1 Corinthians 11:27-30), so too one can receive the fruits of the Eucharist without receiving the sacrament.
Throughout the history of the Church, the likes of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as the Council of Trent have all affirmed the reality of being able to receive the grace of the Eucharist through a desire for it:
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.”
– Revelation 3:20
Jesus knocks at the door of our hearts, whether we can receive Him sacramentally or not. We can open the door to Him in this time of social distancing through an act of spiritual communion. One of the most helpful ways I’ve learned to make a spiritual communion has four steps:
- Make an act of faith
- Make an act of love
- Express our desire to receive him
- Invite Jesus to come into our hearts spiritually
St. Alphonsus Liguori incorporated these four steps into his popular prayer for making a spiritual communion:
“My Jesus, I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament. 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.”
– St. Alphonsus Ligouri
These steps are not magic. They simply reflect how we enjoy true communion with anyone – namely, through mutual knowledge and love. As human beings, the deepest communion we can have with someone else is actually not through physical contact. There’s all the difference in the world between the conjugal love of husband and wife and the violence unwillingly suffered by a victim. It’s the husband/wife’s mutual knowledge and love that makes that difference. The four steps listed above bring us into a mutual knowledge and love of God – knowing Him by faith, loving Him by charity, longing for Him with hope, and embracing Him in peace and joy.
We can make a spiritual communion at any time, and a great way to do so would be to watch our live-streamed Masses while praying St. Alphonsus’ act of spiritual communion at the time of Holy Communion.
Let’s move on to the grace of Confession and the act of perfect contrition. The Church teaches that “the forgiveness of sins committed after Baptism is conferred by a particular sacrament called the sacrament of conversion, confession, penance, or reconciliation” (CCC 1486). So what do we do if we find ourselves in need of the sacrament and unable to receive it?
We can have recourse to an act of perfect contrition.
The Apostolic Penitentiary (one of the dicasteries, or departments of the Roman Curia, through which the pope directs the Church) explains:
“Where the individual faithful find themselves in the painful impossibility of receiving sacramental absolution, it should be remembered that perfect contrition, coming from the love of God, beloved above all things, expressed by a sincere request for forgiveness (that which the penitent is at present able to express) and accompanied by votum confessionis, that is, by the firm resolution to have recourse, as soon as possible, to sacramental confession, obtains forgiveness of sins, even mortal ones .”
– cf. CCC, no. 1452
Although the citation above from the Apostolic Penitentiary was written in response to the current crisis, the teaching is not new. Here is the Catechism reference cited by the Apostolic Penitentiary:
When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called “perfect” (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.
– CCC 1452
For the next two weeks, Fr. Brian and I won’t be able to offer Confessions at St. Mary’s, but God’s mercy is able to reach us even in this circumstance. If you have fallen into mortal sin, quickly make an act of contrition – asking God for the grace to do so with a love that loves Him above all else – and firmly resolve to go to sacramental confession as soon as possible.
Contrition is “sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again” (CCC 1451). Here is a popular act of contrition, which can help to stir up sorrow and a firm resolution in mind and heart:
“Oh my God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against You whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with Your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.”
When prayed with a love that loves God above all else along with the firm resolution to go to sacramental Confession as soon as possible, an act of contrition can forgive even mortal sins. This is a crucial spiritual practice – especially now, because a temptation that may creep into the heart of someone who has committed mortal sin would be, “Well, now it doesn’t matter what I do until I go to Confession. Might as well keep on sinning.” This line of reasoning can lead to sloth and discouragement, which just perpetuates the cycle and reinforces patterns of sin. So fight against it by making an act of perfect contrition.
The idea that “it doesn’t matter what I do until I go to Confession” is already false, but when you make an act of perfect contrition, the line of reasoning used in that temptation is even more false. After an act of perfect contrition, any temptation to sin is not just another mortal sin to add to the list for your next Confession – it is a temptation to break a new and living relationship with God who loves you. Let the act of perfect contrition give you strength to turn away from sin and settle for nothing less than the true-life Jesus wants to give you.
God binds Himself to the sacraments, but He is not bound to the sacraments. He can reach us even when there is a Shelter-In-Place order. Let these two great spiritual practices give you comfort, encouragement, and grace in this time, and let’s keep each other in prayer.
Fr. Greg Gerhart is the Associate Pastor at St. Mary’s Catholic Center. Before entering seminary, Fr. Greg graduated from Texas A&M University and worked at The Pines, a Catholic youth camp in East Texas. He studied Moral Theology and Bioethics and is also interested in Liturgy and Social Justice. Fr. Greg enjoys playing sports!