The manner of receiving this sacrament[Eucharist] is twofold, spiritual and sacramental.
St. Thomas Aquinas
What the last two chapters really come down to is that every time you and I go to receive Communion we have a choice between two ways of receiving. Recognizing that Christ is calling us to a unique personal encounter with Him (along with the Father and the Holy Spirit), we can prepare ourselves with great care, trying to rid ourselves of any barriers or obstacles to this union, and seeking to enter into communion with Him. Or, as in the example we saw of the “false person,” we can receive Christ without really desiring this union in our hearts and without even trying to remove the obstacles to it…
…The goal, as we saw in the last chapter, is to grow in the way we receive, maturing in our awareness, understanding, and desire for union with Christ, so that every sacramental reception will result in a more complete spiritual Communion. With me so far? Let’s go a little deeper. St. Thomas goes on to explain that this complete spiritual Communion can even take place when we are unable to receive sacramentally, because “the effect of a sacrament can be secured if it is received by desire.” Some people, he continues, “take this sacrament spiritually before they eat sacramentally,” and by their “desire of receiving the actual sacrament,” they thus “communicate spiritually, though not sacramentally.” What does this mean? It means that, in addition to the times when we can actually receive the sacrament of the Eucharist, we can also receive spiritually through our desire for the sacrament, uniting our hearts to the Heart of Jesus in the Eucharist. This is the reality that is expressed in Secret 7. Yes, there is a limit to the number of times you and I can receive the Eucharist sacramentally, but there is no limit to the number of times we can receive spiritually. Years ago, if I had read this, it wouldn’t have impressed me much. Like most Catholics, I had heard about spiritual Communion, but I viewed it as some kind of “consolation prize.” If, for one reason or another, you couldn’t receive Communion, you could at least unite yourself to Christ through prayer. There was certainly some value to this but, for me, the words “at least” implied that this was not real Communion.
As I learned more about the Eucharist and about what real Communion is, I came to understand that spiritual Communion is not a substitute for sacramental Communion, but a very real anticipation and extension of its fruits. The saints provide us with wonderful models for this. St. Francis de Sales resolved to make a spiritual Communion at least every 15 minutes so that he could link all the events of the day to his reception of the Eucharist at Mass. St. Maximilian Kolbe, in addition to his reception of the Eucharist, made frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament, often more than ten times a day. But even this was not enough for him, so, like St. Francis de Sales, he resolved to enter into spiritual Communion “at least once every quarter hour.” Kolbe stressed what we’ve already seen from St. Thomas Aquinas, that the graces of the Eucharist are received in proportion to our spiritual condition, our desire to be united with God. And, since God always honors our desire for union with Him, these graces are not limited to sacramental Communion. “At times,” Kolbe explained, “spiritual Communion brings the same graces as sacramental.” If this is true, then why do we ever need to receive sacramentally? Because Kolbe isn’t talking about “instead of,” but “in addition to.” As we saw above, true spiritual Communion is always an anticipation or an extension of sacramental Communion. Ideally, it is both.
Reprinted with permission from Vinny Flynn’s “Seven Secrets of the Eucharist.”