COVID, Communion, and the Call to Christian Unity
by Julien Hammond
I can recall the day exactly in March 2020 when all of the busyness of my life – all my appointments, activities, events and plans – were simply wiped from my calendar: my coworkers and I were told to go home and to stay there until further notice, and everyone was asked to quarantine or at least to limit interpersonal contacts, until more information could be obtained as to the real threat that a new strain of coronavirus represented to our individual lives and indeed for all humankind.
It was a scary time as I recall, as little by little we learned details about this new plague that had set upon the world: hospitals were being overrun, death tolls were rising and there was no known cure for the virus. Places of communal gathering – churches among them – were asked to restrict access and if possible, to shutter their doors completely, which, of course, many did, to the rejoicing of some and the chagrin of others.
The impact of these restrictions upon the full and visible communion of parishes and church communities was felt everywhere, immediately. The traditional bonds of church unity (or as they are called in our Catholic Tradition – “the visible bonds of communion,” CCC, 815
) were all disrupted in an instant:
- common celebration of divine worship was restricted,
- common profession of the faith was impeded,
- “apostolic leaders” took different stances on the best approach to this unknown threat,
- and debates about vaccination, masking, isolation and sanitation, in society and in the church, challenged even basic charity at times.
The trauma of it all – the battles fought and aspersions cast within society and within our own Christian communities – tore at the fabric of Christian communion that in many ways we have not even begun to name or understand.
At the same time, some remarkable things happened during the pandemic to bolster Christian communion. Almost overnight, every pastor in the country had to figure out how to become a tech-evangelist and how to lead online worship services – with or without a communion service. I emphasize the latter because some churches, on the theological principle that it is not possible to “confect the Eucharist” without a gathered community present, opted to suspend communion services altogether for the duration of the pandemic. (Over two years in some churches without Eucharistic communion!)
Others – our Catholic Tradition among them – continued to offer Eucharistic celebrations by virtual means through a sacramental theology of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist – made real and present by a validly ordained minister – with or without the gathered assembly physically present. In this latter form of communal worship, the faithful were invited to “tune in” from their homes, and to recite an “Act of Spiritual Communion” in place of the usual communion rite.
Regardless of their particular Eucharistic theologies, churches during the pandemic universally called upon traditional resources and new technologies to maintain the bonds of spiritual communion among their faithful. These included:
many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too.
If these words sound familiar to readers of “One Body,” they come from paragraph 3 of the Decree on Ecumenism
from Vatican II, and they represent the list of Christian elements that “exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church…all of which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, and belong by right to the one Church of Christ.”
During the height of the pandemic, these elements formed the basis of spiritual communion, through the wonders of contemporary technologies, to hold parishes, families and faith communities together in real, but imperfect
communion. The fact of this is wonderful, and to my Catholic way of understanding, it is precisely “an outward sign of the inward grace” of the Church’s sacramentality.
For decades, ecumenists have called upon these same spiritual elements to bolster communion between churches wounded by the sins of division. Between Christian communities affected by vaster distances of historical division and trauma, this communion develops at a glacial rate. Such a glacial rate can sometimes give the impression that ecumenically, nothing much is happening, or that the means themselves are ineffectual. But to my mind, the COVID-19 experience shows the validity of spiritual communion for sustaining and increasing “real, but imperfect” communion across challenging divides.
Related to this, The Catechism of the Catholic Church
teaches that “Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her.” (CCC, 820
) The Ecumenical Movement provides a methodology for increasing communion that includes:
- permanent renewal of the Church in greater fidelity to the gospel and to her vocation,
- perpetual conversion of the heart,
- life-long learning about oneself and others,
- and practical measures of dialogue, prayer in common and collaboration in pastoral works. (Cf. CCC, 821)
It seems to me that the post-COVID realities of our parish churches – and perhaps our society in general – would do well to adopt this same methodology, in order to grow in holiness with God and with one another in new and still unforeseen ways.
St. John reminds us, as followers of Jesus, that communion is not primarily something that we create (or confect) on our own; rather “we love because he first loved us.”
(1 Jn. 4.19) Increased communion – internal to the church or ecumenically, pre-COVID or post-COVID – is first and foremost the result of surrendering to God’s love in Jesus Christ, and then doing something about it. What follows from that “first communion” of God’s love for us is a great and wondrous invitation to the mysterious unfolding of God’s grace in our individual and collective lives.
It is my sincerest hope that as we re-engage in the “post-COVID” realities of our lives, our churches will continue to foster the means of spiritual communion beyond merely “emergency measures” and in renewed efforts to restore unity within the broken Body of Christ.
Julien Hammond has been the ecumenical officer for the Archdiocese of Edmonton for over twenty years. He has served as a member of the Roman Catholic-United Church of Canada Dialogue, the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue in Canada, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)-Roman Catholic International Consultation. He is currently a member of the Jewish-Catholic national dialogue, co-sponsored by the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.