The first known cases of the novel coronavirus in Italy were diagnosed on the last day of January this year. Within weeks, with the relentless spread of Covid-19 across Europe, Asia, and the Americas, Catholic churches curtailed public liturgies or closed entirely, and forced abstinence from the Eucharist — a “eucharistic fast” — became the lived reality of hundreds of millions of the faithful worldwide for months.
In Behold the Pierced One (originally published in 1986), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) provides helpful historical and theological background on fasting from the Eucharist, something which we generally experience only on Good Friday and Holy Saturday prior to the Sacred Paschal Vigil, out of reverence for the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. Benedict recounts the fact that the saintly Augustine of Hippo refrained from taking Communion in the days prior to his death to heighten his hunger for God. Sinners, too, were not allowed to approach the table of the Lord until they had shown sincere repentance.
“A fasting of this kind,” Benedict suggests, “. . . could lead to a deepening of relationship with the Lord in the sacrament. It could also be an act of solidarity with all those who yearn for the sacrament but cannot receive it” [the divorced, the remarried, those in mixed marriages, etc.] . . . “Voluntary spiritual fasting . . . would visibly express the fact that we all need that ‘healing of love’ which the Lord performed in the loneliness of the cross.”
Here I wish to share some of my own experience as a pastor and a confessor, and what others have told me about fasting from the Eucharist during the pandemic and stay at home orders. Universally, people missed being able to gather at the table of the Lord and to partake of Communion. Not being able to do this for so many weeks made the hunger for fellowship, community, public prayer, and sacramental Communion all the more acute. Many made a spiritual Communion when they could not receive Christ in Holy Communion. Doing so comforted and reassured them.
A powerful insight — and, I believe, the grace of the moment through which we are living — has arisen from the experience of so many being unable to gather for the Sunday assembly and fasting from the Eucharist. It is the rediscovery of and the deepening of the bond of love, friendship, and faith, which unites us as the mystical body of Christ. We have, of necessity, sought new, creative ways of being present to one another and supporting each other on the journey, all the while longing for the day when the whole Church can again come together, the plebs Dei, to be strengthened by the gift of the Eucharist.