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Eucharistic Devotion


As Herbert Thurston noted a century ago, a devotional cult of the eucharist outside the liturgy became possible in the Western Church only after the ceremonial reservation of the sacrament developed. While the custom of reserving the sacrament to communicate the sick, the dying, or those absent from the Sunday assembly is itself very ancient (see, e.g., Justin Martyr, First Apology, 65.5), special signs of external adoration (e.g., genuflection, lighted candles) are not. From the first millennium of Church history, there is no reliable evidence for reserving the eucharist so the faithful could "visit" it, pray in its presence, or honor it with special marks of devotion. And to this day, the Greek Church knows no devotional cult of the eucharist outside the liturgy.

Visits to the Blessed Sacrament. For more than a millennium there was no uniform manner or place of eucharistic reservation. Sometimes Christians took the sacrament home for communion during the week (Apostolic Tradition, 3638); sometimes clergy reserved it (without ceremony) in the sacristy. Before the 12th century any ritual or private honor to the Eucharist outside Mass was virtually impossible because there were no tabernacles visible in the churches. The Sacrament was kept privately for emergencies, as the Holy Oils are often kept today. But by the beginning of the 13th century devotions toward the reserved eucharist were emerging. The English Ancren Riwle (ca. 1200) tells anchoresses to kneel down each morning and salute the sacrament "which is over the high altar" with a prayer that begins, "Hail, source of our creation!" Such devotional attention to the eucharist (reserved in church) reflects both a growing consciousness of the important role of Christ's human nature in salvation and a desire by the faithful to see and adore the consecrated Host. Still, there remained considerable variation in the manner of reservation. Vessels of precious metal in the form of a tower or dove (suspended by a cord over the church's principal altar) were common in England and France, while in Germany a "sacrament house" was sometimes constructed on the north side of the church.

From the 12th and 13th centuries onward, there is mounting evidence that visits to the Blessed Sacrament were made to honor Christ or to pray for special favors. Thomas Becket told King Henry II that he prayed for him "before the Majesty of the Body of Christ." At the end of the 14th century private devotion at the place of reservation was common among lay Christians, monks, and religious women. Luther and other reformers objected to this adoration. The Council of trent in its Decree on the Holy Eucharist, 1551, defended the Feast of Corpus Christi and, in general, the honor and adoration given to the Blessed Sacrament. In the next two centuries there appeared many devotional books advocating visits to the place of reservation, notably St. alphonsus ligouri's Visits to the Blessed Sacrament, which has gone through more than 2000 editions in 39 languages since 1745.

Nocturnal and Perpetual Adoration. The devotional practice (perpetual or intermittent) of adoring Christ present in the eucharist thus expanded rapidly during medieval and early modern times. Isolated cases of nocturnal adoration had already appeared in the early 13th century. In 1226 the Holy See approved adoration of the Eucharist, veiled on the altar at Avignon, by request of Louis VII to give thanks for his victory over the Albigenses. Certain practices dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries such as watching before the tomb during the last three days of Holy Week, eucharistic processions, and the exposition of the Host may also have entailed nocturnal adoration. By 1393, a branch of Benedictines devoted explicitly to eucharistic adoration had been established. Yet some notable saints hardly mention eucharistic devotion at all. When, for example, in his Spiritual Exercises, St. ignatius loyola spoke of God's abiding presence in creation, he said not a word about the reserved Sacrament. During the same historical period, however, Philip II of Spain (152798) established a eucharistic "vigil" at the Escorial, so that religious, in successive pairs, could pray night and day at the place of reservation.

In time, eucharistic associations emerged whose primary purpose was to promote frequent or perpetual adoration of the reserved Sacrament. In 1810 Giacomo Sinibaldi, Canon of Santa Maria in Via Lata, organized what was to become the Nocturnal Adoration Society, to pay homage to Christ during the night in the various church in which Forty Hours were being held successively. Carmelite Herman Cohen founded a similar society in Paris in 1848. Canonically approved as a pious union in 1851 and raised to the title of archconfraternity in 1858, the Nocturnal Adoration Society promoted the practice of nocturnal adoration through the year and independently of the Forty Hours devotion. In Brussels a movement started in 1848. Under the inspiration of Anna de Meeus became the Archconfraternity of Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Saccrament and the Work for Need Churches. From this society in 1872 came the Congregation of Perpetual Adorers. At Marseilles in 1859 Peter Julian Eymard established the People's Eucharistic League so that laypeople might share the Eucharistic spirit and work of the religious congregation he had founded. Members promised to make at least one hour of eucharistic adoration each month. The Priests' League for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, founded in 1879, was approved at Rome in 1887. In 1950, a society for Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for diocesan priests was canonically erected with headquarters at Rome.

The Forty Hours Devotion. That having been said, the early-modern emphasis on uninterrupted worship of the Blessed Sacrament ("perpetual adoration")preferably with the Host solemnly exposed on the altar arose, most probably, in connection with the Forty Hours devotion, a continuous period of public prayer "before the face of the Lord" recommended by Pope Clement VII in Graves et diuturnae (1592). "Forty Hours" seems to have originated in Milan (ca. 1527), where the devotion (involving Masses, eucharistic exposition, processions, litanies and special prayers) rotated through the city's numerous churches, creating a year-round cycle of prayer and supplication. In 1731, Clement XII republished, in Italian, the instructions for Forty Hours ceremonies to be followed as issued two decades earlier by Clement XI. While this "Clementine Instruction" was of obligation only in Rome, its use elsewhere was encouraged.

Forty Hours remained popular until the late twentieth century. By decree of June 21, 1973, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued a revised ritual, "Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass [HCWE]." HCWE does not specifically mention the Forty Hours Devotion. Instead, it simply recommends with the local Ordinary's consent and when suitable numbers of people will be present, in churches where the Eucharist is regularly reserved solemn exposition of the Blessed Sacrament once a year for an extended, even if not strictly continuous period of time. "This kind of exposition," says HCWE 82, "must clearly express the cult of the blessed sacrament in its relationship to the Mass. The plan of the exposition should carefully avoid anything which might somehow obscure the principal desire of Christ in instituting the eucharist, namely, to be with us as food, medicine, and comfort." When continuous exposition is not possible because of too few worshipers, the Blessed Sacrament may be replaced in the tabernacle during the scheduled periods of adoration, but no more often than twice each day (HCWE, 88). The Host should be consecrated in the Mass which immediately precedes the exposition and after Communion placed in the monstrance upon the altar. Mass ends with the prayer after Communion, and the concluding rites are omitted. The priest then may locate the Blessed Sacrament on an elevated, but not too lofty or distant throne, and incense it (HCWE 9394). Prayers, scriptrual readings, religious silence, homilies or exhortations, congregational singing, and part of the Liturgy of the Hours should be employed during the exposition (HCWE 9596). This extended exposition is interrupted for Masses celebrated through that period.

Besides exposition, HCWE recommends "devotional services" (HCWE 79), processions (HCWE 10108), and congresses (HCWE 10912) as suitable forms which help the Christian people to witness their "faith and devotion toward the sacrament" and "to express their worship publicly in the bond of charity and unity" (HCWE 101, 109). Such devotions are "strongly encouraged when celebrated according to the regulations of lawful authority," and they "should be in harmony with the sacred liturgy take their bearing from the liturgy, and lead people back to the liturgy" (HCWE 79).

See Also: eucharist outside mass, worship of the.

Bibliography: e. dumoutet, Le Désir de voir l'hostie (Paris 1926). n. mitchell, Cult and Controversy: The Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass (New York 1982). m. rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (New York 1991).

[n. d. mitchell]

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