A Historical Look at Eucharistic Adoration

12-24-2017Weekly ReflectionMatt Henry, Director of Music & Liturgy

Eucharistic Adoration has existed since early times. From the 3rd century, the early hermits (solitary monks) reserved the Eucharist in their cells. The immediate purpose of this reservation was to enable the hermits to give themselves Holy Communion. But these hermits were too conscious of what the Real Presence was not to treat it with great reverence.

As early as the Council of Nicea (325 AD) we know that the Eucharist began to be reserved in the churches of monasteries and convents. Its sacred character was recognized and the place of reservation was set off from "profane usage." One of the first unmistakable references to reserving the Blessed Sacrament is found in a life of St. Basil (who died in 379). Basil is said to have divided the Eucharistic Bread into three parts when he celebrated Mass in the monastery. One part he consumed, the second part he gave to the monks, and the third he placed in a golden dove suspended over the altar.

Toward the end of the 11th century we enter a new era in the history of Eucharistic adoration. Until then, the Real Presence was universally accepted in Catholic belief and its reservation was the common practice in Catholic churches. Suddenly a revolution hit the Church when Berengarius (999-1088), archdeacon of Angers in France, publicly denied that Christ was really and physically present under the species of bread and wine. Others took up the idea and began writing about the Eucharistic Christ as "not exactly the Christ" or as "not actually there." The matter became so serious that Pope Gregory VII ordered Berengarius tosign this retraction:

"I believe in my heart and openly profess that the bread and wine placed upon the altar are, by the mystery of the sacred prayer and the words of the Redeemer, substantially changed into the true and life-giving flesh and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord, and that after the consecration, there is present the true body of Christ which was born of the Virgin and offered up for the salvation of the world, hung on the cross and now sits at the right hand of the Father, and that there is present the true blood of Christ which flowed from his side. They are present not only by means of a sign and of the efficacy of the Sacrament, but also in the very reality and truth of their nature and substance."

That began what is called the Church's "Eucharistic Renaissance." From the eleventh century on, devotion to the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle became more and more prevalent in the Catholic world. St. Francis of Assisi, who was never ordained a priest, had a great personal devotion to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. His first admonition on the Holy Eucharist could not have been more precise:

"Sacred Scripture tells us that the Father dwells in 'light inaccessible' (I Timothy 6:16) and that 'God is spirit' (John 4:24) and St. John adds, 'No one at any time has seen God' (John 1:18). Because God is a spirit He can be seen only in spirit; 'It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing' (John 6:63). But God the Son is equal to the Father and so He too can be seen only in the same way as the Father and the Holy Spirit. That is why all those were condemned who saw our Lord Jesus Christ in His humanity but did not see or believe in spirit in His divinity, that He was the true Son of God. In the same way now, all those are damned who see the Sacrament of the Body of Christ which is consecrated on the altar in the form of bread and wine by the words of our Lord in the hands of the priest, and do not see or believe in spirit and in God that this is really the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ."

The first Perpetual Adoration: After his victory over the Albigenses, King Louis VII of France asked the Bishop of Avignon to have the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the Chapel of the Holy Cross (September 14, 1226). The throng of adorers was so great that the bishop decided to have the adoration continue day and night. This was later ratified by the Holy See. It was uninterrupted until 1792 during the French Revolution. Perpetual adoration resumed in 1829. It i s i mport ant to note, that this amazing achievement of centuries of perpetual contact with Christ in the Eucharist was not a mandate, but an organic result of the faith in that community and its belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

Pope Urban IV instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi in the thirteenth century. When establishing the feast, the Pope stressed the love of Christ who wished to remain physically with us until the endof time:

"In the Eucharist, Christ is with us in His own substance. For when telling the Apostles that He was ascending into heaven, He said, 'Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world,' thus comforting them with the gracious promise that He would remain and be with them even by His bodily presence" (August 11, 1264).

Pope Urban IV commissioned St. Thomas Aquinas to compose the Liturgy of the Hours for the Feast Day, and from that we were given our adoration hymns: O Salutaris Hostia, Tantum Ergo Sacramentum, and Panis Angelicus. Aquinas realized that without the Real Presence there would be no real sacrifice nor real communion. Aquinas assumed that God became man so He might offer Himself on Calvary and continue to offer Himself in the Mass. He became man that He might give Himself to the disciples at the Last Supper and continue to give Himself to us in HolyCommunion.

By the sixteenth century, every aspect of Catholic belief in the Holy Eucharist was challenged by the Reformers. The Council of Trent treatedthis subject exhaustively.

Trent declared that, "The only-begotten Son of God is to be adored in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist with the worship of latria (supreme worship allowed for God alone), including external worship. The Sacrament, therefore, is to be honored with extraordinary festive celebrations (and) solemnly carried from place to place in processions according to the praiseworthy universal rite and custom of the holy Church. The Sacrament is to be publicly exposed for the people's adoration." Approved by Pope Julius III (October 11, 1551), these conciliar statements became the foundationfor dogmatic and devotional progress ever since.

The Forty-Hours Devotion: Before the end of the sixteenth century, Pope Clement VIII in 1592 issued a historic document on what was called in Italian Quarant' Ore (Forty Hours). The devotion consisted of forty hours of continual prayer before the Blessed Sacrament exposed.

"We have determined to establish publicly in this Mother City of Rome an uninterrupted course of prayer in such wise that in the different churches [he specifies them] on appointed days, there be observed the pious and salutary devotion of the Forty Hours; with such an arrangement of churches and times that, at every hour of the day and night, the incense of prayer shall ascend without intermission before the face of the Lord. (the Eucharist)"

The Code of Canon Law in 1917 (Pope Benedict XV) suggested that all churches should participate in a solemn exposition of the BlessedSacrament at least once per year.

Pope Pius XI associated the worship of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament with expiation for sin. Among the ways to make reparation to the Heart of Christ, the Pope urged the faithful to "make expiatory supplications and prayers, prolonged for a whole hour—which is rightly called the 'Holy Hour'" (Miserentissimus Redemptor, May 8, 1928). It was understood that the Holy Hour was tobe made before the Holy Eucharist.

Building on the teaching of his predecessors, Pope John Paul II has come to be known as the Pope of the Real Presence. In one document and address after another, he has repeated what needs repetition for the sake of emphasis: "The Eucharist, in the Mass and outside of the Mass, is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, and is therefore deserving of the worship that is given to the living God, and to Him alone" (Opening address in Ireland,Phoenix Park, September 29, 1979).

The underlying theme of the Church's Eucharistic teaching is the fact of "Christ's consoling presence in the Blessed Sacrament. His Real Presence in the fullest sense; the substantial presence by which the whole and complete Christ, God and man, ispresent" (Pope John Paul II, September 29, 1979).

Once this fact of faith is recognized, it is not difficult to see why prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is so efficacious. It explains why, without a second thought, Catholics have simply referred to the Real Presence as the Blessed Sacrament. It is a Sacrament, or better, it is the one Sacrament, which not only confers grace but contains the very source of grace, namely Jesus Christ.