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"But it's just bread in a fancy box."
"But that's idol worship!"
"And you believe that?"
I was used to hearing this when I talked to Protestants about Eucharistic Adoration. But I was surprised and saddened by the responses I heard from many Catholics on the issue as well.
"It's so . . . weird."
"It's so . . . pre-Vatican Two."
"But it's so . . . Catholic!(?)"
Happily, discussing it forced me to look up why we have Eucharistic Adoration in the Church. It also gave me a greater appreciation of the gift we have in the Blessed Sacrament, yet another unique feature of Christ's Church on earth. More importantly it helped validate some experiences I'd had with the Eucharist, assuring me others had known what I'd gone through during Adoration of Our Lord
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. gives an interesting and readable treatment to this subject in “The History of Eucharistic Adoration: Development of Doctrine in the Catholic Church (found online at http://www.ewtn.com/library/HOMELIBR/HISTOREA.TXT).” Eucharistic Adoration is a classic example of the development of doctrine. This doesn't mean that the idea was pulled out of thin air. It refers to a deepening understanding and appreciation of a truth already in place. The incarnation of Christ is one example; we knew from Christ's words in the Bible that He was God, but it was through years of prayer, thought and study that Church understood Christ was both fully human and fully divine while still one distinct person, declaring so at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.
The same is true with Eucharistic Adoration. While the early Church fully accepted Christ's presence in the Sacrament since the Apostolic period, it was over time that the worship of Christ in the Sacrament took the format it does today.
Belief that the bread becomes Christ's real body and blood came from Jesus' own words in the Gospel (see John 6:66), as well as the teachings of St. Paul (I Corinthians 2:23-26). St. Ignatius of Antioch continued this practice in the second century, warning in his “Letter to the Smyrnaeans” against heretics who denied the Real Presence (6:2–7:1). By the middle of the third century, a new form of Christian worship had developed. Generally known today as monasticism, some believers felt called to live a life free of the world's distractions, taking a solitary life in the deserts of Palestine and Egypt. Many called to this life kept consecrated portions of the Eucharist in the cells, caves, or hermitages where they lived, prefiguring the modern practice of preserving a Eucharistic host in a chapel for the faithful.
The setting apart of the Eucharist in a specialized holder, as today's Eucharist is in Adoration, has a long history in the Church. Due to its sacred nature the Eucharist has often been set apart from the rest of the Church's articles. By the time the Church held the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, the Eucharist began to be reserved in Churches of monasteries and convents. Solitary life had moved to communal life, and the Sacrament was held for those who sick and dying in the communities. St. Basil in the fourth century is recorded as placing a third of the Eucharistic bread in a golden dove suspended above the monastic altar, and one poem dated 802 A.D. tells of the Eucharist being stored in a pyx on the high altar of a Church in Lindisfarne, England. Indeed, the practice of setting aside a portion of the Sacrament within the church building was so commonplace that we have no record of anyone questioning its validity for the first millennium of Christianity.
Ironically, it was the words of an unbeliever in the Eucharist that triggered a new era in Adoration. In the eleventh century, a French archdeacon named Berengarius publicly denied the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Pope Gregory the Seventh ordered the rebellious Berengarius to sign a retraction of his heresy, and the document provided for this codified for the first time what the Church has always believed since the time of the first Apostles:
"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 . . . They are present not only by means of the sign and efficacy of the Sacrament, but also in the very reality and truth of their nature and substance."
With this statement of faith, devotion to the Eucharist became widespread throughout the Catholic world. In country after country, Eucharistic processions were instituted, and visits to the Sacrament in its pyx were encouraged. Cells in monasteries and convents had windows to the Church placed in them to allow even the cloistered to view the Blessed Sacrament. By the thirteenth century, Pope Urban IV had instituted the feast of Corpus Christi. He'd also commissioned a cleric named Thomas Aquinas to compose hymns for the feast day, which would be celebrated annually on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday.
By the sixteenth century, the Protestant heresy was in full stride throughout much of Christendom. Some of the shrillest Protestant assertions involved denials of the Eucharist. The Council of Trent responded in 1551, restating clearly that not only was the Eucharist truly the body of Christ, but that "The Sacrament is to be publicly exposed for the people's Adoration.[emphasis mine]" Pope Julius III's approval of the Council's statements made them the basis of many justifications of Eucharistic Adoration, even today.
“But why do they do it all the time?”
I taught at a wonderful Catholic school in Cincinnati for three years. A school parent I'll call Mrs. Grant made regular visits at 3 a.m. to her parish's Eucharistic chapel, and I marveled that she still had the energy to deal with her large and lively family. As time went on, I wondered even more at the number of parishes I'd seen with perpetual Adoration societies, each with a number of participants just as dedicated as Mrs. Grant was. When, I wondered, did this get started? What motivated people to get up in the middle of the night, drive out in the thick of a Midwestern winter, sit and pray for an hour, and then drive back home for a few hours of sleep until the alarm clock screamed in their ear?
Perpetual Adoration, the uninterrupted attendance of worshippers in front of the Blessed Sacrament, has evidence stretching back to the Fourth century. Though in 1592 Pope Clement VIII did make a proclamation regarding a forty-hour devotion, the 'modern' idea of the perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament goes even further, with a king's triumph over heresy in 1226.
Victorious over his Albigensian enemies, King Louis VII of France asked to have the Sacrament exposed in the Chapel of the Holy Cross. So many adorers came to the event that the local bishop agreed to have the Adoration continue day and night. For nearly six hundred years, until the onset of the violently anti-clerical French Revolution in 1792, the devotion of the French faithful continued. The chapel found French believers constantly present, voluntarily worshipping the Body of Christ. The practice was happily reinstated at France's Holy Cross Chapel in 1829, after the guillotine had finished devouring most of the Revolution's leaders.
Though the devotion of the French faithful was exemplary, the style of Adoration in the Holy Cross Chapel remained largely a local curiosity until the Council of Trent. Its decrees inspired chapels of perpetual Eucharistic Adoration throughout the Catholic world as well as France. In 1641, for example, the Baron de Renty of Paris formed a perpetual Adoration society for women that became the forerunner of today's parish perpetual Adoration groups. In 1654, congregations such as the Benedictines of the Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in Austria took as part of their vows a solemn promise of perpetual Adoration. In 1753 the parishes in Boulonge, France were divided into twelve groups representing the twelve months of the year, with each parish having one full day's responsibility of Sacramental Adoration. Later, in 1810, the Pious Union of the Adorers of the Most Blessed Sacrament was founded, a movement which spread throughout Europe and into North and South America.
As a history lesson, this was adequate for me. But my next question was along more along personal lines. “This is interesting, and convincing” my inner skeptic nagged, “but why should *I* engage in Adoration? Why should *I* be a part of a perpetual Adoration group, or make regular visits to the Sacrament?”
Just as with conversion to the Catholic faith, the reasons that people develop a devotion to the Eucharist are varied and often depend largely upon the individual. My own story isn't as dramatic as some, but it has served to give me the desire to be one of the Catholic faithful who make regular Adoration visits.
When I was a teenager, my parents encouraged me to make a holy hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament at least once a week. I wish I could say that it stuck; at seventeen, I was far more interested in chasing girls than holiness. When I was nineteen and facing the possibility of a major change in my life, I went to the on-campus Eucharistic chapel at the Catholic college I attended. With no one else present, I raised my arms and, for the first time in my life, completely abandoned myself to divine providence. To make a long story short, things turned out for the better. But despite the fact that I was a faithful Catholic, I didn't have the drive or desire to visit Our Lord in the Eucharist regularly outside of Mass. I did so only intermittently at best for close to the next ten years, until I got the phone call notifying me of my father's death.
I hadn't seen him for a number of years since my parents had divorced. When I'd heard he'd died of a heart attack, I was suddenly and wrenchingly aware of all the things I'd wanted to say to him. Though I hadn't seen him in a very long time, I went into my room and wept over all my lost chances. Within the next few minutes, the thought of going to the Blessed Sacrament took a gentle but firm hold in my head. “I've got to go to Saint Agnes.” I said to my wife, my tears halting suddenly as I looked up. My wife's response was quick, calm, and supportive. “You do whatever you need to do,” Came her gentle reply.
During the trip to the perpetual Adoration chapel at St. Agnes parish, over two decades of pent-up frustration, anger and sadness hit me with a force I'd never known. While driving to the chapel I broke down into sobs, managed to regain my composure, and broke down again nearly a half-dozen times. To spare my mother any pain, I'd always had it in the back of my head that I'd look my father up after my mother had died. It literally never occurred to me that he would go first.
And yet he had. I had a mountain of regrets and felt a hair's breadth from an emotional meltdown. I pulled my car into the parking lot of St. Agnes and strode to the Adoration chapel, trying to be a model of composure.
I opened the door and saw the Blessed Sacrament in the Monstrance. I'd heard of some people describing sensations when they entered Adoration chapels, like Christ was watching them as they walked in. In my case the host wasn't staring at me as I entered. It was just there in the chapel, quietly being there as long as I would be there, and quietly continuing there long after I would leave. I think there were a few other people in the chapel during this time. I really can't recall now for sure. All I knew was that it was finally quiet in my head and heart. All my upset and anger were gone, as suddenly, completely and quietly as darkness leaves when a light switch is flicked up. There was no sense of angels or devils tugging and fighting over my soul. There was only a peace that came without the slightest hint of Hollywood fanfare.
I knelt down quickly and quietly, and prayed with steady hands clasped. My head was bowed while I prayed for my father's soul, and I hoped that I would one day see him again.
All that night, the only real peace I found was in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Later, at the end of a two-year crisis of faith, I found my belief in our Lord and His Church return to me in force after a visit to a different Adoration chapel. To this day my wife and I regularly make attempts to bring our children for short bouts of prayer before Our Lord in the Sacrament. What better way to show your love for someone than to make a regular visit?
Some have claimed that a short chat with a famous or powerful person changed their lives significantly. At the very least, such a meeting was a memorable occasion. How much more valuable, then, would an hour be with the redeemer of mankind? Our Lord left us a gift beyond measure with the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist; a fact we as Catholics should keep in mind the next and every time we can visit Him in Adoration.
-- by John D. McNichol
Copyright A.D. 2002 by John D. McNichol