In my last two columns, I spoke about a number of topics pertaining to Eucharistic Adoration: what we, as Catholics, believe about the Eucharist; what Eucharistic Adoration is; why we do it; and what we do when we come for Adoration. I have also heard several persons ask about the history of Adoration, and why we hear of it again today after a period of recent history in which it was seldom practiced.
The belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is rooted in and grew out of the New Testament, particularly the Gospels and the writings of St. Paul. The early Church clearly understood that Jesus was present and continued his mission in the Eucharist. Early Christian hermits kept the Eucharist in their cells, not only so that they could give themselves Holy Communion, but also to be near the presence of Christ. As early as the fourth century, the Eucharist began to be reserved in the churches of monasteries and convents, probably in rooms separate from where the Mass was celebrated. This special reservation was so that the Eucharist could be taken immediately to those who were sick or dying. This place set aside in which the Eucharist was reserved had automatically a sacred character associated with it. By the 9th century, the Eucharist was more commonly kept in the main body of the church, close to the altar.
Until the 11th century, belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist had been taken for granted. At that time, an archdeacon by the name of Berengarius in Angers, France publicly denied that Christ was truly present in the consecrated bread and wine. Since Berengarius’ ideas began to circulate, Pope Gregory VII ordered him to retract his teaching and make a statement of faith that was consistent with what the Church had always believed, but up to that point in history was never challenged. Following Berengarius’ profession of faith, there was a significant development in the devotional life of the Church toward the Eucharist that would continue throughout the Middle Ages. This development would include Eucharistic Processions, acts of adoration, visits to where Christ was reserved in the Eucharist, etc. From the 11th century on, devotion to the Eucharist reserved in the tabernacle became more and more the norm, especially in religious order communities.
In the 13th century, Pope Urban IV instituted the feast of Corpus Christi for the whole Church, following his encounter with a Eucharistic miracle just north of Rome. St. Thomas Aquinas would compose Eucharistic hymns that we still sing today at Adoration and Benediction: “O Salutaris Hostia,” “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum,” and “Panis Angelicus.” Later, in the 16th century, the Protestant reformers challenged the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist. The Council of Trent responded by clarifying its teaching on the Mass as a sacrifice and the Eucharist as the Real Presence. The Council also stated that the Son of God in the Eucharist is to be worshiped as God is to be worshiped, and that “… the Sacrament is to be publicly exposed for the people’s adoration.” By the end of the 16th century, Pope Clement VIII had initiated the Forty Hours Devotion, in which there was forty hours of continuous prayer before the exposed Blessed Sacrament in a given church. This devotion quickly spread throughout the Church. Perpetual Adoration also became widespread. “Perpetual Adoration” is a term used broadly that could mean uninterrupted Adoration that is literally perpetual, or even uninterrupted Adoration for an extended period of time, such as a day or several days.
It’s worth noting that over the last few decades, for various reasons, Eucharistic Adoration had become virtually unheard of by many Catholics. The Forty Hours Devotion almost completely disappeared. Along with this, many churches in recent past decades moved their tabernacles out of the center of their sanctuaries and into side chapels out of sight. There were many reasons for these somewhat “unofficial” changes that occurred in the Church following the Second Vatican Council. Some of which were perhaps efforts to dialogue more with Protestantism, or to be more Protestant-friendly, etc. But regardless of what has taken place in recent times and the lack of familiarity with the devotion to Christ in the Eucharist that has resulted from it, we still cannot ignore that our Catholic Christian faith is a Eucharistic faith, and prayer before the Blessed Sacrament in Eucharistic Adoration is an important and fruitful expression of that faith. Please join us at St. Mary’s on First Friday mornings for Adoration. If you have questions, contact our Adoration coordinator, Petrine Pongratz at 715-652-2421.