I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, and as a kid in Catholic school Eucharistic adoration was a regular feature of our observance of the liturgical year, especially during Lent. As a practice, adoration has deep historical roots in the church in Philadelphia, roots that extend at least as far back as St. John Neumann, the city's fourth Catholic bishop. It was he who instituted the practice of Forty Hours' devotion across the diocese. Only after leaving the Philadelphia area did I realize that this pious devotion is, well, somewhat rare in other parts. (No doubt such "old school" practices are the basis of a joke I've heard: What's the time difference between New York and Philadelphia? When it's 9:00 in New York, it's 1949 in Philadelphia.)
Since elementary school, I can't say that adoration has played a huge role in my prayer life. This has not been true for a number of my friends, however. Some who live in New York City (and elsewhere) have become involved with Catholic Underground, a ministry of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and find it very helpful for their spiritual lives. Catholic Underground combines private prayer during adoration with communal prayer, followed by a showcase of Catholic art and artists. Even without the formal organization of Catholic Underground, other friends have spoken of visiting chapels and churches that offer "perpetual adoration," and say that it is consoling to be able to spend time in places marked out as sacred. These people are not zealots, holy rollers or would-be monks and nuns. They are ordinary people who find adoration helpful in their spiritual journey.
So I was surprised to read this news blurb over at the Christian Century, responding to a prominent conference on Eucharistic adoration that took place this June in Rome. In it, Notre Dame theologian Rev. Richard McBrien says that adoration should be "tolerated but not encouraged." Noting the historical origins of the practice -- as a Counter-Reformation response to challenges about the Real Presence -- McBrien points out that some liturgists see it as "a step back to the Middle Ages." In his view, adoration "erodes the communal aspect" of the Mass, and "erodes the fact that the Eucharist is a meal." Adoration misses the point that "Holy Communion is something to be eaten, not adored."
It strikes me that the "tolerate but do not encourage" idea is a bit harsh and also counterintuitive, especially since McBrien acknowledges that some find the practice "spiritually enriching." To return to the example of Catholic Underground, many of its participants are young adults -- a demographic not exactly taking churches by storm otherwise. There also seems little risk that adoration of the Eucharist will "erode" the community formed at Mass, since it often takes place in a communal setting. This is to say nothing of the fact that the overlap between adoration-goers and Mass-goers is presumably pretty high.
There are indeed legitimate concerns surrounding adoraton -- I just don't think McBrien's getting at them in his comments above. It would be problematic if adoration were somehow being used to substitute for the Mass or were viewed as a remedy for a perceived general "unworthiness" to receive Communion. Likewise troublesome would be if individuals seek to use adoration as a litmus test, where one's views on adoration are a proxy for one's fidelity to the faith. Objections would also be warranted if individual proponents of the practice advocate the view that adoration is somehow the only form of valid personal prayer. In addition to being troublesome, this is also plainly false.
But barring these kinds of problems and distortions -- none of which are alleged to be particularly widespread in the article or elsewhere -- the "tolerate but not encourage" standard seems misguided. We should be encouraging people to pray, not just "tolerating" it.