When perpetual adoration takes on a new meaning

Sister Eileen McKenzie carries the monstrance during a ceremony marking the transition in the congregation's adoration practice. Photo by Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.

For more than 141 years, since Aug. 1, 1878, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration have maintained the practice that gives us our name. Along with our lay prayer partners, one of us, at all times, has been praying before the consecrated host in our adoration chapel in La Crosse, Wis.

Our congregation has endured multiple challenges and transformations, and our practice of adoration has persisted. Prayer before the exposed Blessed Sacrament has lasted through fire and flood and through changes to our size, structure and form of life after the Second Vatican Council. At our peak size in 1962, we had 1,172 members. Today, we are at 185 members; only seven of us are younger than 50.

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Under a domed ceiling dotted with stars, the adorers pray for the intentions that have come to us from around the world.

Recently, our practice changed in a way that goes to the heart of who we are. We ended the practice of adoring 24 hours a day. We now pray before the Blessed Sacrament from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day. Yet our tradition continues. We still practice perpetual adoration and our congregation’s name still includes “Perpetual.” But exactly what perpetual adoration means has taken on a new shape.

Some of my sisters say that this spiritual practice of perpetual adoration began before our founders immigrated from Bavaria to Wisconsin; adoration was a devotion in their parish of origin. Others say that the practice began with a promise to Christ: The sisters asked for his intervention in helping them found their community in the United States and promised they would establish perpetual adoration when it came to fruition.

The practice of perpetual adoration has been for us as subtle as breathing, always in the background while we serve the people of God. In the past, we mainly served as teachers and nurses. Today, we minister in the fields of spirituality, social justice and parish ministry, along with education and health care. While sisters serve those in need, the constant prayer that has fed our mission and formed our identity persists.

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The sisters asked for Christ's intervention and promised they would establish perpetual adoration in response.

As the ritual has traditionally taken place, at the start of each hour, a clock chimes and a shift of adorers revolves into the front row of chairs and ambos in our adoration chapel, deep inside St. Rose Convent. They recite prayers and bow before the white marble altar where a bejeweled monstrance is enthroned and surrounded by pink and gold Romanesque decor.

Above, an aging mural shows God the Father, the Holy Spirit and countless angels gesturing toward the Blessed Sacrament. For an hour, kneeling or sitting in the holy and silent space, enclosed under a domed ceiling painted dark blue and dotted with stars, the adorers pray for the intentions that have come to us from around the world. Meanwhile, sisters ministering elsewhere stop by the motherhouse to adore the sacrament when possible.

While sisters serve those in need, the constant prayer that has fed our mission and formed our identity persists.

Not long ago a friend asked me if I joined my community because of our practice of adoration. No, not really, I admitted. In fact, I was not familiar with the devotion before hearing of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. When I first learned about the devotion of the community, I was attracted to what the practice meant, not to the action itself. The sisters are prayerful, contemplative, steadfast, rooted and faithful. During my discernment, I learned our motto, “Modern Lives, Sacred Traditions,” and loved that the balance of prayer and service was central to the charism.

In my early 20s, I longed to pray with the sisters in their chapel in La Crosse, to try on their rhythms. Eventually, I felt at home in the communal practice of adoration, in the devotion and its meaning.

When I joined the order I was aware that what I was committing to was a life full of constant change, not stability. I knew I would move a lot and try several ministries. And I expected that the size and structure of my community life would be transformed, too. I dreaded the likelihood of needing to grieve a trail of sisters I love as they went on to their eternal reward.

When we were told adoration would no longer be "round the clock" it felt like an earthquake.

Somehow, though, I never considered that our adoration practice might need to change. In recent years, I became aware that it was growing increasingly difficult to have two adorers at every hour throughout the night. I could see that the circumstances were causing some challenges to my community, and I was concerned.

Yet, in mid-January when our congregation’s president, Eileen McKenzie, F.S.P.A., announced that changes were going to be made to our practice of adoration, it felt like an earthquake. At the start of Lent, eucharistic adoration would no longer be “round the clock.” At 10 p.m. on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, the tabernacle would be closed and adoration would pause until the next morning at 6 a.m.

We were told that there would be a special ritual to mark the moment the night before we changed our practice of perpetual adoration. Sisters, prayer partners, F.S.P.A. affiliates and staff were all invited to a special prayer service on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020.

It was growing increasingly difficult to have two adorers at every hour throughout the night.

When the time came for our adoration practice to shift during that last week of February, I was home alone. All the other sisters in the household went to La Crosse to physically participate in the historic moment while I remained in Chicago, living into my full and ordinary schedule of ministry. I visited a jail, fed the homeless, met with spiritual directees, wrote a poem. With my sisters away, I was suddenly aware of the heaviness of grief. I was sluggish and teary. Sleep evaded me, and depression invaded. I had irrational doubts. I felt lonely, lost and uncertain.

As the time for the ritual approached, I realized I had a scheduling conflict. I wouldn’t even be able to watch the livestream of the ritual as it was happening in La Crosse. I had a meeting with a directee until 6:15; the ritual was scheduled to start at 6.

The day the change was to be made, I was suddenly aware of the heaviness of grief. I was sluggish and teary.

After the appointment I rushed back to the convent where I live in Chicago and opened my laptop and tuned in, watching while I ate a supper of leftover salad. My sisters were lined up in the center aisle as in a Communion procession. At the front of the line, two sisters stood signing documents at two side-by-side podiums. It contained this promise:

Accept my poor light;
It is the best I can give you now.
I, Sister ____, promise to continue deepening my adoration
to the extent possible as I fulfill my vows to you
to the end of my life.
With your Presence in my life,
I cultivate in my heart
as beautiful an abode for your Presence
as I am capable of doing.

After the scroll was signed, the bishop of La Crosse, William Patrick Callahan, O.F.M.Conv., spoke eloquently about our Franciscan and eucharistic traditions. During the reposition of the Blessed Sacrament, the assembly sang “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” Alone in the convent in Chicago, I sang along, although I wasn’t feeling joyful. I felt far away.

The next day, Ash Wednesday, during a guided meditation, I visualized two hands. One hand was open wide, releasing what was beyond control. The other hand was closed in a fist, gripping and embracing reality. This is the simultaneous letting go and acceptance that is required of me as my community changes. It is a practice required of all who are disciples of Jesus Christ, a skill essential to the human condition.

I sang along, although I wasn’t feeling joyful. I felt far away.

On the night of Ash Wednesday, still alone in the Chicago convent, I entered into an hour of prayer to unite with those who I knew were praying in our adoration chapel in La Crosse. I prayed with my sadness. I prayed in the silence. I wrote in my journal about letting go and accepting, about my Lenten intentions. I remembered that with God, time isn’t linear. What if our sisters from yesteryear keep the night hours for us now? What if part of Franciscan Gospel living means embracing new understandings of our traditions?

And, had I been able to see two weeks into the future to the eruption of the coronavirus pandemic throughout the United States while I prayed alone that night, I might have marveled at the mystery of Providence, too. No one could have anticipated that by March 16, the entrance of lay prayer partners and sisters who reside outside of St. Rose Convent would be suspended indefinitely as a precautionary measure. Once it became clear that only the remaining 40 sisters who reside in St. Rose Convent would cover the 16 remaining adoration hour shifts each day, it would seem as if the Holy Spirit were looking out for us. The change was made at the right time.

This is the simultaneous letting go and acceptance that is required of me as my community changes.

Yes, it may seem like a stretch to some people for us to maintain the name “Perpetual” and yet not pray every hour of the day and night. As our community prepared for the transformation to our practice, I learned more about the meanings of the word “perpetual”:

1. never ending or changing.
2. occurring repeatedly; so frequent as to seem endless and uninterrupted.
3. (of a plant) blooming or fruiting several times in one season.

I am encouraged by the permission we’ve received from the Vatican; we still are the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration.

On the first Friday night of Lent, two days after our practice of adoration was transformed, I was back in La Crosse. In my bedroom, praying around the midnight hour, I realized no one was in our chapel at the moment. I felt a subtle absence. I visualized the monstrance standing still and silent within the closed tabernacle, like being inside a silent cave. One hand open, one hand closed. I let go of the past and accepted the gift of a new reality.

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