Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament: Contemporary Catholics on Traditional Devotions
In the current practice of the Catholic Church in the United States, people are free to receive Communion either in the open hand or on the tongue. Although I have not conducted a survey, my impression from presiding at both student and parish liturgies is that the practice tends to vary largely along lines of age: most of the people to whom I give Communion on the tongue, at least here at Notre Dame, seem to be under 35. And while I have never attempted to find out why so many young Catholics seem to prefer this practice, I suspect it is part of a more general desire on the part of their generation to find physical, not merely verbal, ways of expressing and deepening a reverent awareness of the mystery of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.
The subject of how best to express reverence for what we Catholics so dryly call the eucharistic “species” has become a contentious one in the church. It touches on church architecture and inner arrangement—for instance where to place the tabernacle in which the host is reserved, and how to coordinate the placement of the tabernacle with the lectern where Scripture is read. It also includes a variety of traditional practices some would like to revive among the faithful: keeping a reverent silence in church, even outside times of liturgical celebration; genuflecting when passing in front of the tabernacle; making a profound bow before receiving Communion. Many who promote these practices feel that the liturgical changes instituted since the Second Vatican Council have unintentionally communicated to Catholics a secular spirit, in which the church building has become more a meeting place, a place for human conversation, than a sacred place where the transcendent God encounters us in human gestures and things.
One Catholic practice on which these changing sensibilities have been focused is eucharistic adoration, a period of quiet prayer in a space primarily intended for liturgical worship—prayer focused on the sacramental bread, either reserved in a locked tabernacle or exposed to view in a monstrance. When I was growing up, this kind of devotion to the Eucharist outside the Mass was central to my developing faith, my sense of the real possibility of finding God in the life of a New Jersey parish. When Catholics in the 1950’s or 1960’s passed a church, it was common practice to stop in for a brief “visit” to the Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament. In that quiet place, the darkness punctuated only by a few flickering vigil lights, one had a sense that God was suddenly close, a hidden spring of life just under the surface of daily routine. Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, a 15-minute service involving the exposition of the eucharistic bread, a few familiar Latin hymns, prayers, incense and a multitude of candles, was the normal conclusion to services other than the Mass—to novenas, vespers and the programmatic preaching of the Catholic equivalent of a revival: the parish mission. Likewise, Holy Thursday included not only a solemn liturgy and procession, commemorating the institution of the Eucharist at Jesus’ Last Supper, but also long periods of silent prayer afterward before the sacrament itself, now moved from its normal place in the tabernacle to an altar of “repose” in some other part of the church.
Once a year, each parish celebrated the Forty Hours Devotion, too, in honor of the Blessed Sacrament—a kind of three-day community marathon of silent prayer before the exposed host, now raised high over the altar and surrounded with banks of flowers and shimmering candles. For me as a child and a teenager, these forms of eucharistic devotion were an introduction to a peculiarly Catholic form of contemplative prayer: a prayer not so much of withdrawal from things of the senses as of kneeling and gazing, of awe-struck adoration in the midst of a throng of other worshippers. With a bit of imagination, one easily felt the words of the hymn had become real: as “all mortal flesh kept silence,” the “heavenly vanguard” of angels and saints joined us in this act of ecclesial reverence. It was something richly sensual, yet pointing—through the focal point of a small white wafer—to the fullness of the church, to the heavenly liturgy and to Jesus the eternal priest.
As in so many other aspects of Catholic life, eucharistic devotion of this sort largely disappeared from the church’s normal agenda in the late 1960’s. The Eucharist, it was often pointed out, is a ritual meal, in which the whole community, gathered under the representative headship of a bishop or a priest, worships God as one body and is nourished by the word of Scripture and the signs of Jesus’ sacrifice. The purpose of the eucharistic species, then, is not to be the object of adoration, but the daily food of God’s “pilgrim people.” The Second Vatican Council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” stated that “devotions” practiced in the church, important as they are, must be “controlled so that they cohere with the sacred liturgy, in some way derive from it, and lead the people to it” (No. 13). It also emphasized the central importance in the Mass of Scripture and the homily (No. 24), and stressed that liturgy is by its nature not a time for private prayer, but the community’s public celebration (Nos. 26-28). In a famous passage, the same document explicitly broadened the notion of Christ’s “presence” in liturgical celebration to include not only his presence in the eucharistic species (where he is found “most fully”—maxime), but also in the other sacraments, in the person of the presider, in the word of Scripture and in the whole congregation gathered in Christ’s name (No. 7).
All of this doubtless came as a needed correction of post-Reformation imbalances in the Catholic Church’s life of worship. Yet it has led to some new imbalances as well: to a new emphasis on words in Catholic worship, with a corresponding de-emphasis of concrete, time-hallowed symbols; to a rationalistic barrenness in some modern church architecture and decoration; to an emphasis on community formation rather than adoration of God as the implied goal of some Sunday assemblies; to a bland moralism in a good deal of contemporary Catholic preaching and a tendency to self-celebration in some contemporary liturgical music. So a new reaction has been underway since at least the early 1990’s, as the young seek to find contact again with the church’s symbolic world and with the divine, living presence it embodies, while their elders seek to discern between healthy impulse and Baroque excess in the devotional life of the church of their youth.
In this context, eucharistic adoration seems to be exerting a renewed attraction on young Catholics who seek to draw wisdom from the riches of the church’s tradition. Renewed official guidelines for this devotion now offer a variety of forms that services of eucharistic adoration might take, incorporating readings, a homily and a variety of prayers, as well as quiet contemplation, hymns and the climactic blessing of the congregation with the eucharistic body of Christ (see Eucharistic Worship and Devotion Outside Mass, N.C.C.B., 1987). If used with imagination, these guidelines promise a way of reviving eucharistic adoration within the framework of the liturgical year and the liturgical day: not as a substitute for the Mass, but as an occasion to let the heart of the Mass—our encounter with the risen Jesus in the sacramental signs of bread and wine, and in the sacramental narrative of God’s saving history—become the continuing object of our thought and gaze, and invite us to deeper, more conscious participation in the eucharistic meal.
Praying before the sacred host continues to play an important part in my own life. Although the opportunities for formal eucharistic adoration are fewer now than when I was young, I still find the practice moving and nurturing, understated yet strangely grand. I find, too, that my routine of morning prayer, carried out in our small Jesuit community chapel in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, seems decidedly more focused, more personal, more consoling than prayer in my own room. Prayer before the Eucharist also has an inescapable churchly dimension that other forms of private prayer may lack. This is the sign, after all, around which the church gathers, to discover and nourish its authentic self as the collective body of Christ. As St. Augustine remarks in an Easter homily, “If you are the Body and the members of Christ, your own Mystery is placed on the table of the Lord—you receive your own Mystery” (Sermon 272). The attraction of eucharistic devotion, for me at least, is that it enables us to spend time simply trying to encounter that multifaceted body as something immediate and visibly real. Prayer is always an encounter with Mystery, but it seems more obvious to me, as I pray before the Blessed Sacrament, that the Lord is there, and that in the stillness of a little room I am somehow at the heart of the church.