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Eucharist, Worship and Custody

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The worship and custody of the Holy Eucharist, independently of Mass and Holy Communion, can be traced to post-apostolic times. St. Justin, writing in his Apology around the year 150, says that deacons were appointed to carry the Blessed Sacrament to those who were absent from the liturgy. The young St. Tarsisius was taken captive and put to death while carrying the consecrated Species on his person. St. Eudocia, martyred under Trajan, was first permitted to visit her oratory and remove a particle of the Host which she took with her to prison. What appears to be the first explicit reference to a tabernacle occurs in the Apostolic Constitutions, compiled towards the end of the fourth century, which provided that “deacons should take the remaining particles of the Sacred Species and place them in the tabernacle” (Lib. 8, cap. 13).

Implicit in these and similar provisions was the Church’s constant belief in the Real Eucharistic Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Thus, in the words of St. Augustine, “No one eats that flesh without first adoring it” (Ennarationes in Psalmos, 98:9). It was on this doctrinal basis that the cult of adoring the Eucharist was founded and gradually developed as something distinct from the Sacrifice of the Mass. At the Council of Trent, the Protestants were condemned for denying that the Eucharist is at once a sacrifice and a sacrament; that it differs from other sacraments in not only producing grace ex opere operato but containing in a permanent manner the Author of grace Himself. The Church’s prescription, therefore, on the proper care and worship of the reserved species stems from these dogmatic principles. Since 1918 the legislation has been embodied in the Code of Canon Law and, for our purpose, covers Canons 1265 to 1275 inclusive. Supporting documents and interpretations of the Code will be incorporated in the following summary as required.

Places For Reserving The Blessed Sacrament

Canon Law clearly distinguishes between places where the Blessed Sacrament must be reserved, and where the reservation is merely permissible. As a general principle, the Eucharist must be kept in the Cathedral Church, in the principle church of an Abbey or Prelacy nullius, and of a Vicariate or Prefecture Apostolic, in every parochial or quasi-parochial church, and in a church attached to a house of exempt religious whether of men or women. It may be kept, with the permission of the local Ordinary, in collegiate churches and in the principal oratory, public or semipublic, of a pious or religious house, or of an ecclesiastical college conducted by secular clerics or religious. An apostolic indult is needed to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in other churches and oratories; the local Ordinary may grant this permission for a just cause and for a given occasion, but only to a church or public oratory. However the permission is valid as long as the justifying reason continues, say, for the whole period during which a parochial church is being repaired.

In all the foregoing provisions, the law requires that someone be appointed as guardian of the tabernacle, who may be a layman, without implying that he is also custodian of the tabernacle key. Moreover, a priest must regularly say Mass at least once a week, as a conditio sine qua non for reservation, even if there is no need of renewing the consecrated hosts.

No one is allowed to keep the Blessed Sacrament in his house or, with the exception of the Roman Pontiff, to carry it with him while traveling. On the other hand churches in which the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, especially parochial churches, should remain open to the faithful at least a few hours daily.

One provision of the Code caused an immediate reaction. Revoking every contrary privilege, it required that the Sacrament be reserved only in the church or principle oratory of religious or pious houses, such as hospitals, retreat houses, asylums, orphanages, sanatoriums and Catholic schools. The question arose whether any exceptions were allowed. To which the Code Commission replied that the same material building may be considered as having distinct and separate families. If these constitute formally different entities, the Eucharist may be reserved for the convenience of each unit. Thus if a novitiate is under the same roof with other departments of a religious house, and has a secondary chapel, the Sacrament may be kept there as well as in the principal oratory.

The Blessed Sacrament may not be habitually reserved on more than one altar at the same church. However, in churches of perpetual adoration, it must be reserved on two altars: on one for the purpose of adoration and on the other for distributing Holy Communion. The same is true of all churches during the Forty Hours’ devotion.

Since the main altar is generally the most prominent and honorable place in the church, the Eucharist should be reserved there, unless another altar happens to be more suitable and convenient. However liturgical rules require that from Holy Thursday until the afternoon of Good Friday as many small Hosts (consecrated at the principal Mass of Holy Thursday) as are needed for Communion on Good Friday be reserved in a special repository in the church. In cathedral, collegiate and conventual churches in which the choral functions are held at the main altar, it is preferable, to prevent interference with the ecclesiastical services, that the Blessed Sacrament be normally reserved on some other than the main altar. Moreover, rectors of churches should see to it that the altar of reservation be more elaborately adorned than any other, so that it’s very appearance might effectively move the faithful to piety and devotion.

Custody Of The Eucharist

In addition to the precepts of canon law, the Sacred Congregation of Rites has issued frequent decrees on the manner in which the Blessed Sacrament must be reserved. Canonical legislation requires that the Eucharist be kept in an immovable tabernacle set in the middle of the altar. The tabernacle must be well constructed, solidly enclosed on all sides, appropriately ornamented in accordance with liturgical laws, not containing anything else, and so carefully guarded that the danger of any sacrilegious profanation may be prevented.

Wood, marble or metal may be used as the materials of which the tabernacle is constructed. Unless gilded, a silk lining must cover the interior walls and no matter how ornate, it must be covered at all times with a white veil or canopy or one corresponding to the liturgical color of the day. Instead of a black canopy, purple is used on All Souls’ Day and during the celebration of Masses for the Dead. Except for a crucifix, nothing else like flowers, statues or even reliquaries should rest on the tabernacle. The regulation of having a light burning before the Blessed Sacrament dates from the thirteenth century. One light is absolutely necessary, Olive oil or beeswax should be used for the sanctuary lamp. But where olive oil cannot be obtained the local Ordinary may permit other oils, as far as possible vegetable derivatives, to be used. White, green or red lamps are permissible.

If a serious reason approved by the local Ordinary warrants, the Blessed Sacrament may be kept outside the tabernacle at night, but on a corporal in a safe and worthy place, with a sanctuary lamp burning before it.

Few provisions on the custody of the Eucharist have been more urgently insisted upon than the duty of keeping the tabernacle well guarded. Canon law makes the obligation gravely binding the conscience of the priest who has charge of the church or oratory. In 1938, the canonical precept was reaffirmed by an Instruction of the Sacred Congregation of the Sacraments. It forbade the tabernacle key to be entrusted to a layman; but if the key is kept in the sacristy under another lock, the key of the latter may be given to a sacristan during the absence of the priest in charge. It required that in the churches of nuns or sisters, and in religious or pious houses of women, the key should be kept in no other place but the sacristy and that at night it should be deposited in a safe, strong and secret place, locked with two keys, one of which is to be retained by the superior or her delegate and the other by another sister, usually the sacristan. It commanded that if a sacrilegious theft or profanation take place, the local Ordinary must institute a formal investigation to determine the culpability of the pastor or other priest who had charge of the Blessed Sacrament. All the records of the investigation, together with the Bishop’s judgment, are to be forwarded to the Sacred Congregation of the Sacraments.

The consecrated particles, sufficient in number to provide Communion for the sick and the rest of the faithful, should always be kept in a ciborium made of solid and suitable material, which must be clean and well closed with a cover, and draped with a veil of white silk, which may be ornamented. Glass, crystal or wood are not sufficiently solid materials for a ciborium; iron, lead, brass and stone are commonly considered unsuitable. Copper, gilded on the inside, is permissible and even the gilding is not strictly required. Silver and gold are most appropriate. It is a laudable practice, not of strict obligation, that the ciborium containing the Sacred Hosts should rest on a corporal inside the tabernacle.

Consecrated Hosts, both for the Communion of the faithful and for the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, must be fresh and therefore frequently renewed, the old ones being properly consumed, so that there be no danger of corruption. As a rule, Hosts should not be consecrated unless they have been baked within the twenty days immediately preceding the consecration. Moreover renewal should take place every week, as prescribed in the Caeremoniale Episcoporum and the law of the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore. However it is generally admitted that, in the absence of any danger of corruption, to renew them every two weeks would be sufficient. In place of this renewal, the consecrated Hosts should not be transferred from one chapel to another, except when giving Holy Communion to the sick, or during the Forty Hours’ devotion and the procession on the feast of Corpus Christi.

Devotion To The Blessed Sacrament

The Code prescribes that those who have the responsibility of instructing the faithful should neglect no opportunity of fostering in their hearts devotion to the Holy Eucharist and urge them frequently to assist at Mass and visit the Blessed Sacrament, not only on Sundays and days of obligation but also during the week.

Private exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, with the pyx or ciborium, is allowed for any justifying reason without the need of the Ordinary’s permission in churches and oratories authorized to reserve the Blessed Sacrament. The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore authorized public exposition on certain days in churches and in chapels of religious communities. But this authorization now yields to the exclusive competence of the local Ordinary, as provided by canon law.

For private exposition, the door of the tabernacle is opened and the covered pyx or ciborium may be placed near the opening of the tabernacle to allow the worshipers to see it, but not outside the tabernacle. At least six wax candles must burn on the altar. The celebrant wears surplice and stole, and may incense the Blessed Sacrament although this is not prescribed. After a private exposition, including suitable prayers and the Tantum Ergo, benediction may be given with the Blessed Sacrament.

Public exposition requires at least twelve candles burning on the altar. It must be accompanied by benediction with the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the monstrance. A double incensation is also obligatory. According to the Caeremoniale, if public exposition and benediction follow the Mass or the office of the day, and the priest does not meantime leave the altar, he may wear vestments of the color of the day, except black, and always using a white humeral veil.

While the minister of exposition and reposition may be either a priest or deacon, only priests may give benediction with the Eucharist, except in the rare case when a deacon might have administered Viaticum and then blessed the sick person with the consecrated Species. (Revised Can. 943: The minister of exposition of the Most Blessed Sacrament and of eucharistic benediction is a priest or deacon; in special circumstances, the minister of exposition and reposition alone without benediction is the acolyte, extraordinary minister of holy communion, or someone else designated by the local ordinary; the prescripts of the diocesan bishop are to be observed. See: )

The final canon on the worship of the Eucharist prescribes that the Forty Hours’ devotion be held every year with as much solemnity as possible, on days to be determined with the consent of the Ordinary of the place. This obligation affects all parish churches and other churches where the Blessed Sacrament is habitually reserved. If any place, owing to peculiar circumstances, it cannot be held with the reverence and without grave convenience, the local Ordinary should see to it that on determined days the Blessed Sacrament be exposed in a solemn manner.

Authoritative directions for the observance of the Forty Hours are found in the Instructio Clementina, issued by Clement XI in 1705. Unless a dispensation has been granted by the Holy See, the attached indulgences can be gained only if these directions are followed. In the United States, the requisite permission allows, without the loss of indulgences, the interruption of the exposition during the hours of night.

By a decree of Pius XI in 1933, the usual indulgences for the Forty Hours’ devotion were enlarged. Henceforth a plenary indulgence may be gained once each day by those who receive the sacraments, visit the church, recite five times the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory be to the Father, and pray for the intention of the Holy Father. A partial indulgence of fifteen years may be gained each time the church is visited and suitable prayers are recited with a contrite heart.

Numerous other decrees of the Holy See encourage worship of the Holy Eucharist through the grant of appropriate indulgences, under the usual conditions. For example, a daily plenary indulgence is obtained by reciting the Breviary before the Blessed Sacrament, which applies to all clerics and to religious women bound to the recitation of the office; also by praying half an hour for vocations to the priesthood, in any church or public oratory where the Eucharist is reserved. Every week a plenary indulgence is granted for daily visiting the Blessed Sacrament, which may even be a spiritual visit for persons prevented by sickness or other just cause from making an actual visit to the church chapel. By an apostolic brief of Pius XI, those who recite a third part of the Rosary in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament publicly exposed or even reserved in the tabernacle, may gain a plenary indulgence as often as they perform this action. Moreover the condition for gaining many indulgences, “to visit a church or public oratory,” goes back to the early Middle Ages as an expression of faith in the Real Presence, defined by the Council of Trent as the “Whole Christ” in all the perfection of His Divine and Human Natures.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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