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History of Eucharistic Adoration

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

The Fathers of the early Church defends with vigor the permanence of the Real Presence. Already in the second century the faithful frequently carried the Holy Eucharist with them to their homes. (Thus Tertullian (Ad Uxorem, 2) and St. Cyprian (De Lapsis, 26)). Or they carried the Blessed Sacrament with them on long journeys, as described by St. Ambrose (De Excessu Fratris, I, 43, 46). Permanent deacons were commissioned to take the Eucharist to those who could not attend the Eucharistic services (St. Justin, First Apology, 67). So too the deacons would bring the Sacrament to the martyrs, to those in prison, and to the sick (Eusebius, History of the Church, VI. 44). The deacons were also required to preserve the sacred particles that remained after Mass and transfer them to specially prepared Pastophor as prescribed by the fourth century Apostolic Constitutions (VIII, 13).

Also already in the fourth century, it was customary to celebrate the Mass of the Presanctified. Hosts that were consecrated a day or two earlier, were then received by the faithful. In the Latin Rite, this Mass of the Presanctified is now limited to Good Friday. But in the Eastern Church, we know from at least the seventh century that it was celebrated during the whole of Lent, except on Saturdays, Sundays, and March 25, the feast of the Annunciation.

The Middle Ages to Modern Times

Nothing really startling occurred in the thirteenth century when the feast of Corpus Christi was instituted by Pope Urban IV in 1264. In establishing the feast, he stressed the love of Christ which moved Him to give us the Holy Eucharist. Urban IV ordered Thomas Aquinas to compose the Liturgy of the Hours for the feast, to be celebrated annually on the day following Trinity Sunday.

Three hymns which Aquinas composed for the feast are among the most beautiful in the Catholic liturgy. They express the unchangeable faith of the Church in the abiding Presence of her Founder on earth. They also explain why the faithful adore Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. All three hymns are part of the Divine Office. They are best known by each of their last two verses which have become part of the treasury of Catholic hymnology.

  • Salutaris Hostia is an act of adoration of Christ, the Saving Victim who opened wide the gate of heaven to man below.

  • Tantum Ergo Sacramentum is an act of adoration of the word-made-flesh, where faith supplies for what the senses cannot perceive.

  • Panis Angelicus is an act of adoration of that wondrous thing where the lowly and poor are fed, banqueting on their Lord and King.

Aquinas, like the Church, never separated the Eucharist as Sacrifice, Communion and Presence. But with the Church, he also realized that without the Real Presence, there would be no Real Sacrifice or Real Communion. God became man, that He might offer Himself on Calvary, and continue to offer Himself in the Mass. He became man that He might give Himself to the disciples as food and drink at the Last Supper, and continue to give Himself to us in Holy Communion. He became man to live in flesh and blood in Palestine, and to continue living now on earth as the same Jesus who died and rose from the dead and is seated at the right hand of His heavenly Father.

Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament

The institution of the feast of Corpus Christi gave new momentum to the desire to behold the consecrated Host. We know that elevation of the Host at Mass was practiced long before the feast was established. Some historians trace the elevation of the Host and Chalice as the Church’s answer to the heresy of Berengarius. Other scholars trace the practice to a profession of faith in the Real Presence already after the first consecration. Some theologians had erroneously claimed that transubstantiation of the bread took place only when the priest at Mass had pronounced the words of consecration over both bread and wine.

The devout longing of the faithful, to look upon the Sacred Host was not limited to the time of Mass. As early as the thirteenth century a person in mortal sin was allowed to look at the exposed Blessed Sacrament. Church authorities decided it was not only permissible, but, if done with a good intention, would be the source of special grace to the sinner.

St. Juliana Cornelion of Liege (1192-1258) was only one outstanding promoter of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass. Her zeal was instrumental in having her fellow countryman Pope Urban IV (also of Liege), institute the feast of Corpus Christi.

By the sixteenth century, it became a norm of Catholic orthodoxy to recognize the Real Presence in the Eucharist outside of Mass and Holy Communion. That is why the Council of Trent made, among others, two formal declarations on the subject.

“The custom of reserving the Holy Eucharist in a sacred place, “ said Trent, “is so ancient that it was recognized already in the century of the Council of Nicea.” (325 AD)

Then a historic condemnation of “anyone who says that Christ, the only-begotten Son of God is not to be adored in the holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, with the worship of latria, including external worship…or that the Sacrament is not to be publicly exposed for the people’s adoration” (October 11, 1551).

Trent was simply confirming what by then, had become a recognized form of Eucharistic piety. Thus the Order of the White Religious Body of Jesus Christ, a Benedictine men’s community dating from the late fourteenth century, dedicated themselves to the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. But Trent inspired growing devotion to the Real Presence among the faithful in general.

The specific form which this popular devotion took came to be called, “The Forty Hours.”

Within two centuries, the Forty Hours devotion was so widely practiced that it became part of the Code of Canon Law (Canon 1275). Equally significant was the Church’s distinction between public and private exposition of the holy Eucharist. “Private exposition,” the Code stated, “that is in a pyx, can be had for any good reason, without permission of the Ordinary.” Public exposition, with a monstrance, could be held on the feast and during the octave of Corpus Christi. At other times, public exposition required the permission of the Ordinary, and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament could be given only by a priest (Canon 1274).

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
No reproductions shall be made without prior written permission.

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