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What Is Prayer Before the Blessed Sacrament?
Part One

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

December 29, 1987

Our present conference, the first of two, will be on prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.

As we come to the end of our series of conferences on the priestly spirituality of Father Gerald, we approach what I consider the heart of his distinctive spirituality. For Father the soul of the spiritual life is devotion to the Holy Eucharist and the fountain head of this devotion is the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. I plan therefore to give two conferences on this large subject. In the present conference I suggest that we ask two questions. What is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament? What are we talking about? And then, why is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament? What are we talking about? And then, why is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament so important in the spiritual life of the priest, the religious and the believing faithful Catholic? In the next conference, we will reflect on how - how should we pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Our focus here therefore is on the What and the Why.

What is Prayer Before the Blessed Sacrament?

What is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament? First, a general answer. Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is prayer offered to Jesus Christ, present in the Holy Eucharist, while the person praying is physically present in the Church or Chapel; in other words, Christ’s physical presence is met by our physical presence. We begin by observing that Christ present in the Holy Eucharist is truly conscious of our being there and we are to be correspondingly conscious of His being, should I say, here. The key to what is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is that two persons are each physically present to the other. The crucial word, I think, in this expression, “Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament” is the preposition before. A few synonyms; in front of, physically near, geographically close, bodily present, actually in the vicinity of - one reason, by the way, that the Church even with the discovery of our marvelous, modern communications media, has not said that a person would really be present at Mass while watching Mass celebrated — a wonderful experience — the point is, you have to be there. However, even as we emphasize the physical presence in explaining the word before, this word before is not merely a bodily proximity, it is also and, with emphasis, a spiritual before; as I like to put it, it is not only proximity but intimacy. But let’s not cheapen or weaken that physical proximity that I would say is the conditio sine qua non, the condition without which I’m not really present as the Church understands being present before the Blessed Sacrament, unless I am there physically where Christ is physically.

But not only, it is not mere physical presence, thus as is obvious we can be bodily close to someone and yet be elsewhere spiritually. I’ve called on too many students over the years wrapped, I thought, in attention. They were wrapped in attention all right but not at what I was saying. And conversely we can be bodily far from someone and yet spiritually very near. My favorite definition of spirit which I keep repeating is: that reality which is independent of space and time. So much for the word before. Moreover, we said this is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. This means communication. We are so used to using the word communication as a one-sided enterprise that we forget the essence of communication is exchange. Communication from Christ being really present is presumed but communication from us to Him, ah! That must be voluntarily entered and what may be harder - and voluntarily sustained. What the adverb voluntarily means, I’ve got to use my will. To do what? To tell my mind; “Will you please pay attention to the one in whose presence you are.” Prayer is a necessary conversation. God as God is constantly communication from His side to His rational creatures. In fact we call this in theology, actual graces that God is constantly pouring out in the form of enlightening our minds and strengthening our wills, but is especially, to put it mildly, communication when we are present to Him. And of course when He is present to us. So much for the what. Now the why.

Why We Should Pray Before the Blessed Sacrament?

The basic reason why we should pray before the Blessed Sacrament, is because Christ wants it. And before I go into an analysis of what we find in revelation and the Church’s teaching, you might say it stands to reason — what do people want when they come to visit or you happen to meet them? We want people to say something. What we are dealing with, however, in this why, is of the substance of our faith. First, let’s remind ourselves, God is God and in the world that He made from the moment that He made it. Otherwise, to use a crude expression, God would have stepped out of the world, well, that would have been the end of the world. That God became Man in order to be with us, (we use prepositions, like with or before and don’t give them a second thought) God became Man in order to be with us in a depth and intimacy that until He had become Man, quite frankly, God had not yet manifested to the world. That is why I like Father Gerald’s Christology. As you know we believe on faith that God became man in order that as Man He might suffer and die and thus redeem the world. De facto — God became Man in order as Man He might suffer and die and thus merit our salvation. But may we ask, if man had not sinned — subjunctive mood — would God nevertheless have become Man? Many great minds and doctors of the Church say, yes! St. Francis De Sales and Father Gerald. But no matter how we answer that question, whether God would have become Man even though man had not sinned, which is a speculative question, again de facto, having become man, did God become Man only that He might suffer and die and thus redeem the world? And the answer is no. God became man indeed that by His Passion and death the world might be redeemed, but having become man and knowing that He would become Man, He decided what He did not have to do. He decided that before He would die He would change the common elements of bread and wine into, and this is our faith, Himself. But not only that, He gave His Apostles the power that He alone possessed, as God, but as God He had the corresponding power to confer. God therefore became man for two reasons. He became man that in His human nature, He might die on the Cross and redeem the world. But he also became man that God in His human nature might remain on earth until the end of time. And behind that divine purpose He is all we are talking about when we are talking about prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Because what are we saying? We are, with all of the infallibility of the Church of God behind us, affirming prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is prayer before the living, physical, bodily Jesus Christ on earth. Having said that, we go on.

People Drew Close to Christ in the Gospels

As we read the Gospels and, by the way, it is always good whenever we read the Gospels to look for something. Otherwise, the odds are, we may perchance find something. If you reread the Gospels, looking for what we are talking about, what do we find? During His visible stay on earth — and look, the only difference between Christ’s stay on earth before His ascension and His stay on earth now in the Eucharist, is that in the first case, it was visible, sensibly perceptible, to the eyes of His contemporaries and now He is just as really, just and completely, just as wholly present, only now perforce we are unable with our bodily eyes to see Him. Ah, my friends that is what faith is for. Back to the Gospels. During His visible stay on earth, Christ wanted — and my notes underline wanted — Christ wanted those geared to Him to be always near to Him. Reread the four Evangelists and you will be surprised at how the principle that I’ve expressed is so frequently and sometimes dramatically manifest. For example, John’s Gospel, just before the resuscitation of her brother Lazarus, Martha had been engaged in conversation with Jesus, mildly but nevertheless in effect reprimanding the Savior; “Lord, why didn’t you come sooner?” I like to quote the expression: “by this time he stinketh”. Then Christ told her that He was the Resurrection and the Life and in the very words that Peter had used in the Gospel of Matthew, Martha used, and told Him; “I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God”. Then, perhaps surprisingly, because John does not bring it out, but we can infer from what Martha then did. She walks away from Jesus and, says John, she quietly went over to her sister Mary and told her - memorize this — said Martha; “The Master is here and He is calling for you.” It is a physical, geographic, bodily presence of Jesus and however He manifested His desire, Martha drew the conclusion that Jesus wants Mary to be there too. During Christ’s public ministry, how many times Jesus made sure that His disciples were near. Again, reread the Gospels, compare the way our Lord deals with the multitude, as we know on occasions, thousands, that’s quite a crowd, then, we are told, He would call His disciples to be near Him, so that He might tell them what He had not told the multitude. Indeed, go back to the Gospel of St. Matthew, verify for yourself. The Beatitudes. The Beatitudes were not given to the multitude. Of course they were intended for all of Christ’s followers but their primary communication was to the disciples, so they in turn, as Christ told them right after He finished giving them the Beatitudes, told them; “You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth.” They having received the Beatitudes, when they were physically close, near to the Master. There is far more here than symbolism. There is much more here than symbolism. There is much more here than even religious poetry. We are touching on the mystery of God’s love for man when we say, that God became man in order to be — in such intelligible words as we can use — in order to be nearer than He would have been had He never become Man. And having become Man, and I keep repeating, and remaining as Man is the humanity of Jesus Christ which is the raison d’etre of the Real Presence. We are asking ourselves, why? He wants us to respond in kind in that He became Man in order to be nearer to us than humanly speaking He would have been had He not become Incarnate. This is God. He wants us, then - we must use the comparative degree - to, be nearer to Him with the physical proximity of a body as the expression of the spiritual intimacy of the spirit. Don’t we as human beings, someone who is near and dear to us, we want to be close, we want to touch, we want to embrace? All of this transferred by our being near Him, with Him, because that’s why He is here.

Still on the Gospels. More than once we read in the Evangelist that people were so close to Him — now let’s be frank, if Christ had not wanted it, it would not happen — people shoved, they pushed. Now the classic passage in the New Testament. During His agony in the Garden, Christ selectively chose the three that were dearest to Him, even among the Apostles, Peter, James, and John. He told them to watch and pray. So what do they do? O they were all right but they fell asleep. And ever since Christ, we hardly want to say admonished them, poured out His heart and told them; “Could you not watch one hour with me?” In other words Christ wanted, past tense, He wants, present tense, He wants us to be near to Him. After the Resurrection, Christ made sure that the disciples saw Him, that they heard Him, that they had a chance to eat with Him and, indeed, to be fed by Him and now with the doubting Apostle — Christ did not have to say but He did — we are not really sure what Thomas did. We can safely believe that He was so overwhelmed that although he was told; “Thomas, you said that you would not believe unless you placed your fingers in the wounds of My hand and placed your hand into my side.” I repeat, we don’t know whether Thomas took Christ at His word. What we do know is, that even Thomas was convinced and what Thomas said to Jesus, is the clearest, most explicit, most unqualified affirmation of Christ’s divinity in all of Revelation; “My Lord and my God”. Clearly Jesus wanted — now we change the verb — wants, those who are dear to Him, to also be near to Him.

Miracles in Favor of Those Close to Christ

We go on. However, as we go over the miracles performed by Christ in the Gospels, what do we find? We find with no exception — this is now answering the question why — on another level than the one we have just seen — why prayer before the Blessed Sacrament? Because, as we see from all four Evangelists, Christ performed His miracles in favor of people who — listen — selectively drew near to Him. Could Christ perform, and did He on occasions as we say in Latin, miracles in distancia (at a distance)? Christ is God but time and time again, the people came close to Him and He came — He couldn’t have been more close to those whom He healed. And for me the most outspoken and explicit manifestation of how Christ wants people to be near Him in order that by their manifestation of faith through the physical proximity, He might then work miracles in their favor, for me the most outstanding wonder He worked — remember? — was the woman with years long hemorrhage. Somehow, must have crawled through the crowd and (talk about being near) tugged at His cloak. But the important thing is the statement that Christ spoke; “Who touched me?” Then— we’ve heard this so many times; “Master who touched You? They are pushing, shoving; who touched Me?” “No”, said Jesus, and this is the key; “I felt power going out from Me, because the woman touched Me.” Am I clear? Don’t tell me that physical nearness is merely symbolic. Oh no, oh no. It is a divinely ordained condition of our faith for the same Wonder-Worker of Nazareth to work His miracles in Jemez Springs. And don’t tell me the cities and small towns of America don’t need miracles.

I am almost but not quite finished, for the obvious reason there’s too much here. We repeat our question. Why does Christ want us to pray before the Blessed Sacrament? Because we thus satisfy the primary purpose that Christ has in being on earth in the Holy Eucharist. That purpose is to honor and praise God, and God is here with a plentitude in which, that’s our faith, He is not present anywhere else except where the Real Presence exists. Why does He want us to pray before the Blessed Sacrament? To honor and praise God become man and to obtain from Him the graces that God became Man to confer, and listen, that God became man to confer through His humanity. And now we could begin a whole new series of conferences. All the grace, all the grace, all the grace the human race receives comes from God but through the humanity that God assumed. Just as it was that human nature which redeemed the world in the first place, so it is the human nature here now on earth through which the graces of that redemption are communicated. Ah, communicated but we must add, conditionally, conditioned on our faith in His Presence, and our faith in putting our faith into practice by also being present where He is present, so that He through His humanity might give us what we human beings so desperately and constantly need.


Lord Jesus, You became man to redeem the world on Calvary but You are in the Blessed Sacrament in order that the ocean of merit that You won for us on the Cross might be poured out on a sinful, suffering human race. Teach us, dear Jesus, to realize that You are here and want us to be here too, so that believing in You, being near You, we might obtain from you, what will make us happy even in this valley of tears and assure us that everlasting experience of living in the Real Presence unveiled. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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