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 Churchs 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
or that the Sacrament is not to be publicly exposed for the
peoples 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 mens 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 Churchs 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).
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