The History of Perpetual Adoration

The phenomenal growth of devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist has puzzled not a few sincere people. Nocturnal Adoration societies, Perpetual Adoration groups, national associations of the faithful promoting organized visits to the Blessed Sacrament, Holy Hours before the tabernacle, monthly, weekly and even daily exposition of the Eucharist in churches and chapels, in one country after another, have become commonplace.

What to make of all of this? Is this another form of pious eccentricity, or is it founded on authentic Catholic doctrine and grounded on the solid rock of Christian revelation?

It is authentic Catholic doctrine and it rests on the unchangeable truth of our revealed faith.

Perpetual Adoration

The term “perpetual adoration” is broadly used to designate the practically uninterrupted adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The term may mean several things:

  • The adoration is literally perpetual, so that someone is always in prayer before the Holy Eucharist.
  • The adoration is morally perpetual, with only such short interruptions as imperative reasons or uncontrollable circumstances require.
  • The adoration is uninterrupted for a longer or shorter period, a day or several days, as in the Forty-Hours devotion.
  • The adoration is uninterrupted in one special church or chapel.
  • The adoration is uninterrupted in different churches or chapels in a locality like a diocese or a country, or throughout the world.

Some writers trace the first beginnings of perpetual adoration to the late fourth century, when converts to the faith in some dioceses were to adore the Blessed Sacrament exposed for eight days after their baptism. It is certain, however, that even before the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi, not only religious in convents and monasteries but the laity practiced Eucharistic adoration.

Experienced Benefits of Eucharistic Adoration.

The Council of Trent declared that Christ should be worshiped now in the Eucharist no less than He had been in first century Palestine. Why? Because in the Blessed Sacrament “it is the same God Whom the apostles adored in Galilee”. The adorableness of the Eucharistic Christ, therefore, is an article of the Catholic faith.

What has become increasingly clear, however, is that Christ in the Eucharist is not only adorable but entreatable. He is not only to be adored, like Thomas did, by addressing Him as, “My Lord and my God.” He is also to be asked for what we need, like the blind man who begged, “Lord, that I may see,” or approached like the woman who said to herself, “If I can even touch His clothes, I shall be well again.” By now countless believers have begged the Savior in the Eucharist for what they needed, and have come close to Him in the tabernacle or on the altar. Their resulting experience has profoundly deepened the Church’s realization of how literally Christ spoke when He promised to be with us until the end of time.

The experience has been mainly spiritual: In giving light to the mind and strength to the will, in providing graces for oneself and others, in enabling weak human nature to suffer superhuman trials, in giving ordinary people supernatural power to accomplish extraordinary deeds.

1. The basis for all Eucharistic devotion is the fact that Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is the Son of God in human form.

The Eucharistic Food contains, as all are aware, “truly, really and substantially the Body and Blood together with the Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is no wonder, then, that the Church, even from the beginning, adored the Body of Christ under the appearance of bread; this is evident from the very rites of the august Sacrifice, which prescribe that the sacred ministers should adore the Most Holy Sacrament by genuflecting or by profoundly bowing their heads.

The Sacred Councils teach that it is the Church’s tradition right from the beginning, to worship “with the same adoration the Word Incarnate as well as His own flesh,” and St. Augustine asserts that: “No one eats that flesh without first adoring it,” while he adds that “not only do we not commit a sin by adoring it, but we do sin by not adoring it.”

Everything else depends on this primary article of faith: that the Eucharist contains the living Christ, in the fullness of His human nature, and therefore really present under the sacred species; and in the fullness of His divine nature, and therefore to be adored as God.

2. There has been a deeper grasp by the Church of every aspect of the mystery of the Eucharist. But one that merits special attention is the growing realization, not only of Christ’s sacrificial oblation in the Mass, but of His grace-filled presence outside of Mass.

It is on this doctrinal basis that the worship of adoring the Eucharist was founded and gradually developed as something distinct from the Sacrifice of the Mass. The reservation of the Sacred Species for the sick and those in danger introduced the praiseworthy custom of adoring the Blessed Sacrament which is reserved in our Churches. This practice of adoration, in fact, is based on strong and solid reasons. For the Eucharist is at once a Sacrifice and a Sacrament: but it differs from the other Sacraments in this that it not only produces grace, but contains, in a permanent manner, the Author of grace Himself. When, therefore, the Church bids us adore Christ hidden behind the Eucharistic veils and pray to Him for the spiritual and temporal favors of which we ever stand in need, she manifests living faith in her divine Spouse who is present beneath these veils, she professes her gratitude to Him and she enjoys the intimacy of His friendship.

The key to seeing why there should be a Eucharistic worship distinct from the Mass is that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ. No less than His contemporaries in Palestine adored and implored Him for the favors they needed, so we should praise thank Him, and implore Him for what we need.

3. Devotional Development. As a consequence of this valid progress in doctrine, the Church has developed a variety of Eucharistic devotions.

Now, the Church in the course of centuries has introduced various forms of this worship which are ever increasing in beauty and helpfulness; as, for example, visits of devotion to the tabernacle, even every day, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament; solemn processions, especially at the time of Eucharistic Congresses, which pass through cities and villages; and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament publicly exposed. Sometimes these public acts of adoration are of short duration. Sometimes they last for one, several and even for forty hours. In certain places they continue in turn in different churches throughout the year, while elsewhere adoration is perpetual, day and night.

To be stressed is that these are not merely passing devotional practices. They are founded on divinely revealed truth. And, as the Pope is at pains to point out, “these exercises of piety have brought a wonderful increase in faith and supernatural life to the Church militant upon earth.”

Are these practices liturgical? “They spring from the inspiration of the Liturgy,” answers Pius XII. “And if they are performed with due decorum and with faith and piety, as the liturgical rules of the Church require, they are undoubtedly of the very greatest assistance in living the life of the Liturgy.”

Does this not confuse the “Historic Christ” with the Eucharistic Christ? Not at all, says the Pope.

On the contrary, it can be claimed that by this devotion the faithful bear witness to and solemnly avow the faith of the Church that the Word of God is identical with the Son of the Virgin Mary, Who suffered on the Cross, Who is present in a hidden manner in the Eucharist and Who reigns upon His heavenly throne. Thus St. John Chrysostom states: “When you see It (the Body of Christ) exposed, say to yourself: thanks to this Body, I am no longer dust and ashes, I am no more a captive but a freeman: hence I hope to obtain Heaven and the good things that are there in store for me, eternal life, the heritage of the Angels, companionship with Christ”.

Among other forms of Eucharistic devotion recommended by Pope Pius XII, he gave special attention to Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. He spoke of the “great benefit in that custom which makes the priest raise aloft the Bread of Angels before congregations with heads bowed down in adoration and forming with It the sign of the cross.” This “implores the Heavenly Father to deign to look upon His Son who for love of us was nailed to the Cross and for His sake and through Him willed . . . to shower down heavenly favors upon those whom the Immaculate Blood of the Lamb has redeemed”.

Taken from The History of Eucharistic Adoration Development of Doctrine in the Catholic Church by John A. Hardon, S.J.