Sense and Nonsense: Adoremus in Aeternum

Adoremus in Aeternum Sanctissimum Sacramentum!” the initial words of John Paul II, on June 12, 1993, when he was at the Eucharistic Congress in Seville, in Spain, in its famous Cathedral. The words mean simply, “Let us adore unto eternity the most Holy Sacrament.”

The moving photo in L’Osservatore Romano (June 23) shows the Holy Father at the altar, blessing the people and holding the Monstrance containing the Most Holy Sacrament. The Pope is wearing the cape. Around his shoulders is the veil, the ends of which, as is the custom, he holds about the base of the Monstrance. Even the Pope does not wear any headdress at this solemn moment—symbolic of man, every man, before God. His white hair, though slightly ruffled, is noble. His eyes with gentle attention concentrate on the Host in the Monstrance. Again I think to myself, as I often do, “What a man this Pope is!”

The subject of the Holy Father’s homily on this occasion was “Eucharistic Devotion Outside of Mass.” This devotion is what we normally call Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, usually a brief ceremony with which many of us are familiar since youth. I can recall old Saint Anthony’s Parish in Knoxville, serving at this lovely service with my brothers. In the Society of Jesus, we used to have Benediction on Sunday afternoon and on holy days. There were moments in my life when, I was sure, this devotion was particularly salvific for me.

The music—”O Salutaris” and “Tantum Ergo”—is haunting and familiar. The “Tantum Ergo” was part  of the lovely “Pange Lingua” composed by Saint Thomas Aquinas for the Feast of Corpus Christi. I have found Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament somehow unique, a devotion of quiet, undisturbed adoration, except sometimes when one or two of the brethren were significantly off key on “O Salutaris.” (A good account of the intellectual and liturgical background to Benediction can be found in James Weisheipl, O.P., Friar Thomas D’Aquino, Catholic University Press, pp. 176-86).

 

To all those before him in Seville— “Dear Brother Bishops, Priests, and Religious, Dear Brothers and Sisters”— John Paul II began solemnly:

United with the angels and saints of the heavenly Church, let us adore the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. Prostrate, we adore this great mystery that contains God’s new and definitive covenant with humankind in Christ. It gives me great joy to kneel with you before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, in an act of humble and fervent adoration, in praise of the merciful God, in thanksgiving to the giver of all good gifts and in prayer to the One who “loves forever to make intercession” for us (cf. Hebrews 7:25).

The most exalted and primary act of an individual human being, the one most contrary to the secular and humanist spirit of our time— and therefore the one most needed—is that of adoration, of the acknowledgement of the reality of God. For Christians, this Christ, this Second Person of the Trinity, is present in the Sacrament, under the appearances of bread and wine.

The custom of reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in the beginning had to do with being able to take Communion to the sick. Benediction, of course, which as such really only became popular after the fifteenth Century, is not intended to take the place of or to be in competition with Mass or Vespers. Sometimes in our day we have the opposite problem, as Cardinal Ratzinger has remarked. We tend of late to put too much burden on the Mass, making it suffice for everything, changing its hours and even its shape so that no other devotion, adapted to different times, moods, and people, is practiced, advised, or even permitted.

“When we speak of worship in the parish community, we immediately think exclusively of the Eucharist,” Ratzinger remarked in his Feast of Faith.

But this very fact expresses the regrettable narrowing and impoverishment which have overtaken us in these last years. The Eucharist is the heart and center of our worshipping life, but in order to be this center it must have a many-layered whole in which to live.

Ratzinger mentioned in particular the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross. (See this column of October 1988, on the Rosary).

The Holy Father in his homily in Seville was especially concerned with Benediction and Perpetual Adoration services. (Perpetual Adoration is a service that normally takes the form of a prolonged Benediction). “The continual adoration of Jesus in the Host was the leitmotif of all the work of this International Eucharistic Congress,” the Pope observed.

The continual adoration—which took place in many churches throughout the city, and in some even at night—was an enriching feature that distinguished this Congress. If only this form of adoration . . . would continue in the future too, so that in all the parishes and Christian communities the custom of some form of adoration of the Eucharist might take place.

Many parishes, in fact, have special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament—I think of Saint Michael’s Parish over in Annandale. Some contemplative orders of nuns also have this devotion—I think of the Carmelites, for instance.

In the thorough and clear account of the Eucharist, in its theology, and practice, Le Catichisme de l’Eglise Catholique has a brief discussion it calls, “Le culte de l’Eucharistie.” This is what it says about this devotion, about our external presence, and even about the construction of the church itself to foster our understanding and devotion:

In the liturgy of the Mass, we express our faith in the real presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine, among other ways, by bending our knees (genuflecting), or by bowing profoundly as a sign of adoration of the Lord. [1378]

We are to give some sign before the Sacred Presence that we know and acknowledge the truth before us—generally in the West we genuflect, in the East we bow profoundly.

The Catechism continues to make its point clear by citing with approval Paul VI’s Mysterium fidei (1965):

The Catholic Church has rendered and continues to render this cult of adoration which is due to the Sacrament of the Eucharist not only during Mass, but also outside of its celebration, in conserving with the greatest care the consecrated Hosts, in presenting them to the faithful in order that they might venerate them with solemnity, and in bearing them in procession.

Adoration, what is owed to God, is due to the Sacrament, to the Host, not because we humans have established the truth of this reality but because this is what Christ instituted among us. By custom, various ways have become common and are to be encouraged— Benediction, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, and the special processions, typical of many Latin countries.

Next, the Catechism turns its attention to the tabernacle where the Hosts should be reserved for the sick and for those who want Communion outside of Mass. By taking cognisance of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Church fosters the “silent adoration of the Lord present under the Eucharistic Species.” For this reason the tabernacle ought to be placed in a “particularly worthy place” in the Church. It ought to be constructed in such a fashion “to underline and manifest the truth of the real presence of Christ in the Holy Sacrament” (1379). We should not pass over lightly this notion that architecture can be used to “manifest the truth” of Christian doctrine.

The custom of visits to the Blessed Sacrament, in quiet prayer, are essential to the worship and adoration of the believing community. The Pope cited this very passage from the Catechism about “silent adoration” before the Lord in the Eucharist in his Seville homily. He remarked, finally, “You know well that the various forms of Eucharistic devotion are both an extension of the Sacrifice and of Communion and a preparation for them.” Then he asked, rhetorically, “Is it necessary to stress once again the deep theological and spiritual motivation which underline devotion to the Blessed Sacrament outside the celebration of the Mass?”

Well, I suppose it is necessary in a way. We—priests, bishops, sisters, ordinary Catholics alike — need to be guided in how to worship God in our way, our Catholic way. This is why we have a Pope. Benediction, visits before the Blessed Sacrament, and Perpetual Adoration are our tradition; they are some of the ways we have learned to adore and worship the Lord in that extraordinary fat that He is present among us in the Host.

We are human beings and we have, no doubt, many things to do. The one thing we cannot neglect to do, however, is to worship God in the way the Holy Father so movingly teaches us. In his words and actions, we see him there with the Monstrance, blessing the faithful in Seville.

Adoremus in aeternum Sanctissimum Sacramentum!”

James V. Schall

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James Vincent Schall, S.J. is an American Jesuit Roman Catholic priest, teacher, writer, and philosopher. He was, most recently, Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

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