Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament
For the Year of the Eucharist, my parish (and others in the area) are having all day adoration and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Having grown up in New Jersey, I am not familiar with this practice at all. Only since moving here have I heard of it. Can you explain this practice? A reader in Potomac Falls
Unfortunately, the lack of familiarity with exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is not uncommon these days. I remember when I was "growing up" in the '60s that on special occasions my home parish, St. Bernadette Church in Springfield, had exposition and benediction. Then, for whatever reason, this beautiful ritual disappeared. I never remember encountering the practice again until I went to the seminary in 1979, where we had exposition and benediction for Sunday Vespers, Wednesday Holy Hours, and 40 Hours Devotion. Nevertheless, when I was assigned as a college chaplain, I met several college students who had never witnessed exposition or benediction, or even understood what the terms meant. In my present parish assignment, we have had benediction in conjunction with our May procession; at our first May procession in 2001, many of the parents and most of the children had never witnessed benediction. A sad commentary indeed.
Exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is not only a very old devotion in our Church, but one that highlights the fundamental mystery of the holy Eucharist that our Lord is truly present, body and blood, soul and divinity in the Blessed Sacrament. In his Holy Thursday letter to priests, "Dominicae cenae" (1980), Pope John Paul II wrote, "Since the Eucharistic mystery was instituted out of love, and makes Christ sacramentally present, it is worthy of thanksgiving and worship. And this worship must be prominent in all our encounters with the Blessed Sacrament . . . " (No. 3). While emphasizing the importance of the Mass, the Holy Father then recommends various forms of eucharistic devotion: personal prayer and periods of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, exposition and benediction, Forty Hours devotion, eucharistic processions, eucharistic Congresses, and a special observance of the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. All of these devotions which focus on the Blessed Sacrament aid in our spiritual union with our Lord. As Jesus said, "I myself am the Bread of Life. No one who comes to me shall ever be hungry, no one who believes in me shall ever thirst" (Jn 6:35).
The ritual for exposition and benediction as presented most recently by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship (1973) basically follows this ritual: The priest places the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance or ostensorium on the altar for adoration. (A ciborium containing the Blessed Sacrament may also be used, but the monstrance allows one to view the holy Eucharist.) At this time, a hymn of praise (such as O Salutaris Hostia) is sung as the priest incenses the Blessed Sacrament. During the period of adoration, the faithful may pray in quiet and foster a deeper spiritual communion with the Lord. However, the adoration period should also include prayers, such as a novena or Liturgy of the Hours, and readings from sacred Scripture accompanied perhaps by a homily or exhortation to increase the understanding of the eucharistic mystery. At the end of the period of adoration, the priest again incenses the Blessed Sacrament as a hymn of praise is sung (such as Tantum Ergo), and then blesses the congregation with the Blessed Sacrament, making the sign of the cross. After the blessing, the priest reposes the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle.
This ritual seems to arise around the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi by Pope Urban IV in 1264. On this feast day, the holy Eucharist was carried in procession in vessels similar to our present day monstrances, which allowed the faithful to view the Blessed Sacrament. Eventually a custom arose, especially in Germany, of keeping the Blessed Sacrament continually exposed to view in all of the Churches.
At the same time, guild members began to gather to sing canticles in the evening after work in honor of the Blessed Mother. In particular, the singing of the Salve Regina, composed in the 11th century, became popular in these devotions. These evening services were called Salut in France.
Over the next two or three centuries, these two services seem to have merged. The faithful would gather, usually in the evening for chanted prayers, particularly in honor of our Blessed Mother. The Blessed Sacrament would be exposed, more prayers would be chanted or recited, and the service would end with benediction. Interestingly, benediction is still known in France as Le Salut Tres Saint Sacrement.
During the time of the Protestant upheaval, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli rejected the belief in the sacrifice of the Mass, the sacrificial priesthood, transubstantiation and the real presence. Consequently, they also rejected devotions like adoration and benediction. In response, the Council of Trent in its "Decree on the Most Holy Eucharist" (1551) taught, "There remains, therefore, no room for doubting that all of the faithful of Christ, in accordance with the perpetual custom of the Catholic Church, must venerate this most holy sacrament with the worship of latria which is due to the true God. Nor is it to be less adored because it was instituted by Christ the Lord to be received. For in it we believe that the same God is present whom the eternal Father brought into the world, saying, 'Let all God's angels worship Him,' whom the Magi fell down to worship, and whom, finally, the apostles adored in Galilee as Scripture testifies . . . " The Council condemned those who rejected this teaching and those that held "that the sacrament is not to be honored with special festive celebrations nor solemnly carried in processions according to the praise-worthy universal rite and custom of the holy Church, or that it is not to be publicly exposed for the people's adoration . . . "
In his recent teachings, our Holy Father has emphasized the importance of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament: "The worship of the Eucharist outside the Sacrifice of the Mass is a tribute of inestimable value in the life of the Church. Such worship is closely linked to the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice . . . It is the responsibility of Pastors to encourage, also by their personal witness, the practice of Eucharistic adoration, and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in particular, as well as prayer of adoration before Christ present under the Eucharistic species" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, No. 25).
In proclaiming the Year of the Eucharist (October 2004 - October 2005), the Holy Father again exhorted the faithful: "During this year, Eucharistic adoration outside Mass should become a particular commitment for individual parish and religious communities. Let us take the time to kneel before Jesus present in the Eucharist, in order to make reparation by our faith and love for the acts of carelessness and neglect, and even the insults that our Savior must endure in many parts of the world. Let us deepen through adoration our personal and communal contemplation, drawing upon aids to prayer inspired by the word of God and the experience of so many mystics, old and new. The rosary itself, when it is profoundly understood in the biblical and christocentric form, which I recommended in the apostolic letter 'Rosarium Virginis Mariae,' will prove a particularly fitting introduction to Eucharistic contemplation, a contemplation carried out with Mary as our companion and guide" (Mane nobiscum Domine, No. 18).
In a very personal way, our Holy Father also reflected, "It is pleasant to spend time with Him, to lie close to His breast like the Beloved Disciple, and to feel the infinite love present in His heart. If in our time, Christians must be distinguished above all by the 'art of prayer,' how can we not feel a renewed need to spend time in spiritual converse, in silent adoration, in heartfelt love before Christ present in the Most Holy Sacrament? How often dear brothers and sisters, have I experienced this, and drawn from it strength, consolation, and support!" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, No. 25).
Several parishes in our diocese have exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament weekly in conjunction with novena prayers or as part of their perpetual adoration program. Others have added this devotion during the Year of the Eucharist. Please inquire whether your parish has this beautiful devotion to our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Take time this Lent for prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. As our Lord said to the apostles in the Garden of Gethsemani: "Could you not stay awake with me one hour?" What will be our answer?
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria.
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