Forty Hours’ Devotion
By Jennifer Gregory Miller ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 09, 2021 | In The Liturgical Year
Our parish recently completed a Forty Hours’ Devotion. I admit this is the first Forty Hours I have ever attended (that I can remember. Perhaps I did as a child?). The devotion is a part of a larger diocesan preparation for our Golden Jubilee in three years. This first year of this preparation is devoted to Remembrance, and it includes having many of the parishes in the diocese hosting Forty Hours. Our parish was the first.
I recall when I was a young girl thumbing through an old prayerbook (I think it was Key of Heaven?). I came across a section on “Forty Hours.” I had no idea what it meant, and my first thought was that I would have to be in church, pray and stay awake for 40 hours…and I didn’t think that I could ever manage something so extreme. My imagination definitely ran wild as to thinking how that would take a really strong person to do something like that.
I was relieved to find out the Church didn’t have such demanding guidelines for a personal devotion. I never learned details on what exactly was Forty Hours’ Devotion. For our parish to have this opportunity also provided me the impetus to understand more.
What is the Forty Hours’ Devotion?
Forty Hours’ Devotion is a special exposition of the Blessed Sacrament over a period of three days, during which prayers continues uninterrupted for an approximate total of 40 hours. It begins and ends with a solemn Mass, and there is a Eucharistic procession and benediction at the end of the final Mass.
The Forty Hours is similar to a parish renewal or retreat, but with more time for mental and personal prayer, and fewer talks. Often a visiting priest celebrates the Masses and gives the homilies and meditations. It is a time to be alone in prayer with Jesus but also for the community to come together for liturgical prayer.
The number 40 and period of three days is a remembrance of the 40 hours from Jesus’ burial until His resurrection, but also a remembrance of the 40 days fast of Jesus in the desert. Probably the first inspiration for this devotion came from the Middle Ages, when the Blessed Sacrament was transferred to the repository tabernacle, referred to as “the Easter Sepulcher,” during the Triduum.
Prominence of Adoration of the Eucharist
Eucharistic adoration holds a prominent place for Catholics. It’s not an old-fashioned devotion, but something that is actually part of the “required” life of the faithful. The Code of Canon Law states:
Can. 937 Unless there is a grave reason to the contrary, the church in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved is to be open to the faithful for at least some hours every day so that they can pray before the Most Blessed Sacrament.
And this is reinforced in the Ceremonial of Bishops,
No one who enters a church should fail to adore the Blessed Sacrament, either by visiting the Blessed Sacrament, or at least by genuflecting. (71)
The Forty Hours is extending Eucharistic adoration as Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for longer periods of time. It is a wonderful opportunity for all the faithful. Bishop Peter J. Elliott in his Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite: The Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours clarifies what kind of devotion this is:
The public adoration of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is a liturgical action, not a “para-liturgical” devotion. Adoration flows from the Eucharistic Liturgy and leads back to this summit and source of the life of the Church. The Lord we adore is with us as our Priest-Victim and Food. Adoration intensifies our love of His Sacrifice and our desire to receive His Body and Blood. (662)
I love his clarification that this is a “liturgical action,” which points more to worship as the universal, Catholic Church than just a private and personal devotional preference.
Not Just an Obscure Devotion
Eucharist Exposition should be a part of the liturgical life of every Catholic. It’s not just for the pious old ladies in a small parish. The previous Code of Canon Law of 1917 states:
Can. 1975 The Supplication of Forty Hours, insofar as possible, shall be conducted with solemnity every year in all parishes and other churches in which the most holy Sacrament is habitually reserved; and wherever, because of peculiar circumstances of things, it cannot be done without grave inconvenience or with the reverence due to such a sacrament, the local Ordinary shall take care that for at least some continuous hours on specified days the most holy Sacrament shall be exposed with more solemn rite.(1917)
This emphasis on the Eucharist exposition has not been changed. The current Code, revised in 1983, states:
Can. 942 It is recommended that in the these same churches and oratories an annual solemn exposition of the Most Holy Sacrament be held during a suitable period of time, even if not continuous, so that the local community may meditate and may adore the Eucharistic Mystery more profoundly; but this kind of exposition is to be held only if a suitable gathering of the faithful is foreseen and the established norms are observed. (1983)
Bishop Elliott in his explanation states:
Particular value is attached to an annual solemn adoration of the Blessed Sacrament exposed, subject to the judgment of the Ordinary. He may designate a day for this solemn adoration in all churches and oratories where the Eucharist is reserved. Moreover, he may maintain or restore the “Forty Hours” devotion in his diocese, adapting the former rules to current liturgical practices and local conditions. (664)
This is still a vital part of the Catholic liturgical life. Every Catholic should have the opportunity to participate in this “liturgical action” at least once a year.
History of the Devotion
Compared to other liturgical actions or devotions, Forty Hours is relatively new. Its origins trace to Italy, beginning as an extension of the medieval customs for the Easter Sepulcher as mentioned above, but it later became a special exposition around Carnival time, as reparation for offenses before the beginning of Lent. Later it became priority to hold the devotion around the feast of Corpus Christi. In 1537 Forty Hours became formally instituted in Milan, beginning the tradition of exposition for 40 consecutive hours and having another church begin as soon as one church ended the 40 hours.
The devotion spread, and in 1592 and 1705, directions were issued by two popes for official observance in the diocese of Rome (both named Clement). And in 1736 another Clement, Pope Clement XII, republished the directives, often referred to as the Instructio Clementina or the Clementine Instruction. It was intended as a manual for the churches in the city of Rome, but other dioceses around the world have adopted this devotion and use the Instruction for guidance. St. John Neumann (1811-1860), Bishop of Philadelphia, was the first to regularly have the Forty Hours’ Devotion in America.
Currently, the Clementine Instruction can be loosely followed, but the main guidelines for the Forty Hours are the rules concerning Exposition.
Connected to Quarantine
I was struck by one of the intentions during our parish’s Forty Hours being for an end to the pandemic. Father used the Italian word for the Forty Hours, Quarant’Ore or combined in one word Quarantore, and it sounded like the origin of the word “Quarantine.” And there is indeed a connection, for the word forty both in Italian and Latin (quadraginta). The ancient Church used the term “quarantine” as an ecclesiastical penance for repentant sinners to mark a forty day period with a rigorous fast of only water, bread and salt consumed once a day. This was in imitation of Jesus’ fast in the desert for forty days, and a precursor of the 40 days of Lent.
Later “quarantine” became a term used with granting of indulgences. It was a remittance of temporal punishment due to sin equivalent to doing the fast for forty days. In the older versions of the Raccolta (the older liturgical document that governed indulgences) there are often examples of “7 years and 7 quarantines” attached to some prayer or pious act. Neither term is used any more, but I did find it interesting that the Church has proceeded the idea of a medical quarantine which is so much in use today.
I do hope to have more chances for attending other Forty Hours’ Devotions within my parish. It was a grace-filled opportunity, and a respite from the personal stress our family was experiencing with my dad in the hospital. I do encourage you, if you have the opportunity, to take the time to participate in your parish.
And perhaps we can transform the current use of “quarantine” during this Covid preoccupation. Quarantine can be a way to remind us of prayer and penance for others. We can turn our minds to Jesus in the Eucharist to make a well-intentioned and more spiritual use of the time in “quarantine.”
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