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Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament

by Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey


This article explains the practice of exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament as well as providing a short history of this devotion.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review

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Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, March 1928

There is perhaps no service of the Catholic Church which is more popular with her children than Exposition or Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. These two things go together,' as a matter of fact, for, whenever the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for adoration, the worshipers are always blessed with it, before it is replaced in the tabernacle. Benediction, as we know it, is of comparatively recent date, nor is there absolute uniformity as regards the ritual which accompanies it. In this respect much freedom has been left to various countries, so that it is the duty of every priest to comply with what has been laid down by the hierarchical authorities of the diocese or the country in which he happens to live. Since the Eucharist is the presence of our Lord, it must obviously be the object of our adoration, apart from its oblation at Mass or its reception in Holy Communion.


In the latter half of the Middle Ages there grew up among the faithful, at least in Western and Northern Europe, an extraordinary desire, not merely to receive the Blessed Sacrament, but also to behold it. Innumerable proofs of this devotion could be furnished here did space allow. Thus, St. Gertrude, the famous Benedictine mystic of the thirteenth century, teaches expressly that those shall have a special reward in heaven, who on earth shall have devoutly gazed upon the Host : "quoties homo cum desiderio et devotione inspexerit hostiam in qua latet corpus Christi sacramentaliter, toties meritum suum auget in coelo" (Insinuationes div. piet., IV, 25). So far, it would seem, there is only a question of gazing at the consecrated Host at the time of Mass or Communion. The devotion was exceedingly popular in England, where in many an old country church there are still to be seen "squints" —that is, openings in the walls or pillars in the neighborhood of the high altar—through which those who heard Mass in the side-chapels were able to see the Host when it was raised on high at the moment of consecration. In some old churches such "squints," or openings, are found even in the outer walls : these were for the benefit of people who were not present in church at the time of Mass, so that, when the "sacring bell" gave warning of the approaching consecration, they had only to go into the cemetery to see the elevation of the Host through these outer "squints."

In the fourteenth century there lived at Dantzig a holy woman of the name of Dorothy, whose life has been written by her confessor, John of Marienwerder. "Attracted by the fragrance of this life-giving Sacrament, the spouse from her childhood until death had an intense longing to see the Sacred Host, and, if one day she saw it a hundred times, as on some occasions actually happened, she lost nothing of her craving to see it yet oftener."

From this motive "she was anxious that she might get to church at a very early hour in the morning, so that she might have sight of the Beloved of her soul, at any rate from the priests who said the early Masses" (Fr. Thurston's translation in The Month, July, 1901). We are given the secret of this ardent longing to look on the Host when her biographer tells us that in this way the Saint endeavored to satisfy in some way her hunger after the divine bread which was denied her : "sane cum desiderio videndi corpus Christi fuit etiam desiderium aliquoties in anno percipiendi." This phrase throws a strange light upon the devotional life of the period. It is probably no unjustifiable generalization to say that the men and women of the centuries immediately preceding the Reformation were so eager to gaze on the Host, because they did not communicate, except on very rare occasions. They were content to look on the Host, instead of going up to the altar to receive it. In the course of time this laudable practice became even mixed with a certain amount of superstition. Thus, it was confidently asserted that no harm could befall a man on the day on which he had seen the Host. On the other hand, theologians gravely discussed the question whether one who, whilst he is in mortal sin, looks upon the Host, thereby commits a fresh mortal sin. Even in St. Thomas's Summa we still hear echoes of the controversy. To an objector who asserts that a man in sin commits no fresh sin by receiving the Host, since he commits none by looking on it, the Angelic Doctor replies : "Christ's body is not received by being seen, but only its sacrament (viz., the sacramental species which hide the real presence), because sight does not penetrate to the substance of Christ's body, but only the sacramental species. . . . consequently, no one is forbidden to behold Christ's body" (Summa, III, Q. lxxx, art. 4, ad 4).

Sometimes the sight of the consecrated Host became a substitute for Holy Viaticum, when the condition of the sick person rendered its reception impossible. Thus, in the life of St. Juliana of Mont-Cornillon, the originator of the Feast of Corpus Christi, we read that, as her last hour drew nigh, the Abbess spoke thus to her : " 'Seeing, my daughter, that your malady prevents you from receiving the Body of the Lord, we will at least have it brought to you and set before you, that you may recommend yourself to it.' But the Saint replied : 'No, Lady Mother, it would be presumption.' This she said from the profound humility which was habitual to her. . . . So even when the Abbess pressed her point, and urged that it was in every way fitting that she should for the last time behold her Saviour whom in this world she was to see no more, she answered : 'It is not necessary, Lady Mother, to see Him in this present life whom I am about to see in the life which is eternal.' One of the nuns, however, exhorted her to do the will of the Abbess, and she then consented that it should be as they wished" (cfr. Thurston, The Month, June, 1901).

This incident is instructive as showing that already it was no innovation to remove the Holy Eucharist from the place where it was reserved for devotional purposes other than its actual reception.

Even better known is the death-bed scene of St. Juliana of Falconieri. In the bitterness of her grief at not being able to receive Holy Viaticum, she implored the chaplain of the convent that he would bring the Sacred Host to her bedside so that she might assuage her longing by at least gazing upon it. After many vain efforts she even succeeded in leaping out of bed, and, prostrating herself before her Eucharistic Lord, she implored the priest to let her bestow a kiss upon the consecrated Element. When he refused, she begged him to place it upon her breast so that her heart might be refreshed by such nearness to Jesus. At last the priest yielded to her tears. When she had placed a veil over her breast and over that a corporal, the priest laid the Sacred Host upon it. Scarcely had he done so when the Saint exclaimed : "0 my sweet Jesus !" and immediately expired. "But as she drew her last breath, the Most Sacred Host disappeared from her breast and entered into it, leaving a mark on her bosom like the crucifix on our altar breads" (Faber, "The Bl. Sacrament," Book IV, p. 546, ed. 1861).

The custom of showing the Host to the sick was exceedingly common in Germany, so much so that at Mayence, by the middle of the sixteenth century, it became a matter of obligation : "si forte infirmus. . . . sacramentum Eucharistiae percipere non valeat, sacerdos. . . . ei consecratam hostiam exhibeat." In fact, this Decree of Mayence makes use of the expression so common in our dayspiritual communionfor, whilst the sick man gazes at the Host, the priest is to rouse him to lively sentiments of devotion: "quae est spiritualis et valde utilis sacrae Eucharistiae sumptio."

But the practice of showing the Host to the sick who were unable to communicate was not confined to Germany. Thus, according to the Ritual of Rodez of 1514, the priest, having washed his hands, reverently takes the Host, lifts it somewhat before the sick person, and, still holding it up before his eyes, exhorts him to profess his faith in Christ; after which he prays that the sick man may be admitted to the real vision of Him whom he thus beholds sacramentally. The Emperor Maximilian of Habsburg, having fallen over a precipice and not being able to receive Holy Communion, asked that a priest should at least show him the Sacred Host.

However, this custom fell gradually into desuetude and the Ritual of Paul V forbade it altogether : "Let not the Eucharist be moved in order to show it to anyone for the sole purpose of adoration or under pretext of devotion or from any other motive" (Rit. Rom., tit. IV., c. IV).


It was in the nature of things that the desire to behold the Host at Mass and its exhibition before the eyes of the sick and the dying who were unable to receive Holy Viaticum, should pave the way for further developments. There were many who for one reason or another would not be able to assist at Mass daily, and if the fruits derived from a sight of the Sacred Host were so admirable, why should not opportunities be multiplied so that all might "look on Jesus," even apart from Mass ? The practices which we have described were the preliminaries of our Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, which forms so conspicuous a feature of modern Eucharistic devotion.

The beginnings of Exposition are exceedingly obscure. The Feast of Corpus Christi was instituted by Urban IV in 1264, but it does not follow by any means that in the places where it was established it was accompanied by a procession. Even when there was a procession of the Holy Eucharist, it is not at all certain that the Sacred Host was displayed before the eyes of the faithful; in fact, the opposite is far more likely to have been the case. "There is no doubt," says Thalhofer, "that in the fourteenth and even in the fifteenth century the Blessed Sacrament was still carried in a covered chalice during the procession of Corpus Christi, and even as late as the sixteenth and seventeenth century parishes could be found that did not possess a monstrance" (Liturgik, II, 853). The same holds good of the procession of Palm Sunday, during which, in many places, the Blessed Sacrament was carried with much solemnity. Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury in the eleventh century, describes in detail the ritual to be observed. The Blessed Sacrament was carried on a hearse by two priests—but the vessel in which it was reserved was not transparent : "exeant sacerdotes albis induti qui portent feretrum. . . . in quo et Corpus Christi debet esse reconditum." Processions also took place on Easter Sunday, when the Blessed Sacrament was taken back with much pomp to the High Altar from the sepulchre where it had been kept since Maundy Thursday. But, according to Thiers, this procession had for its object, not so much to show the consecrated Host to the people—for the Host is hidden in a chalice covered by a veil—as to honor our Lord's resurrection by pointing to the empty tomb (cfr. Chardon, "Hist. des Sacr.," in Migne, CCCXXIV).

However, from the popular hymn of St. Thomas : Adoro Te, devote, we might infer that the Sacred Host was openly shown :

visas. . . .                in Te fallitur,
plagas sicut Thomas non intueor,
Jesu, quern velatum nunc aspicio. . . .

In fact, in the last strophe the contrast between the vision of the sacramental forms in time and of the blessed reality in eternity, is very forcibly brought out.

In the thirteenth century, the century of the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Hosts that were exhibited were not those consecrated for that purpose, but some miraculous Hosts—that is, Hosts from which blood had issued, or which had been miraculously preserved from the flames, and so forth.

The first monstrances for Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament date from the fourteenth century. In 1324 Robert de Courtenay, Archbishop of Rheims, left among other things a cross-shaped monstrance to be used at the procession of Corpus Christi : "crucem auream cum lapidibus pretiosis et crystallo in media in qua ponitur Corpus Christi et portatur in festo S. Sacramenti" (cfr. E. Dumontet, "Le desir de voir l'Hostie," p. 82).

In that same century permanent, or almost permanent, Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament was first introduced in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere. In his treatise on the Sacraments, the biographer of St. Dorothea of Dantzig clearly hints at more than a brief Exposition of the Sacred Host; as a matter of fact, he seems to state definitely that it was habitually kept in a monstrance for all to see—hence the eagerness of the Saint to go to church (Septililium, Analect. Bollard., III).

In the last years of the fourteenth century a citizen of Munich gave money towards a monstrance through the crystal of which the Host was to be daily visible to all. This monstrance was to be placed behind the high altar. In the following century Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament became even more universal, so much so that the famous Cardinal Nicholas de Cusa deemed it necessary to check what looked like an abuse. At a' Council held under his presidency at Cologne in 1452, it was deemed that for the greater honor of the Blessed Sacrament it was henceforth not to be exposed or carried about openly in the monstrance, except on the Feast of Corpus Christi and during its Octave. Outside this, it was to be exposed only once a year in each town or parish, and even then only with leave of the Ordinary (Chardon, op. cit.).

English-speaking Catholics use the word monstrance to designate the vessel in which the consecrated Host is exposed for veneration. Another designation is ostensorium. Both words are explanatory of their use: the monstrance (or ostensorium) serves the purpose of showing or exhibiting the Sacred Host. As we have already seen, we find express mention of the monstrance as far back as the fourteenth century. As regards its shape, it was most often that of a cross, a tower, or a church. Some of the oldest monstrances have this shape. In the center there is a receptacle, with a crystal door, in which the Host was enclosed. This receptacle was sometimes round like the Host itself, or cylindrical and even square. As regards the material of the monstrance, it should be either gold or silver, according to the Cceremoniale Episcoporum and Canon Law. The Host itself is held in a lunette or crescent, also called melchisedech. This moves in a groove within the monstrance proper. Modern Canon Law makes a distinction between private and public Exposition. The former—viz., Exposition with the pyx only —may be held in all chapels and oratories where reservation is allowed. The latter—that is, Exposition with the monstrance—may only be held on the Feast of Corpus Christi and during its Octave. At other times, besides leave of the Ordinary, a just and serious reason must exist.

Private Exposition always means that the Host is not seen. The tabernacle door is opened, and the ciborium is brought forward towards the door—but never exposed on a throne. The ritual for such Expositions is quite simple. Six candles must be lighted; the priest is vested in surplice and stole, and he may even wear a cope, should he wish to do so. Incense is not required, though it is now an almost universal custom to incense the Blessed Sacrament, though it is not done in Rome. The phrase "qualibet justa causa" is susceptible of a very wide interpretation, so that this clause may cover the manifold spiritual and temporal needs of the faithful of a parish, or a religious community, or those of the members of a guild or confraternity.

Public Exposition consists in showing the Host in the monstrance, which is generally placed on a throne behind and above the altar, or even left on the altar itself, as is the common practice of Rome. This solemn and public Exposition can only be held by leave of the bishop, even in the churches of exempt regulars. These Expositions should be called for by a real and even grave public cause. In this matter, however, the practice of many countries differs widely from the letter, at least, of the law, for Benediction with the monstrance has become a regular feature of modern Catholic life. Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, preceded by a sermon and the Rosary, Vespers or Compline, constitutes the staple evening service on a Sunday night. The regulation of the number of Expositions and Benedictions is left to the bishop; hence, the great diversity of practice in various countries. The minister of Exposition is the priest, or a deacon ; but, though he may expose the Blessed Sacrament, the latter cannot give Benediction.

Benediction with the Sacred Host is the normal and now obligatory conclusion of Exposition, but there was a time when it was not necessarily thus. It is impossible to ascertain the exact period when the actual blessing with the monstrance was first introduced; but, if people had themselves blessed with the relics of Saints or fragments of the True Cross, it was only a step to have themselves blessed with the Sacred Host whenever it was exposed to their veneration. Perhaps, the earliest mention of a blessing given with the Sacred Host occurs in the complaint made by a certain archpriest of Augsburg, who died in 1345. At his time there appears to have been a custom, from Corpus Christi day until the end of the harvest, of bringing the Blessed Sacrament daily to the door of the church and of employing it in certain forms of blessing and exorcism, to ensure the safety of the crops (cfr. Thurston, The Month, August, 1901, p. 191).

Formerly various forms of words accompanied the blessing with the Sacred Host; some of these customs survive here and there. But the Rituale Romanum emphatically lays down the rule that the blessing must be given in silence : "cum sacramento semel benedicat populum in modum crucis, nihil dicens. . . ." (Rit. Rom., tit. IX, cap. V., 6). This silent blessing is more impressive than any words ; for at that moment it is not so much the priest, as our Lord Himself who blesses His children, looking out upon them from the depths of the sacramental mystery, even as He once looked with pity upon the famishing crowds that had followed Him into the wilderness.

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