I remember the darkened church, filled with a reverent silence interrupted only when an opened door allowed the sounds of traffic and voices to intrude momentarily. A heavy slam of varnished wood signaled the arrival of the next worshiper, who checked her name on the list and tapped the weary shoulder of her predecessor. There was a slight nod of recognition, then knees sore from two hours of kneeling straightened and made room for a fresher pair to occupy the prie-dieu before the Blessed Sacrament. This pattern would continue until sundown, when the 40th hour of eucharistic adoration had been fulfilled.
In the years since the Second Vatican Council, scenes such as this have become less frequent; indeed in many places they no longer occur at all. Recently, however, there has been a revival of interest in eucharistic adoration. In some diocesesChicago, for exampleparishes have been directed to promote the devotion. This revival has been debated. For some, adoring the host is a cornerstone of Catholic spirituality. Others contend that it is a distortion of Jesus’ teaching and intent. As is the case with all spiritual practices, we would do well to examine the history and theology of eucharistic adoration in order to understand better its function and to integrate it into a healthy contemporary Catholic spirituality.
Eucharistic adoration is the practice of prayer and adoration in the presence of a consecrated host. Although it may include processions, benedictions, the Forty Hours devotion or perpetual adoration, the basic component is private and often silent prayer. This devotion rests upon a belief in the real presence. Participants are convinced that they stand before the body of Christ, a unique and substantial presence encountered so profoundly nowhere else.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, approved by Pope John Paul II in 1992, reinforces this belief. "In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.’ This presence is called "real"by which it is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be "real" too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present’" (No. 1374).
Christians in the early church did not give such prominence to the eucharistic elements. While they believed the bread and wine were truly the body and blood of Christ, it would never have occurred to them to remain at the location of the eucharistic meal adoring the remaining bread, to light candles or burn incense in honor of it, to craft special vessels of reservation or to process with the host through the streets. Jesus had given them no indication that the consecrated bread or wine should be adored, or that he intended his most imminent presence to be concentrated in them. The community itself was the primary means by which Christ’s presence was visible to the world.
The more exclusive emphasis on the consecrated species arose in the ninth century. It was stimulated by the debates of two monks, St. Paschasius Radbertus (785-860) and Ratramnus of Corbie, who died sometime after 868. The former promoted a literal realism, declaring the host and wine to be mere envelopes that surrounded actual flesh and blood and were necessary in order to make consumption of the raw elements palatable to humans. Ratramnus, who had been a pupil of Paschasius, countered with a symbolic or sacramental understanding in which the Eucharist is a true mystery of the flesh of Christ, but not a physical recreation of his natural body. Neither theory was condemned as heretical at the time, since both clearly affirmed the presence of Christ.
Two centuries later, Berengarius, who died in 1088, favored a symbolic approach similar to that of Ratramnus. He insisted that the real and true presence of Christ in the Eucharist does not depend on changing the nature of the bread and winethat in fact such a change would be contrary to the laws of nature. Unlike Ratramnus, however, Berengarius was forced to sign a confession at the Council of Rome in 1059 affirming that the body of Christ is so literally present in the species as to be "broken by the hands of the priest and crushed by the teeth of the faithful." In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council proposed the concept of transubstantiation to explain how this could be. The council used the concepts of substance and accidents, developed by Aristotle, to describe the process by which bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ.
These complex intellectual debates went hand in hand with pastoral practices that increasingly removed the people from contact with the now sacred elements. The division between clergy and lay people increased dramatically until the Middle Ages, when the assembly, or congregation, was separated from the liturgy physically, linguistically and theologically. The assembly and the clergy occupied separate areas of the church, often with rood screens preventing the faithful from even seeing events at the altar. The Latin prayers were understood only by the elite or by the clergy; and, as dictated by official rubrics, these prayers were recited in a whisper or silently. Only the anointed hands of the priest dared touch the sacred host. The consecrated wine was offered to the laity through a straw to prevent spillage, until finally the cup was withdrawn from the people altogether. Concurrently, fewer and fewer were considered worthy to partake in the eucharistic communion with the Lord. Receiving the chalice became unthinkable. Receiving the host became so infrequent that the church had to mandate yearly reception.
Rather than the meal, or reception of the sacrament, the ultimate moment of the Mass became the elevation of the host. Since the rest of the liturgy was essentially hidden from sight and incomprehensible, bells were rung to notify people of the elevation. The worshipers would shout, genuflect, salute or otherwise venerate the species, content to know they had seen the Lord. Indeed, some people dashed from church to church to see the "miracle" of the elevation more than once, or paid priests to repeat it. The host thus became objectified, a thing separate from the context of the meal and the community, an untouchable sacred object to be worshiped.
Eucharistic devotion flourished in this milieu. Catholic saints from the 13th century on were devotees, with many of them spending countless hours prostrate before the host. The feast of Corpus Christi was declared by Urban VI in 1264 in response to pressure from women mystics, and the monstrance was designed to display the Blessed Sacrament. Eucharistic processions of immense pomp and grandeur evolved, in which clergy, laity and even military units would participate.
The operative factor was no longer reception of the body and blood but the "sacred gaze," with the mere sight of the host believed to have saving effect. For countless faithful Catholics, the Blessed Sacrament became their intimate connection to God, their most awe-filled opportunity to communicate with the divine, their window to heaven. It became, if you will, the ultimate icon, one that not only drew their attention to God, but that was God.
This theology of eucharistic adoration has endured and changed very little since the Middle Ages. But the practice itself is no longer as prominent as it once was. That is very likely due in part to a declining belief in the real presence. A poll conducted in 1994 by The New York Times and CBS News reported that 51 percent of American Catholics who said they attended Mass weekly believe the bread and wine are strictly the symbolic presence of Christ. That proportion jumps to two-thirds when those who do not regularly attend Mass are included. The poll in question did not clarify what was meant by "symbolic presence." Even so, those Catholics clearly did not believe they were crushing a body with their teeth when they received Communion.
Despite this apparent spread of skepticism, however, eucharistic adoration retains a devoted following. Currently more than 1,000 parishes in the United States sponsor perpetual eucharistic adoration, and another 1,000 provide opportunity for adoration during a substantial portion of the day. Canon 937 in the Code of Canon Law requires that every church in which the Eucharist is reserved be open for at least a few hours every day to allow the faithful to worship before the Blessed Sacrament. Canon 944 directs that wherever the bishop deems it possible to do so there be eucharistic processions through the streets, especially on the feast of Corpus Christi.
There has also been considerable contemporary papal encouragement of eucharistic adoration. Pope John XXIII lamented its neglect in 1959. Paul VI wrote in his 1965 encyclical Mysterium Fidei ("Mystery of Faith") that "there is nothing more consoling on earth, nothing more efficacious for advancing along the road to holiness" than this devotion. John Paul II prayed in Dominicae Cenae ("The Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist"), the letter he wrote to all the bishops on Holy Thursday in 1980, that eucharistic adoration may never cease.
There is, then, a dilemma here. Eucharistic adoration is a devotion with questionable scriptural backing. It developed largely from distortions of the liturgy. Yet eucharistic adoration has been practiced in the Roman Catholic Church for over 700 years; it has been praised by saints and popes alike, and it is a source of genuine spirituality for countless faithful Catholics.
The keys to resolving the dilemma, I believe, are integration and balance. First, eucharistic adoration must be integrated into the liturgical assembly. Second, the practice of eucharistic adoration must reflect a balance between the transcendent Christology of worship and adoration and the incarnational Christology of justice and mission.
The Instruction on Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery (Eucharisticum Mysterium) issued in 1967 by the Consilium for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy and that constitution itself, adopted by the Second Vatican Council in 1963, agree that popular eucharistic devotions must 1) be derived from the liturgy, 2) harmonize with the liturgy and the liturgical season, and 3) lead people back to the liturgy which, as the council said, "by its very nature is far superior to any of these devotions." The Rev. Roger O’Brien has noted that church directives were crafted "in the hope that Eucharist would not be reduced to an object that functions as a sign of static presence, a being there,’ rather than a challenging invitation to active relationship implied in taking, eating, and drinking" (Catholic NW Progress, 10/19/95). The reserved host receives its significance from the full mystery of Christ’s real presence originating in and leading back to the liturgical assemblythe people led in prayer by their ministers, singing, praying, breaking the bread and sharing at the table.
This integration also needs to incorporate a balance of Christologies. The privatized piety of eucharistic adoration is an example of "descending" Christology in praxis. At the point of consecration, the priest calls down the God who is "out there," that these earthly elements might be transformed (or transubstantiated) into the body and blood of Christ the Lord. The host becomes the touchstone of our connection to the divine that is beyond anything else in our worldly sphere.
In a balanced view, this "descending" Christology of Christ’s presence par excellence within the host must be balanced with the "ascending" Christology of Christ’s incarnational presence in the people of God. This reflects the view, based on consideration of Jesus’ teachings and activity, that Jesus would reject a relationship in which we merely gazed at him in silent adoration. His own prayer strengthened him for service and ministry, for bringing about the reign of God on earth, and he calls us to follow that lead.
Augustine said: "The bread is Christ’s body, the cup is Christ’s blood.... If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your Amen may ring true! Be what you see; receive what you are.... All who fail to keep the bond of peace after entering this mystery receive not a sacrament that benefits them, but an indictment that condemns them" (Sermon 272).
Nathan Mitchell concurs, writing in Commonweal (1/27/95) that "consecrated bread and wine is not some-thing, but some-one. In the Eucharist, Christ is present not as an object’ to be admired, but as a person (a subject’) to be encountered.... The ultimate intent of celebrating Eucharist is not to produce the sacred species for reservation or adoration, but to create the united body of Christ which is the church." Thus Christ’s body is not only on the table, but at the table. Christ is to be worshiped, but Christ is also to be received, broken and shared for the salvation of the world.
A Christian who is intensely concerned that the consecrated host not be left alone in the chapel must, therefore, also be concerned about the homeless people left alone in the streets. Those who reverence Christ’s presence in the host must also reverence Christ’s presence in human bodies. Those who ignore the first aspect run the risk of becoming passive individualists concerned only with their private relationship with God. Those who ignore the second run the risk of becoming no more than beneficent humanists.
Eucharistic adoration and social justice are not, and must not be, mutually exclusive, for neither one is authentic Christian spirituality on its own. Eucharistic adoration must flow out of and back into the community Eucharist, at which we are sent to bring about the reign of God in the world and to which we return for the strength to carry out this mission. This inclusiveness, in which private prayer and adoration of God is in constant dialogue with the community of love and justice that such prayer intends, is based in Scripture and is deep within our tradition. Therefore, a spirituality that includes the objective and subjective in a both-and tension rather than in an either-or debate holds the most potential for recognizing and living out the multi-faceted and pervasive presence of God.