THINGS OLD AND NEW
By Ruth Powers
The Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday celebrates one of the central beliefs of the Catholic Church: that Christ is totally, physically present in bread and wine of the Eucharist. The appearance remains that of bread and wine, but the essence becomes Christ through His gift to us at the consecration of the Mass. This was the belief from the very earliest days of the church, as attested in the letters of St. Paul; and from this belief grew the practice of treating the consecrated bread and wine with special reverence since it is, after all, Jesus himself.
The practice of reserving the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass has a long history in the church. In the earliest centuries, the purpose was to reserve it to take to the sick and dying, as described by St. Justin Martyr and Tertullian. However, once Christianity was legalized and worship could be public, there is reference to reserving part of it in special containers for adoration outside of Mass. St. Basil the Great is described as reserving a part of the Eucharist in a container shaped like a dove in a description from A.D. 379. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, churches began to be built with tabernacles on or above the altar for the reservation of the consecrated bread although there is little specific mention of specific practices for adoration.
In 1079 Pope Gregory VII began something of a “Eucharistic Renaissance” in Europe when he issued a statement affirming the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist after a prominent cleric had denied it. From this time forward, we see the development of Eucharistic processions, special acts of adoration, encouragement of visits to the church to adore the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle and a renewed emphasis on adoration by members of religious orders. Members of the Benedictine order in France and England took the lead in promoting adoration there while St. Francis of Assisi is credited with introducing the practice in Italy. The host began to be elevated at the consecration of the Mass so that people could adore (the elevation of the chalice came later, after the Council of Trent).
In 1264, Pope Urban IV instituted the feast of Corpus Christi in recognition of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The great theologian St. Thomas Aquinas wrote the text and hymns for the Mass and the Office of the feast, some of which are still in use today like Panis Angelicus, Pange Lingua, Tantum Ergo, and O Salutaris Hostia. Around this same time, we begin to see the devotion that would come to be known later as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, where the Eucharist is exposed for adoration for a time and then used to bless the people. By the 15th century, elaborate containers for exposition of the Eucharist, called monstrances, became popular.
In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent emphasized the Real Presence in response to Protestant insistence that the Eucharist was only symbolic. The Council declared that Eucharistic adoration was a form of latria, or worship of God. The Council further stated that “the Sacrament, therefore, is to be honored with extraordinary festive celebrations (and) solemnly carried from place to place in processions according to the praiseworthy universal rite and custom of the holy church. The Sacrament is to be publicly exposed for the people’s adoration.” Growing from this pronouncement was the practice of “Forty Hours” where continuous prayer and meditation is made for forty continuous hours before the exposed Eucharist. Some religious orders also performed perpetual adoration, where the Eucharist was exposed 24 hours a day and someone was always in prayer before it. By the 18th century, promotion of quiet personal visits to churches to pray before the Blessed Sacrament, called Holy Hours, were being promoted by saints such as Alphonsus Ligouri and Benedict Joseph Labre. St. Alphonsus explained that a visit to the Blessed Sacrament is the practice of loving Jesus since friends who love each other visit frequently.
After a brief decline in the early 19th century, Eucharistic devotions became popular again in the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries. Eucharistic Congresses, large meetings to promote devotion to Christ in the Eucharist, became popular events. Unfortunately, both understanding of and devotion to the Eucharist has declined precipitously in recent years. A 2020 Pew Research study found that more than two-thirds of Catholics, including those who attend Mass regularly, do not believe that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist! They believe it is only a symbol. Because of this decline in the understanding and devotion to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has begun a three year plan to focus on the Eucharist and has declared a “Year of the Eucharist” beginning on the Feast of Corpus Christi this year. The focus period will culminate in a national Eucharistic Congress in 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Spend some time in the upcoming months renewing or deepening your faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
(Ruth Powers is the program coordinator for St. Mary Basilica Parish in Natchez.)