Perpetual Adoration: An Ancient Devotion in Modern Times

Author: Mike Aquilina


Mike Aquilina

At the Transfiguration, Peter was so moved by the vision of Jesus—"radiant with light," "dazzling white"—that he wanted to build three booths and set up camp there forever.

He wanted to offer perpetual adoration to the Lord. And in that desire, he has been joined by Christians down through the ages.

In the early Church, monks would chant prayer and psalms to God without ceasing, spelling one another in shifts.

But since the Middle Ages, in the Western Church the desire for continuous prayer to the Lord has most often been expressed in perpetual eucharistic adoration: the worship of Jesus truly present in the consecrated host, either reserved in a tabernacle or exposed in a vessel called a "monstrance."

Usually sponsored by a parish, religious community or diocese, perpetual adoration is offered by successive worshipers without intermission.

Through the first millennium of Christianity, there is little evidence of worship of the Eucharist outside the liturgy, and still less of anything that might be called "perpetual."

With the Eucharist, as with the Trinity, the Church gradually grew in its understanding of the mystery. Councils defined doctrines more clearly, and people responded with devotion ever more ardent.

Often this happened in response to heresies. Particularly when false teachers denied the goodness of the created world or the goodness of the human body, orthodox Catholics responded with deeper reverence for the Eucharist—the Word himself made flesh. To deny matter's goodness, they believed, is eventually to deny the incarnation of God in Jesus.

Such was the heresy of the Priscillians, a gnostic sect in fourth through sixth-century Spain. Priscillians disdained marriage, wine and meat, and were condemned by many Spanish bishops and councils. In reparation for the offense of this heresy, the cathedral church of Lugo, Spain, is said to have offered perpetual eucharistic adoration for more than 1,000 years, up to the present day.

Another anti-matter heresy, Albigensianism, arose in 12th-century France, and there faithful Catholics responded with a spontaneous surge of eucharistic worship.

In what would become the first recorded instance of true perpetual eucharistic adoration, King Louis VII in September 1226—having just defeated the Albigensians—called his subjects to offer thanksgiving to the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the Chapel of the

Holy Cross at Avignon.

So many people showed up the bishop extended the time of exposition into the night—and then into perpetuity. The Holy See ratified his decision, and adoration continued uninterrupted till the persecutions of the French Revolution in 1792. Perpetual adoration resumed—in 1829.

During the Middle Ages, many more of the faithful began to adore the Blessed Sacrament apart from the Mass. At first, the custom was to worship the host reserved in the tabernacle. Eventually, some came to practice the devotion with the tabernacle doors open. Later still, solemn exposition of the host, in a monstrance, became the norm.

The practice spread through Europe and culminated in the establishment of the Feast of Corpus Christi—Latin for "the Body of Christ"—in 1264. The feast itself, now celebrated each June, helped spread the devotion.

In 1393, an Italian religious community arose, "Religiosi bianchi del corpo di Gesu Christo," dedicated primarily to adoration of the sacrament. The custom of uninterrupted "Forty Hours" exposition began in Milan in the mid-1500s, and in 1592 was formally recognized by Pope Clement VIII, who commanded its observance in Rome's churches.

But the real flowering of perpetual adoration came at the beginning of the 16th century during the early years of the Protestant Reformation, when church lootings were common, as were desecrations of the Blessed Sacrament. Faithful Catholics made reparation to God by keeping a loving vigil before Him, around the clock. Perpetual adoration became a symbol of constancy in a volatile age.

Throughout Europe and eventually America, new religious orders arose centered on uninterrupted eucharistic adoration. In 1907, the Catholic Encyclopedia could state that such orders were too numerous to list.

In the United States, the practice waxed through the middle decades of this century, especially as Archbishop Fulton Sheen promoted the custom of spending a Holy Hour before the tabernacle. But eucharistic devotions in general waned in the '60s and '70s.

Some liturgists rejected the devotion, saying it detracted from the Mass.

Today, though, it seems to be on the rebound. For example, the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., recently launched perpetual adoration in a chapel at its seminary in Stamford. And during the great blizzard of January 1996, parishioners at St. Michael's Church in Annandale, Va., maintained a vigil that had been unbroken since the early '80s. They camped out in the chapel with sleeping bags.

Msgr. Francis Mannion, president of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, believes that perpetual adoration is gaining popularity because it has "the sense of dignity, reverence and solemnity" that people miss in the way the Mass is celebrated today.

"The transcendent character of the Eucharist is strongly evident in eucharistic devotions, as are the contemplative and mystical dimensions of the Eucharist," he said.

He disagrees with liturgists who "express alarm at the return of eucharistic devotions."

"At a time when surveys are showing that belief in Christ's eucharistic presence is on the wane even among church-going Catholics, such devotions can play an important role in restoring authentic Catholic faith at a popular level," he said.

Mike Aquilina is editor of The Pittsburgh Catholic.

Organization Promotes Adoration

Since the early 1970s, L. Owen Traynor has been promoting perpetual eucharistic adoration throughout the world.

Today, his organization, Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration, supplies information and support for people who wish to establish the devotion in their parish or diocese. PEA's statutes were approved by the Holy See in 1991.

Traynor can be reached at 660 Club View Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90024.

—Mike Aquilina

This article was taken from the July/August 1996 issue of "Catholic Heritage". To subscribe write Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750-9957 or call 1-800-348-2440. Published bimonthly at a charge of $18.00 per year.