Reflections on Eucharist in Light of Adoro Te Devote

Author: Father Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap.


Reflections on Eucharist in Light of Adoro Te Devote

Part 1

1st Advent Sermon of Pontifical Household Preacher


Here is a translation of the first Advent sermon, delivered this morning, before the Pope and his aides in the Roman Curia, by the Pontifical Household preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa.

With this sermon, Father Cantalamessa began, in the Apostolic Palace's Redemptoris Mater chapel, a series of Eucharistic reflections in the light of the hymn Adoro Te Devote. Part 2 appears Sunday.

* * *

First Sermon
Adoro te devote

To respond to the Holy Father's desire and intentions to dedicate this year to the Eucharist, the preaching for this Advent — and, God willing also for next Lent, will be a stanza-by-stanza commentary of the Adoro Te Devote.

With his encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia," the Holy Father John Paul II said he intended to reawaken "Eucharistic wonder" in the Church,[1] and the Adoro Te Devote lends itself wonderfully to achieve this objective. It might serve to give spiritual inspiration and heart to all that will be done during this year to honor the Eucharist.

A certain way of speaking of the Eucharist, full of warm unction and devotion as well as of profound doctrine, banished by the advent of so-called scientific theology, was preserved in old Eucharistic hymns and it is here that we must look for it today, if we wish to overcome a certain arid conceptualism that has afflicted the Sacrament of the Altar in the wake of so many disputes surrounding it.

Ours, however, will not be a reflection on the Adoro Te Devote, but on the Eucharist! The hymn is only the map that helps us to explore the territory, the guide that introduces us to the work of art.

1. A hidden presence

In this meditation we reflect on the first stanza of the hymn. It says:

Adóro te devóte, latens Déitas,
quae sub his figúris vere látitas:
tibi se cor meum totum súbicit,
quia te contémplans totum déficit.

O Godhead hid, devoutly I adore Thee,
Who truly art within the forms before me;
To Thee my heart I bow with bended knee,
As failing quite in contemplating Thee.

Attempts were made to establish the critical text of the hymn based on a few manuscripts in existence before printing. The variations we know in regard to the text are not many. The main one, in fact, has to do with the first two verses of this stanza that, according to Wilmart, in the beginning sounded like this: "Adoro devote latens veritas / Te qui sub his formis vere latitas," where "veritas" stood for the person of Christ and "formis" was the equivalent of "figuris."

But aside from the fact that this reading is anything but certain,[2] there is another reason that impels us to keep to the traditional text. This, like other venerated Latin liturgical hymns of the past, belongs to the community of the faithful that have sung it for centuries, have made it their own and almost recreated it, no less than to the author who composed it, often, however, remaining anonymous. The popular text is no less valuable than the critical text and it is with it, in fact, that the hymn continues to be known and sung in the whole Church.

In every stanza of the Adoro Te Devote there is a theological affirmation and an invocation which is the prayerful response of the soul to the mystery. The theological truth recalled in the first stanza refers to the manner of the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species. The Latin expression "vere latitas" is charged with meaning, it means: he is hidden, but he really is (where the accent is on "vere," only the reality of the presence) and it also means: he truly is, but hidden (where the accent is on "latitas," on the sacramental character of this presence).

To understand this way of speaking of the Eucharist it is necessary to keep in mind the "great change" that is verified regarding the Eucharist in the passage of the symbolic theology of the Fathers and the dialectic of Scholasticism.

It had its remote beginnings in the ninth century, with Pascasio Radberto and Ratramno of Corbie: the first defender of the physical and material presence of Christ in the bread and wine; the second defender of a true and real but sacramental presence, not physical; it bursts forth openly, however, only later, with Berengarius of Tours (H 1088) who accentuates to such a point the symbolic and sacramental character of Christ in the Eucharist as to jeopardize faith in the objective reality of such a presence.

While at first it was said that Christ is present sacramentally in the Eucharist, or according to those in the East, mysteriously, now, with a language borrowed from Aristotle, it is said that he is present substantially, or according to substance. "Figura" no longer indicates, as sacramentum, the ensemble of signs with which the presence of Christ is realized, but simply the "species or appearances" of bread and wine, in technical language, the accidents.[3]

Our hymn is placed clearly on this side of the change, even if it avoids recourse to new philosophical terms, not very appropriate in a poetic text. In the verse "quae sub his figuris vere latitas," the term "figura" indicates the species of bread and wine in as much as they conceal what they contain and contain what they conceal.[4]

2. In devout adoration

I mentioned that in every stanza of the hymn we find a theological affirmation followed by an invocation with which the one praying responds to it and appropriates the truth evoked. To the affirmation of the real presence, even if hidden, of Christ in the bread and wine the one praying responds melting literally in devout adoration and bringing with him, in the same movement, the innumerable souls that for more than half a millennium have prayed with his words.

"Adoro": this word with which the hymn opens is on its own a profession of faith in the identity between the Eucharistic body and the historical body of Christ, "born of the Virgin Mary, and who really suffered and was immolated on the cross for man." It is only thanks to this identity, in fact, and to the hypostatic union in Christ between his humanity and divinity, that we can be in adoration before the consecrated Host, without committing the sin of idolatry. St. Augustine already said: "In this flesh (the Lord) has walked here and this same flesh he has given us to eat for salvation; and no one eats that flesh without first having adored it. ... We do not sin by adoring it, but rather we sin if we do not adore it." [5]

But, in what exactly does adoration consist of and how is it manifested? Adoration may be prepared by long reflection, but it ends with an intuition and, as every intuition, it does not last long. It is like a flash of light in the night. But of a special light: not so much the light of truth, but the light of reality. It is the perception of the grandeur, majesty and beauty of God, together with his goodness and presence which takes one's breath away. It is a sort of sinking in the shoreless and fathomless ocean of God's majesty.

An expression of adoration, more effective than any word, is silence. To adore, according to the wonderful expression of St. Gregory Nazianzen, means to raise a "hymn of silence" to God. There was a time when, to enter into a climate of adoration before the Most Blessed Sacrament, it was enough for me to repeat the first words of a hymn of the 17th century German mystic Gerhard Tersteegen, still sung today in Protestant and Catholic churches of Germany:

"God is present here; come let us adore him!
With holy reverence, let us enter into his presence.
God is here in our midst: everything is silenced in us
And our innermost being prostrates itself in his presence."[6]

Perhaps because the words of a foreign language are less worn-out by usage and trivialization, it is a fact that those words gave me, every time, an inner thrill. "Gott ist gegenwärtig, God is present, God is here!" — the words soon vanished, only the truth remained that they had transmitted, the "vivid feeling of the presence" of God.

The meaning of adoration is reinforced, in our hymn, by that of devotion: "adoro te devote." The Middle Ages gave this term a new meaning in relation to pagan and also Christian antiquity. With it was indicated at the beginning the attachment of a person, expressed in faithful service and, in Christian usage, every form of divine service, especially the liturgical service of the recitation of the psalms and prayers.

In the great spiritual authors of the Middle Ages, the word is interiorized, no longer signifying exterior practices, but the profound dispositions of the heart. For St. Bernard it indicates "the interior fervor of the soul burning with the fire of charity."[7] With St. Bonaventure and his school the person of Christ becomes the central object of devotion, understood as the feeling of overwhelming gratitude and love aroused by the memory of his benefits. The Angelic Doctor dedicates two whole articles of the Summa to devotion, which he considers the first and most important act of the virtue of religion.[8] For him it consists of the readiness and disposition of the will to offer itself to God which is expressed in a service without reservations and full of fervor.

This rich and profound content was unfortunately lost to a great extent later on, when the concept of "devotion" was placed alongside that of "devotions," namely of exterior and special practices, addressed not only to God, but more often to saints or to particular places, motives and images. There was a return in practice to the old meaning of the term.

In our hymn the adverb devote keeps intact the theological and spiritual force that the author himself (if it is Thomas Aquinas) had contributed to give to the term. The best explanation of what is meant here by "devotion" is in the words that follow, in the second part of the stanza: "Tibi se cor meum totum subiicit": to you my whole heart abandons itself. Total and loving readiness to do the will of God.

[Sunday: Forgetfulness of everything]


[1] Encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia," 6.

[2] The expression "latens veritas" is found in Isidore of Seville, Sent. III, col. 688, l. 22, but it is not referred to Christ. In favor of "latens Deitas" is the parallel with "latens humanitas" of the third stanza and also the possible allusion to Isaiah 45:15: "vere tu es Deus absconditus."

[3] Cfr. de Lubac, op. cit., p. 287.

[4] Cfr. St. Thomas Aquinas, "Commento al vangelo di Giovanni," VI, lez. 6, n. 954: "The manna only prefigured, while this bread contains what it represents" ("continet quod figurat").

[5] St. Augustine, In Ps. 98,9 (PL 37, 1264).

[6] G. Tersteegen, Geistliches Blumengärtlein 11, Stuttgart 1969, p.340 s.:

"Gott ist gegenwärtig; laßet uns anbeten,
Und in Ehrfurcht vor ihn treten!
Gott ist in der Mitte; alles in uns schweige
Und sich innigst vor ihm beuge!"

[7] Cfr. J. Charillon, art. Devotio, in Dict. Spir. 3, col. 715.

[8] St. Thomas, S. Th. II, IIae, q.82 a.1-2, cf. J.W. Curran, art. "Dévotion, Fondement théologique," in Dict. Spir. III, coll. 716 ss.

[Translation by ZENIT]

Part 2

1st Advent Sermon of Pontifical Household Preacher


Here is a translation of the conclusion of the first sermon in preparation for Christmas, delivered Friday, before the Pope and his aides in the Roman Curia, by the Pontifical Household preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa.

The sermon, in the Apostolic Palace's Redemptoris Mater chapel, was the first of a series of Eucharistic reflections in the light of the hymn Adoro Te Devote.

Part 1 of this sermon appeared Friday.

* * *

First Sermon
Adoro te devote


3. Eucharistic contemplation

What remains to be reflected on is the highest flame which arises from the two last verses of the stanza: "Quia te contemplans totum deficit": Contemplating you everything fails. The characteristic of certain venerable Latin liturgical hymns, such as the Adoro Te Devote, the Veni Creator and others, is the extraordinary concentration of meaning that is found in every single word. Every word is "meaningful" in them.

To understand fully the meaning of this phrase, as of the whole hymn, it is necessary to take into account the environment and the context from which it is born. We are, I said, this side of the great change in Eucharistic theology occasioned by the reaction to the theories of Berengarius of Tours. The problem on which Christian reflection concentrates almost exclusively is that of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which at times exceeds in the affirmation of a physical and almost material presence.[9] From Belgium came the great wave of Eucharistic fervor which was soon to spread to the whole of Christianity and, in 1264, led to the institution of the feast of Corpus Domini by Pope Urban IV.

The sense of respect for the Eucharist increased and, in a parallel manner, so did the sense of the unworthiness of the faithful to approach it, also because of the almost impracticable conditions established to receive Communion (fasting, penance, confession, abstention from conjugal relations). Communion by the people became such a rare event that the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 had to establish the obligation to go to Communion at least at Easter. But the Eucharist continues to draw souls irresistibly and thus, little by little, the lack of the edible contact of communion was remedied by developing the visible contact of contemplation. (We note that in the East, for the same reasons, the laity were also denied the visible contact because the central rite of the Mass takes place behind a curtain which later became the wall of the iconostasis.)

The elevation of the host and of the chalice at the moment of the consecration, first unknown (the first written testimony of its institution is in 1196), has become for the laity the most important moment of the Mass, in which their feelings of devotion are poured out and they hope to receive graces. Bells are rung at that moment to notify those who are absent, and some run from one Mass to another to attend several elevations. Many Eucharistic hymns, among which the Ave Verum, were born to accompany this moment; they are hymns for the elevation. To them belongs also our Adoro Te Devote. From beginning to end its language is that of seeing, contemplating: "te contemplans, nonintueor, nunc aspicio, visu sim beatus."

We no longer have the same idea of the Eucharist; for some time Communion has become an integral part of participation in the Mass; the achievements of theology (biblical, liturgical, ecumenical movement) that came together in the Second Vatican Council and in the liturgical reform have again valued, together with faith in the real presence, other aspects of the Eucharist, the banquet, the sacrifice, the memorial, the communal and ecclesial dimension.

It might be thought that in this new climate there is no longer a place for the Adoro Te Devote and the Eucharistic practices born in that period. Instead it is precisely now that they are more useful and necessary for us so as not to lose, because of today's achievements, those of yesterday. We cannot reduce the Eucharist only to contemplation of the real presence in the consecrated Host, but it would also be a grave loss to give it up. The Pope has not ceased to recommend it since his first letter The Mystery and Worship of the Most Sacred Eucharist, of Holy Thursday 1980: "The adoration of Christ in this sacrament of love must find its expression in different forms of Eucharistic devotion: personal prayer before the Most Holy Sacrament, hours of adoration, brief, prolonged, annual expositions ... Jesus awaits us in this sacrament of love. Let us not lose any time to go to meet him, full of faith, in adoration and contemplation."

Our Orthodox brothers do not share this aspect of Catholic piety; some of them note amiably that the bread is made to be eaten, not to be looked at. Others, also among Catholics, observe that the practice was developed at a time of grave obscuring of liturgical and sacramental life.

There are, however, no particular theological or theoretical explanations in favor of the excellence of Eucharistic contemplation but the impressive testimony of facts, literally "a cloud of testimonies." A quite recent one is that of Charles de Foucauld who made adoration of the Eucharist one of the strong points of his spirituality and of that of his followers. Innumerable souls attained holiness by practicing it and the decisive contribution it has given to the mystical experience is demonstrated.[10] The Eucharist, within and outside of the Mass, has been for the Catholic Church what in the family was, until recently, the domestic hearth during winter: the place around which the family rediscovered its own unity and intimacy, the ideal center of everything.

This does not mean that there are not also theological reasons as the basis of Eucharistic contemplation. The first is that which comes from the word of Christ: "Do this in memory of me." In the idea of memorial there is an objective and sacramental which consists in repeating the rite completed by Christ which recalls and renders present his sacrifice. But there is also a subjective and existential aspect which consists in cultivating the memory of Christ, "in having constantly in the memory thoughts that regard Christ and his love."[11] This "sweet memory of Jesus" ("Jesu dulcis memoria") is not limited to the time that one spends before the tabernacle; it can be cultivated with other means, such as the contemplation of icons; but it is true that adoration before the Most Blessed Sacrament is a privileged means to do so.

The two aspects of the memorial — celebration and contemplation of the Eucharist —, do not exclude one another, but integrate with each other. Contemplation in fact is the means with which we "receive," in a strong sense, the mysteries, with which we interiorize them and open ourselves to their action; it is the equivalent of the mysteries on the existential and subjective plane; it is a way of allowing the grace, received in the sacraments, to mold our inner universe, namely, thoughts, affections, will, memory.

There is a great affinity between the Eucharist and the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, says St. Augustine, "Mary conceived the Word first with her mind than with her body" ("Prius concepit mente quam corpore"). In fact, he adds, it would have been of no value to her to carry Christ in her womb, if she had not carried him with love in her heart.[12] The Christian must also receive Christ in his mind, before receiving and after receiving him in his body. And to receive Christ in the mind means, concretely, to think of him, to have one's gaze turned to him, to remember him, contemplating the sign that he himself chose to remain among us.

4. Forgetfulness of everything

"Te contemplans," contemplating you, says our hymn. What does that pronoun "you" enclose? Surely the Christ really present in the Host, but not a static and inert presence; it indicates the whole mystery of Christ, the person and his work; it is a listening silently to the Gospel again or to a phrase in the presence of the author himself of the Gospel who gives to the word a particular force and immediacy.

But it is not yet the summit of contemplation. The great teachers of the spirit defined contemplation as: "A free, penetrating and immobile glance" (Hugh of Saint Victor), or: "An affectionate gaze on God" (St. Bonaventure). To engage in Eucharistic contemplation means then, concretely, to establish a heart to heart contact with Jesus really present in the Host and, through him, to be raised to the Father in the Holy Spirit. In meditation, the search for truth prevails, in contemplation, instead, it is the enjoyment of the found Truth. Contemplation tends always to the person, to the whole and not to the parts. Eucharistic contemplation is to look at one who is looking at me.

This stage of contemplation is that described by the author of the Adoro Te Devote when he affirms: "te contemplans totum deficit," contemplating you everything fails. These are words born surely from experience. "All fails," that is, what fails? Not only the external world, people, things, but also the internal world of thoughts, images, worries. "Forgetfulness of everything outside of God," wrote Pascal describing a similar experience. And Francis of Assisi admonished his brothers: "It would be a great misery, and miserable evil if, having Him so present, you were to pay attention to anything in the whole universe!"[13]

Around the same date that our hymn was composed, namely at the end of the 13th century, Roger Bacon, another great lover of the Eucharist, wrote these words, which seem like a commentary to the first stanza of the Adoro Te Devote and a confirmation of the experience that shines through it: "If the divine majesty were to manifest itself sensibly, we would not have been able to sustain it and we would have failed ('deficeremus!') altogether in reverence, devotion and wonder. ... Experience demonstrates it. Those who exercise themselves in the faith and in love of this sacrament do not succeed in enduring the devotion that is born from a pure faith, without dissolving in tears and without their soul, coming out of itself, liquefying by the sweetness of the devotion, to the point of no longer knowing where one is or why."[14]

Eucharistic contemplation is altogether other than indulging in quietism. It was noted how man reflects in himself, at times even physically, what he contemplates. One is not long exposed to the sun without showing the traces on one's face. Remaining long and with faith, not necessarily with sensible fervor, before the Most Holy Sacrament, we assimilate the thoughts and feelings of Christ, not in a discursive but in an intuitive way, almost "ex opere operato."

It occurs as in the process of photosynthesis of plants. In the spring, green leaves appear on the branches; they absorb from the atmosphere certain elements that, under the action of solar light, are "fixed" and transformed into the plant's nutriment. We must be like those green leaves! They are a symbol of Eucharistic souls that, contemplating the "sun of justice" who is Christ, they are "fixed" to the nutriment, which is the Holy Spirit himself, for the benefit of the whole great tree that is the Church. In other words, it is that which the Apostle Paul also says: "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:18).

If now however, from these shafts of light that the author of the hymn has made us perceive we return in thought to our reality and to our poor world after being before the Eucharist we risk feeling disheartened and discouraged. It would be all together mistaken. It is already an encouragement and a consolation to know that these experiences are possible; that that which we have perhaps experienced in moments of great fervor of our life and then lost, can be rekindled, thanks also to the Eucharistic Year that has been given us to live.

The only thing that the Holy Spirit asks of us is that we give him our time, even if at the beginning it might seem like lost time. I will never forget the lesson that was given to me one day in this regard. I said to God: "Lord, give me fervor and I will give you all the time you desire in prayer." I found the answer in my heart: "Raniero, give me your time and I will give you all the fervor you want in prayer." I mention it, in case it might help someone else, besides me.


[9] The first formula of faith articulated to support Berengarius asserted that, in Communion, the body and blood of Christ were present on the altar "sensibly and were really touched, and broken by the hands of the priest and chewed by the teeth of the faithful": Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 690. St. Thomas Aquinas corrects this affirmation, saying that the body of Christ "is not broken, shattered or divided by the one who receives it": cfr. S. Th. III, q. LXXVII, a.7.

[10] Cfr. E. Longpré, "Eucharistie et expérience mystique," in Dict. Spir. IV, coll. 1586-1621.

[11] N. Cabasilas, "Vita in Cristo," VI,4 (PG 150,653).

[12] Cf. Augustine, "Sulla santa verginità," 3 (PL 40, 398).

[13] St. Francis, "Lettera a tutti I frati," 2 (FF 220).

[14] Roger Bacon, "De sacramento altaris, in Moralis philosophia," ed. E. Massa, Zurich 1953, pp. 231 s.

[Translation by ZENIT]

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe
or email: with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field