Adoration of the blessed sacrament

Historical Background

The earliest known adoration of the Blessed Sacrament took place within the Eucharistic celebration itself. The priest celebrant genuflected in adoration after the consecration and before receiving communion, two gestures which remain in the present Order of Mass. From about the 13th century, Corpus Christi processions became popular as a way of extending the adoration beyond the celebration of Eucharist.

Medieval spirituality gradually shifted its focus from the action of the Eucharist to its object, the consecrated bread. The action of the Eucharist has several aspects. During the Liturgy of the Eucharist we take, bless, break and share. In the communal action of sharing a meal we receive communion, the Body of Christ, and in so doing become communion, the body of Christ.

By the 14th century, the combination of people’s sense of awe at the great mystery being celebrated and of their personal feelings of unworthiness to participate in that mystery meant that the faithful rarely received communion. Eating and drinking the sacred species was replaced with ‘spiritual communion’ – gazing upon the consecrated host. To assist people to see the host, it was made larger and elevated for a prolonged period after the consecration. In order to be worthy bearers of the real presence, hosts were made perfectly round and white, rather unlike real bread.

Eventually the practice arose of placing the consecrated host in a receptacle (monstrance) for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, which allowed for spiritual communion to extend beyond the celebration of Mass. Blessing the people by making the sign of the cross over them with the monstrance (Benediction) originated as a way of enhancing devotion during the singing of a Marian hymn which customarily concluded evening prayer. Benediction later became a separate ritual.

This brief historical account makes two points clear. First, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is a part of, and continuation of, the Eucharistic action itself. Our sense of mystery and awe at God’s great gift of our redemption through the paschal mystery prompts such reverence and worship. Adoration expresses our belief in the real presence and is a response to that presence.

Second, the shift in focus from the Eucharist as an action to the host as an object took place at a time when active participation in a communal meal was replaced by the passive observation of a transcendent reality.

Clarifying Terms

There seems to be some confusion between the terms ‘perpetual adoration’ and ‘perpetual exposition’.

Perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament refers to continual prayer before the Blessed Sacrament reserved in a tabernacle. There are no regulations governing this kind of adoration, and no permission is needed. Of course, the tabernacle must be locked and fixed to prevent desecration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Perpetual exposition of the Blessed Sacrament refers to the sacred host being continuously exposed for exposition in a monstrance or ciborium. A number of regulations apply in this situation. The practice requires the permission of the bishop, at least two people must always be present, the Blessed Sacrament must be reposed during Mass unless exposition is in a separate chapel, exposition must be accompanied by a Liturgy of the Word, it may never take place during the Easter Triduum, and four or six candles should be lit. (Holy Communion and the Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass #82 to #90)

Elizabeth Harrington