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As I mentioned in last week’s column about adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, ‘Benediction’ is the name of the rite in which the people are blessed with a consecrated host after a period of exposition.
The word ‘benediction’ comes from the Latin benedicto meaning ‘blessing’. The rite appeared first in Belgium in the 13th century where, along with the feast of Corpus Christi, it developed as a response to controversies regarding Christs’ presence in the consecrated bread and wine. Devotion to the reserved sacrament grew in the Roman church as a result of Reformation questioning of certain eucharistic practices. Its popularity resulted from the distancing of people from the action of the Mass because of language and other barriers.
Revised norms (regulations) governing exposition and Benediction were first published in the 1967 Instruction on the Eucharist and appeared again along with new prayers and rubrics in the 1973 Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass (HCWEOM).
These current norms concerning the reserved sacrament emphasise that devotions must be related to the celebration of the Mass. Practices during Benediction have been brought into line with practices during Mass. For example, the former ‘double’ genuflection has been abolished and reverence is shown by genuflecting on one knee (HCWEOM #84); the number of candles used at Benediction is the same as at a festive Mass, that is, four or six, not seven placed in a special candelabra as in the past (#85). The norms also stipulate that a brief exposition solely for Benediction is forbidden (# 89).
What happens at Benediction?
The priest approaches the sanctuary, while the assembly sings an appropriate song, and makes a sign of reverence. He then removes the sacrament from the tabernacle, puts it in a monstrance (decorated receptacle with a glass window) or leaves it in a covered ciborium, and places it on the altar. The Blessed Sacrament is then incensed.
The current rubrics prescribe that there are then “prayers, songs and readings to direct the attention of the faithful to the worship of Christ the Lord”, as well as a homily or brief exhortations and time spent in silence (#95). The order in which these occur is left up to local determination.
In 1998 the Congregation for Divine Worship issued a statement saying that, while the Eucharist is not to be exposed only to recite the rosary, the recitation of the rosary may be included among the many prayers that are used during adoration.
After this, the priest returns to the altar and incenses the sacrament while a eucharistic hymn is sung. Then, standing and facing the people, he says a prayer from the seven options offered.
The priest then makes a sign of the cross with the sacrament over those assembled in silence, replaces the consecrated host in the tabernacle, makes an appropriate reverence and returns to the sacristy while the people sing an acclamation or hymn.
The documents make it clear that Benediction is an optional and secondary devotion. It is not celebrated in either the Eastern Catholic or Orthodox Churches. The fact that it is no longer a regular part of the worship life of most parishes should not be seen as an indication of any lack of reverence toward the reserved sacrament.
The circumstances which led to the origin and growth of Benediction have changed. We need to find forms of worship that respond to contemporary spirituality, piety and needs and are in the best liturgical traditions of our church.