Externals of the Catholic Church – The Forty Hours’ Adoration

The central object of Catholic devotion is the adorable Sacrament of the Eucharist. The great principle of the Church’s worship here on earth is to copy the homage paid to our Blessed Redeemer by the Church in heaven. We are the Church Militant, and we are one with the Church Triumphant; and just as the Saints and Angels render unceasing adoration to God in heaven, so the members of the Church on earth must strive to do the same. The Church, moreover, wishes that all her children shall have their share in this continuous homage. She has decreed that in each diocese throughout the world there shall be a cycle of adoration in which all the faithful may participate, each in his own parish on some Sunday of the year. Therefore in each of the parishes of this and of every other diocese, at some designated time, occurs the impressive ceremony known as the Forty Hours’ Adoration.

Not an Old Devotion

This devotion is comparatively new. Unlike some of the other ceremonies of the Church, its history goes back only a few centuries. It seems to have been gradually evolved from the solemn ceremonies of the Blessed Sacrament which were held each year on the feast of Corpus Christi, which festival was established by Pope Urban IV in the year 1264. In these public celebrations the Sacred Host was borne through the streets, but was at first entirely concealed. About a century later the custom was introduced of exposing It in a suitable vessel, very similar to the ostensorium used at the present day.

These processions aroused in clergy and people an earnest devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and soon gave rise to the practice of leaving the Sacred Host on the altar for public adoration. This was found to be particularly useful at the Carnival time, the two days immediately before Lent, when in many countries great excesses were committed and the people gave themselves up to unbridled license and dissipation. The bishops of the Church sought to awaken the faithful to better and holier things, to prepare them for the penitential season of Lent, and to make reparation to God for the insults everywhere offered to His majesty. For this purpose, on these two days, they adopted the plan of exposing the Blessed Sacrament solemnly in the churches for forty hours, in memory of the time during which the Sacred Body of Jesus was in the sepulchre.

Introduced at Milan

As nearly as can be ascertained, the modern practice of having the Adoration in various churches on successive Sundays originated at Milan, in Italy, and was probably introduced by the Capuchin Order about the year 1537, when a severe visitation of the plague afflicted that city. Some investigators have attributed the devotion to Joseph da Fermo, of the above Order; others maintain that the honor belongs to a certain Father Bellotto, while still others urge the claims of a Dominican named Thomas Nieto, of Saint Anthony Zaccaria and of a Barnabite, Brother Buono. All that we can be sure of is that the occasional exposition of the Blessed Sacrament goes back nearly to the year 1500, and that the making of the adoration practically continuous by holding it in different churches successively originated in Milan in or about the year 1537.

In 1539 the first indulgences for this devotion were granted by Pope Paul III. The practice spread to other cities, being especially promoted by Juvenal Andna, an Oratorian Father who had been made Bishop of Saluzzo, and who wrote many instructions relative to the Adoration of the Forty Hours. Saint Charles Borromeo, that great saint and reformer, whose name is inseparably connected with the Milanese Church, also urged the devotion upon his priests and people. In those days, when European civilization was menaced by Moslem invasion, the prayers enjoined at the Forty Hours were usually for protection from the enemies and for the peace of Christendom. It was soon adopted in Rome, through the efforts and zeal of Saint Philip Neri, and was finally established and regulated, substantially as we have it now, by Pope Clement VIII in 1592, “in order that the public trials of the Church may be lessened, and that the faithful may continuously appease their Lord by prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.”

The Clementine Instruction

In 1731 Pope Clement XII issued a very complete code of regulations for the Forty Hours; and this, known as the “Clementine Instruction,” has been in force with few alterations since that date, and is still the law of the Church.

The devotion was not introduced into the United States until about 1854, probably by Archbishop Kenrick of Baltimore, and did not become common until much later. Many of our older readers can remember when the Forty Hours’ Adoration was a novelty, and its regular observance is of comparatively recent date.

The Rubrics and Ceremonies

During the devotion, all the Church’s homage centers around the altar of exposition, which is always the high altar of the church. At least twenty candles must be kept burning day and night. There must be continual relays of watchers before the Blessed Sacrament, but only priests and clerics (or in our country the altar-boys who act in the place of clerics) are allowed to kneel in the sanctuary. All who enter or leave the church should go down on both knees and bow low in adoration; and all should remain kneeling while in the church.

No Masses are allowed at the altar on which the Blessed Sacrament is enthroned, except at the opening and closing of the Adoration. The opening Mass is called the “Mass of Exposition.” On the second day a “Missa pro Pace” (Mass for Peace) is said on another altar, reminding us of the original purpose of the Forty Hours’ Adoration. The closing of the devotion takes place at the “Mass of Reposition.” At both the opening and closing the Litany of the Saints is chanted, and a procession of the Blessed Sacrament is held. No Masses of Requiem are allowed in the church during the Adoration.

Although originally planned to continue for forty hours, the devotion does not generally last so long, at least in our part of the world, for the reason that a sufficient number of worshippers could hardly be provided during the night. Hence in our dioceses the exposition usually lasts on the opening day till about nine o’clock in the evening; on the second day, from the Mass for Peace till the same hour; and on the closing day from an early Mass till the end of the Mass of Reposition – altogether a little more or less than thirty hours.

The Indulgences

Several of the Popes have enriched the devotion with indulgences. A partial indulgence of seven years and as many “quarantines” (forty days) is gained each day that a visit is made to the church where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. A plenary indulgence, applicable to the souls in Purgatory, is obtained by one visit with Confession and Holy Communion and the usual prayer for the intention of our Holy Father the Pope.

One of the great leaders of the Catholic Church in England – namely, Cardinal Wiseman – wrote these beautiful words concerning the Forty Hours’ Adoration: “In no other time or place is the sublimity of our religion so touchingly felt. No ceremony is going on in the sanctuary, no sound of song is issuing from the choir, no voice of exhortation proceeds from the pulpit, no prayer is uttered aloud at the altar. There are hundreds there, and yet they are engaged in no congregational act of worship. Each heart and soul is alone in the midst of a multitude – each uttering its own thoughts, each feeling its own grace. Yet are you overpowered, subdued; quelled into a reverential mood, softened into a devotional spirit, forced to meditate, to feel, to pray.”