This is a small reflection I wrote for the forthcoming newsletter of C21, the on-line faith formation program of Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. I thought it might be appropriate for the Thursday after Trinity Sunday–the day on which Corpus Christi is observed wherever it is celebrated as a day of precept.
I suppose my experience of eucharistic adoration is fairly typical of devout Catholics of my generation. Being now only 32 years old, I have no personal memory of those features of pre-conciliar piety that ritualized the sacredness of the eucharist: Forty Hours devotions, Corpus Christi processions, stringent fasting requirements, a strictly demarcated sanctuary, and the exclusively priestly handling of the sacred species and vessels. There being so little transgressive thrill at the prospect of drawing close to the eucharist, my parents had little success inducing met to serve as an acolyte at my home parish.
When I first encountered eucharistic adoration, however, I remember stepping into a spiritual atmosphere distinct from what I had known before. To the best of my recollection, this encounter took place when I was a junior in high school. I was working as a counselor at a summer camp organized by the Missionaries of Charity in Jenkins, KY. Occasionally, my fellow counselors and I would stop by the sisters’ convent to ask some question or offer some service, only discover that we were interrupting their afternoon Holy Hour. Before we could excuse ourselves, we would be coaxed into an oppressively hot chapel, noiseless except for the gentle hum of an oscillating fan. There we would find the sisters kneeling on the hard wooden floor, their gaze fixed intently upon a monstrance. We hesitantly followed suit. I, of course, initially resented the imposition. However, in the rich silence of that chapel, resentment slowly yielded—first to bemused acceptance, and finally to what I would now call gentle consolation. There was something about the exposed host, which the sisters attended with so much concentration, that called for reverent silence; and there was something about the reverent silence that evoked God’s nearness. Borrowing a sociological term from Max Weber, I would say that these periods of adoration formed the basis of my eucharistic “re-enchantment.”
In the years that followed, I noticed the spread of adoration. This was certainly true in the Catholic South where I grew up. A parish in North Augusta, SC began offering perpetual adoration, and was imitated a few years later by a parish in my hometown of Augusta, GA. Even parishes too small to support perpetual adoration, such as my home parish, began to offer solemn benedictions and to resurrect their annual Corpus Christi processions. When I returned a few summers later to work with the Missionaries of Charity—this time in the South Bronx—I found a similar trend in the North. The sisters once again “invited” us to attend a Youth 2000 retreat on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, NY. Activities included all-night adoration under a tent, Eucharistic processions accompanied by Taizé chants, and even a Eucharistic healing session. In this latter event, a priest donned a cope and humeral veil, while the Gospel of the hemorrhaging woman, healed by contact with the fringe of Jesus’ garment, was read aloud. The priest then processed with the monstrance, giving each retreatant an opportunity to touch the humeral veil as he passed by. I remember a silence punctuated only by adolescent sobbing. Though I never had much of a taste for the dramatics, the experience of a community silently united around a common object of adoration stayed with me. The “re-enchantment” continued.
By the time I was a freshman in college, I was ready, with the encouragement of some college friends, to commit to a weekly adoration slot. The daunting prospect of filling a contiguous hour with silent prayer sent me searching for devotional booklets, rosaries, and—finally—to somewhat randomly selected spiritual writings. These ranged from the esoteric canticles of St. John of the Cross to the florid Marian meditations of St. Alphonsus Liguori. These were perhaps my first regular attempts at meditative prayer. In hindsight I can see that the very structure of eucharistic adoration provided a sound pedagogy of prayer, or what Sacramentum Caritatis would call a “mystagogy.” The weekly commitment of an hour helped me to persevere in dryness and discouragement. The sense of Presence radiating from the monstrance encouraged a conversational prayer-style and helped correct some of my natural tendencies to introspection and self-absorption.
Not coincidentally, it was here that the initially terrifying prospect of becoming a priest, the person I instinctively associated with the eucharist, began to intrude unbidden into my thoughts. My adoration periods became grist for the mill of vocational discernment and a source of missionary motivation. And though I then tried my best to swat away those unsettling “what-if” questions, I see in hindsight that the “re-enchantment” of the priesthood began with the “re-enchantment” of the eucharist.
It is doubtlessly because of many experiences such as my own that not a few highly placed Catholics welcome the growing popularity eucharistic adoration. In his 2005 Christmas Address to the Roman Curia, Benedict reported,
It is moving for me to see how everywhere in the Church the joy of Eucharistic adoration is reawakening and being fruitful. In the period of liturgical reform, Mass and adoration outside it were often seen as in opposition to one another: it was thought that the Eucharistic Bread had not been given to us to be contemplated, but to be eaten, as a widespread objection claimed at that time.
Benedict goes on to describe the opposition between Mass and adoration, alleged by certain liturgical scholars, as “nonsensical”. Especially in the case of the eucharist, eating always implies both spiritual and biological assimilation. Benedict cites Augustine’s Enarrationes in psalmos to this effect: “No one should eat this flesh without first adoring it … we should sin were we not to adore it.” Benedict concludes that adoration is therefore “the most consistent consequence of the Eucharistic mystery itself.”
In addition to being doctrinally sound, however, Benedict sees it as speaking powerfully to the youth of the Church. In the same Christmas Address, Benedict recalls a personal highlight from World Youth Day in Cologne: “For all those who were present the intense silence of that million young people remains unforgettable, a silence that united and uplifted us all when the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament was placed on the altar.” In his sensitivity to moments such as these, I find Benedict very much in touch with the sensibilities and yearnings of post-conciliar, Western Catholics. Though reactions among those million youth assembled in Cologne surely varied, there were doubtlessly not a few for whom that period of adoration was the beginning a re-enchantment—much like my first reluctant meditation in that balmy adoration chapel of the Missionaries of Charity.