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Perpetual eucharistic adoration, wherein Catholics worship and adore Christ under the eucharistic species, is one of the most common devotions in the Catholic world — but the popularity of the practice is relatively new, having ascended to true prominence only in the last three centuries. And although this contemporary form of devotion is now mainstream for Catholics, many today do not know its history or significance, which we'll survey in this article.
Scripture itself confirms the Eucharist is Christ, for Our Lord directs at the Last Supper, "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). To go deeper into this reality — that the Eucharist is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ — one cannot separate the sacrament from the sacrifice.
In other words, to properly understand the Eucharist is to properly understand Christ crucified. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this truth blindingly clear: "The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord's body and blood" (¶1382). In the same paragraph, the Catechism explains further that one who properly receives the Eucharist in Communion "receive[s] Christ himself who has offered himself for us" (ibid.). Thus, in his encyclical on the Eucharist, Mirae Caritatis, Pope Leo XIII wrote:
This Sacrament, whether as the theme of devout meditation, or as the object of public adoration, or best of all as a food to be received in the utmost purity of conscience, is to be regarded as the center towards which the spiritual life of a Christian in all its ambit gravitates; for all other forms of devotion, whatsoever they may be, lead up to it, and in it find their point of rest (§14).
Eucharistic devotion of any kind is connected to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which is derived from Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. As such, eucharistic adoration is ordered, in significant part, towards union with Christ crucified. The late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI elaborated further on this point, writing, "Now the offerings carry the dynamics of Christ crucified and risen," adding that in eucharistic devotion, the faithful are "inserted into the new world of the Resurrection" (What Is Christianity? Almost a Spiritual Testament [Milan: Mondadori Books, 2023], 96). Thus, proper eucharistic devotion will always draw the faithful deeper into the mysteries of the Resurrection and crucifixion.
This integration and indivisibility between eucharistic devotion and the Cross of Christ is spelled out even further in the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship's Sacra Communione et de Cultu Mysterii Eucharistici extra Missam ("Holy Communion and Devotion to the Eucharistic Mystery Outside Mass"). In its summary of the document, L'Osservatore Romano states, "In fact one cannot speak of Communion, or of devotion to the Eucharist, without relating them to the Mass." In short, although eucharistic devotion exists outside of Mass, it retains a nexus with the Mass.
The Eucharist (and all the devotions that come with it) bolsters man in his journey to becoming one with Christ crucified. As Pope Leo XIII explained, "It sustains him in adversity, strengthens him in the spiritual combat, preserves him for life everlasting" (Mirae Caritatis, §9). God does not exist for man, nor does He need man's adoration, but He desires for man to recognize his own absolute neediness, and so to recognize that he exists for God and ought to adore Him. So the Mass and all it entails is but a pure gift from God, which disposes man to die to himself so that Christ may increase in him. It is a "participation in [Christ's] death and resurrection" (Benedict, What Is Christianity?, 99).
Scripture and the abundant records from the early Church make clear that Mass and the Eucharist were central parts of the Christian life in the first, second and third centuries (and so on). An emphasis on the Eucharist is especially notable in the Didache and the writings of saints like Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus.
However, perpetual adoration doesn't share the same antiquity. In fact, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "No trace of the existence of any such extra-liturgical cultus of the Blessed Sacrament can be found in the records of the early Church." The early Church did, however, have other eucharistic practices — practices that many Catholics in the third millennium are unaware of.
Early on in the second century, the Church sanctioned the rite of "Fermentum," a symbol of unity and communion between bishops and priests. Fermentum consisted of a bishop sending a particle of eucharistic bread to another bishop, who would then consume the species at his next solemn Mass. Biblical scholar and Catholic historian Charles L. Souvay records second-century bishops and their predecessors partaking in the practice: "Anicetus sent the Fermentum to Polycarp, as his predecessors had done to the Asiatic bishops who formally happened to come to the city" ("The Paschal Controversy under Pope Victor I," The Catholic Historical Review 15, no. 1 : 50).
Sharing the Eucharist in this way, from one diocese to another, was an occasion of solidarity in the Church, one which the Blessed Sacrament was uniquely well-suited to express. Servant of God John Hardon, S.J., writes about the history of Fermentum in his book on eucharistic adoration, and he explains well the significance of this early Church practice: "The Eucharist symbolized the leaven of unity which permeates and transforms Christians, so that they become one with Christ" (The History of Eucharistic Adoration: Development of Doctrine in the Catholic Church [Oak Lawn, IL: CMJ Marian Publishers, 1997], 2). From the earliest stages of Christianity, the Church understood the communal effects of the Eucharist — that the sacrament brings the recipient closer to Christ and His ecclesiastical body.
Historically, the Blessed Sacrament was securely reserved (with great reverence) by ordained ministers in churches, monasteries and convents. Hardon explains, "The immediate reason for this reservation was for the sick and the dying, and also for the ceremony of the Fermentum. ... Its sacred character was recognized and the place of reservation was set off from profane usage" (History of Eucharistic Adoration, 3). And this description accords well with Church history, for it's well-established that the Eucharist was always cared for with utmost diligence. For example, canon 13 of the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) provides that the bishop is to make an examination before acceding to a member of the faithful's request for the Eucharist.
An early example of reserving the Blessed Sacrament, which Hardon records, comes to us from the fourth-century ministry of St. Basil the Great. When celebrating Mass in the monastery, Basil is said to have split the eucharistic bread into several parts so that he could consume some, give other portions to the monks, and place what remained above the altar (ibid.). The latter practice was a prototype of eucharistic adoration.
In the ninth century, the nature and effects of the Eucharist were debated in a Benedictine monastery. Paschasius Radbertus, later the abbot of Corbie in Neustria, wrote De Corpore et Sanguine Domini ("On the Body and Blood of the Lord"), wherein he rightly explained how the eucharistic bread became the actual body of Christ — that which was born of Mary and crucified.
A monk from the same abbey, Ratramnus, did not share Paschasius' view, however, for he believed that the eucharistic Christ was not in everything identical with the historic Christ. This debate, seemingly only a matter of historical trivia for the 21st-century Catholic, had a substantial impact on the Church. Indeed, it served as the impetus for the convocation of numerous ecumenical Church councils, functioned as a core theme in the Protestant revolt, and ultimately brought about a ripening of eucharistic doctrine.
In his treatise, composed sometime between 831 and 833, Paschasius noted that baptism is the gateway to the Eucharist. He observed that through ablution in Christ, "a door is opened to believers" (Paschasius Radbertus, De Corpore et Sanguine Domini [CCCM 16; Turnhout: Brepols, 1969], 25). Paschasius proceeded, heralding the Eucharist as the "flesh of the Word ... the strength of our faith," and exhorting the faithful that "as long as we take it worthily ... we are born to immortal things" (ibid., 19). The Eucharist, in the eyes of Paschasius, was a sign of "unity and sharing of life," that is, union with Christ and sharing together in His life (Owen M. Phelan, "Horizontal and Vertical Theologies: 'Sacraments' in the Works of Paschasius Radbertus and Ratramnus of Corbie," The Harvard Theological Review, 103, no. 3 : 279).
Ratramnus, a younger contemporary of Paschasius, also wrote a treatise entitled De Corpore et Sanguine Domini, but he came to a different conclusion about the Eucharist than Paschasius. Ratramnus viewed the Blessed Sacrament as the continued work of baptism in the soul of the believer, stating that the Eucharist grants immortality and "removes spiritual filth by means of spiritual power" (Ratramnus, De Corpore et Sanguine Domini, ed. J.N. Bakhuizen van den Brink [Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1974], 47). Ratramnus, who focused more on the effects of the Eucharist rather than its actual nature, continued to speak of the Eucharist in relation to baptism: "'It is the Spirit which gives life,' so in this mystery the effect of the body and blood is spiritual" (ibid., 51).
Ratramnus' focus seemed to be on the spiritual fruits and sacramental action of the Eucharist. As such, he made distinctions between the natural and supernatural aspects of the Blessed Sacrament: "Whence according to their visible creation they feed the body, truly according to the power of a stronger substance they feed and sanctify the souls of the faithful" (ibid., 47). Ultimately, Ratramnus attempted to counter the points of Paschasius by focusing on the spiritual fruits of Communion (what it does), rather than the nature of the sacrament itself (what it is). Nevertheless, Ratramnus fell into error by holding the opinion that there is no conversion of the bread in the Holy Eucharist.
The Paschasius–Ratramnus eucharistic debate was not a far-reaching controversy as it was being prosecuted: It took about a year to stir up real conversations in the Church. One such conversation came in the form of the Church's response to Bererngarius, an 11th-century French scholar. Berengarius, in a way, made famous the debate between Paschasius and Ratramnus. Berengarius opposed Paschasius' orthodox teaching on the Eucharist — that the Blessed Sacrament was the actual Body and Blood of Christ. Berengarius agreed more with Ratramnus on the issue, and, as such, ended up denying transubstantiation.
Because Berengarius' heretical views were becoming so influential, the Church condemned his teachings on the Eucharist and made him sign multiple confessions of faith. (It's also worth noting that during this time, in 1073 to be exact, Paschasius was canonized as a saint by Pope Gregory VII.) For decades, Berengarius attempted to fight the authority of the Church and defend his position, but he ended up submitting every time the Church made a definitive ruling. In 1059, for instance, Berengarius expressly assented to the statement that "the bread and wine which are placed on the altar are after consecration not only a sacrament but also the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Paul Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson, The Eucharistic Liturgies: Their Evolution and Interpretation, [Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2012], 224). And in 1079, at the point of an ecclesiastical bayonet, he signed on to the following statement:
I, Berengarius, believe in my heart and openly profess that the bread and wine that are placed on the altar are through the mystery of the sacred prayer and the words of our Redeemer substantially changed into the true and proper lifegiving flesh and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord. ... Thus I believe, and I will not teach any more against this faith. So help me God and this holy Gospel of God (ibid., 225).
Berengarius ended up retiring into solitude on the Island of Saint Cosme, and died in union with the Church. But after his death, the discussions about the nature of the Eucharist did not stop.
In the 13th century, the Church authoritatively stepped in. The Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215, defined transubstantiation and put to rest the heretical positions undermining Christ's presence in the Blessed Sacrament, stating: "His body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been changed in substance, by God's power, into his body and blood, so that in order to achieve this mystery of unity we receive from God what he received from us."
In 1226, in the years immediately following Lateran IV, the first recorded instance of perpetual adoration occurred. After a victory over the Albigensians, King Louis VIII requested that the Eucharist be displayed at the Chapel of the Holy Cross in order to celebrate and give thanks to God. Perpetual adoration lasted in that chapel more than 500 years, until the French Revolution halted it.
The 13th-century Church bore a different countenance than the Church of today. At that time, Mass was often regarded as solely the priest's business (Bill Cosgrave, "Eucharistic Devotions: Understanding Their Decline," The Furrow, 47, no. 10 : 537). The faithful did not even frequent the sacrament of Communion and instead opted to participate in the Liturgy by praying and looking on passively (ibid.). The Church in the West responded to this more remote style of participation by introducing the custom of elevating the consecrated host during Mass, which allowed the congregation to see and adore Christ in the Blessed Sacrament (ibid.). Members of the congregation even took to running from church to church to see the elevation two or three times on Sunday (ibid., 537–538). Some superstitious beliefs also arose (e.g., gazing at the host would make a person prosperous, youthful and healthy).
Another landmark 13th-century development was the institution of the Feast of Corpus Christi. The feast originated in 1246 in Belgium, when the Bishop of Liège, Robert de Torote, ordered, in his diocese, a celebration in honor of the Holy Eucharist as the Body of Christ. Doctor of the Church St. Thomas Aquinas wrote the Liturgy for this elevated feast in the Church, at the request of Pope Urban IV. In 1264, Urban IV made the feast official and promulgated the bull Transiturus de hoc Mundo, in which he enjoined devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, as follows:
Exalted and venerable sacrament ... you are worthy of being celebrated, exalted with the most moving praises, for the inspired songs, for the most intimate fibers of the soul, for the most devoted gifts.
Glorious memorial, you should be kept between the deepest heartbeats, indelibly imprinted on the soul, locked in the intimacies of the spirit, honored with the most assiduous and devoted piety!
Let us always go to such a great sacrament to remember at all times the One of whom it should have been the perfect memory, and it was. ... Well, we remember more that person whose house and gifts we constantly contemplate.
Although this sacred sacrament is celebrated every day in the solemn rite of Mass, nevertheless we believe it useful and worthy that a more solemn feast be celebrated at least once a year, especially to confuse and refute the hostility of the heretics.
The Church placed great emphasis on the Blessed Sacrament during this time, but that didn't stop the heretics from persisting in their errors.
After transubstantiation was formally defined and new eucharistic practices such as exposition and benediction were implemented into 14th-century parish life, it didn't take long for another attack on this teaching to materialize. John Wycliffe (1328–1384), a heretical priest, denied the Fourth Lateran Council's definition of "transubstantiation." Ironically, it's said that Wycliffe is the man who introduced the term "Real Presence." He used the term as an alternative to "transubstantiation" in an attempt to suggest that the Church erred in its teaching that the Eucharist is the actual body of Christ. He described the papal office as anti-Christ, and he believed the Church's doctrines to be incongruent with that of the Apostles and the Scriptures — but the biggest error, according to Wycliffe, was the Church's teaching on transubstantiation. He believed this teaching to be the root of virtually all Catholic error.
Wycliffe believed and taught that the Eucharist "is not the body of the Lord, but an effectual sign of it" (Rev. Dyson Hague, Wycliffe: An Historical Study [Toronto: Church Record S.S. Publications], 36). "Nothing," he wrote in his De Eucharistia, "is more horrible than that any priest, in celebrating, daily makes or consecrates the body of Christ. Our God is not a recent God" (ibid., 32). Gordon Leff, professor of history at the University of York, distills Wycliffe's eucharistic theology: "It was a real presence, but spiritual, although Wycliffe never specified what that meant. Hence the transformation of the bread and wine was both natural and supernatural; they remained bread and wine but they also became sacramentally Christ's body and blood" ("John Wycliffe's Religious Doctrines," The Churchman, 98, no. 4 : 327).
Wycliffe's misunderstanding of the Eucharist, which in essence harkens back to the errors of Ratramnus, and later Berengarius, seemed to approach consubstantiation, a preeminent doctrine of the 16th-century Protestant revolutionaries, most notably Martin Luther himself.
The connection between Ratramnus and the Reformers is well-known. Church historian Dr. Owen Phelan explains, "In the sixteenth century, the stakes in the treatises had grown, as seen for example, in the efforts of the Lutheran authors of the Magdeburg Centuries, who viewed Paschasius and Ratramnus as adopting opposed positions anticipating Catholic and Protestant disagreements" ("Horizontal and Vertical Theologies," 272). In short, the proto-Protestants, like Berengarius and Wycliffe, developed aberrant ideas about the Eucharist from Ratramnus, and used his De Corpore et Sanguine Domini as the springboard for their own further heresy. Paschasius, on the other hand, served as the mouthpiece for authentically Catholic teaching, and so the Church drew, either directly or indirectly, from Paschasius' own De Corpore et Sanguine Domini as the springboard for its counterpunch.
The Protestants revolted against the traditional Christian teaching on Mass and the Eucharist (along with many other unchanging doctrines), and so the Church countered these heresies by clarifying further Her related doctrines. And although the Council of Trent, which is the Church's paramount council on the Eucharist, said nothing about eucharistic adoration, the Council's emphasis on the Blessed Sacrament provided fertile soil for the devotion to blossom in the future. The holy sacrifice of the Mass, the Eucharist and the practice of adoration are derived from and ordered towards Calvary, as the council makes blindingly clear: "And forasmuch as, in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross" (session 22, chapter II). So they are central to the Faith.
So as the Council emphasized the Mass, it commended the externals surrounding this divine sacrifice as well:
Therefore has Holy Mother Church instituted certain rites, to wit that certain things be pronounced in the mass in a low, and others in a louder, tone. She has likewise employed ceremonies, such as mystic benedictions, lights, incense, vestments, and many other things of this kind, derived from an apostolical discipline and tradition, whereby both the majesty of so great a sacrifice might be recommended, and the minds of the faithful be excited, by those visible signs of religion and piety, to the contemplation of those most sublime things which are hidden in this sacrifice (session 22, chapter V).
But though there is mention of the Mass and benediction, there is nothing in Trent about eucharistic adoration, much less perpetual adoration. It would be another hundred years before this devotion would really emerge onto the scene fully fledged.
In 1654, Mother Mectilde of the Blessed Sacrament formed the Benedictine Society. At the request of one Père Picotte, who was the confessor of Anne of Austria, the convent started perpetual adoration on March 25, 1654. Since then, various Catholic societies and orders formed for the very purpose of perpetual adoration (e.g., the Perpetual Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament ; the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and of the Perpetual Adoration ; and the Religious of the Perpetual Adoration ). Throughout the next centuries, the practice became more and more popular. And as of the beginning of the 21st century, there were over 2,500 perpetual adoration chapels in Catholic parishes around the world, with the United States serving as home to 1,100 of them.
It's clear that perpetual adoration is a relatively recent practice. And history shows that eucharistic ardor is inflamed when Christ's presence in the Blessed Sacrament is being doubted or rejected — a testament to the strength of the sensus fidelium.
Just as Ratramnus' heretical teachings eventually resulted in the Church formally defining transubstantiation, so too did the Protestants' heretical teachings result in the Church, again, proclaiming Christ's physical presence in the Eucharist. The majority of errors concerning the Eucharist have tended towards an over-spiritualization, as seen in the works of Ratramnus, Berengarius, Wycliffe and the Protestants. But the opposite extreme, that is, the materialistic view of the Eucharist, is never what the Church taught either.
Because Christ is not only present in the Blessed Sacrament and is not limited by the Eucharist, the Church has always taught that anything relating thereto (e.g., Mass, adoration, benediction, processions, etc.) is, in one way or another, ordered towards man's unification with Christ crucified. But because man cannot perfect his own sanctification, we have been given the Eucharist, which is "spiritual food," according to St. Thomas Aquinas, "which changes man into itself" (Summa Theologiae, III, q. 73, art. 3). And this is echoed practically verbatim by the Catechism of the Council of Trent, which teaches that in the Blessed Sacrament, we are "changed into its nature."
The only orthodox way to understand eucharistic devotion is to understand Christ Himself, who is the beginning and end of all devotions to the Blessed Sacrament — and who is fully God (spiritual) and fully man (material). Finally, any eucharistic devotion tends towards a deeper knowledge and love for Christ, which divinizes man. This is what is meant by "the kingdom of God is within" (Luke 17:21).