Catholic CornucopiadCheney

X. The Forty Hours’ Adoration and the Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament

The Sacramentals of the Holy Catholic Church

Treating of the minor rites and offices of the Church, Cardinal Wiseman writes: “No man need hope ever to know, understand, or value worthily the richness and fulness of Catholic devotion, in its many beautiful forms, till he have passed into the interior of its divine sanctuary, and have visited, in its spirit, all its separate, but harmonizing, parts.”1 There are many who have entered this holy of holies; but they are those who have cultivated a devotion to the Most Holy Sacrament of he Altar, and who have, besides, learned to set a proper value on all the rites of holy Church. They are not the sickly, lukewarm Catholics, who perform the scant service they render to God from a sense of duty, and only so far as strict duty requires, but those who are influenced by love and who deem their service a privilege. As the same eminent writer remarks, those who sustain the Church’s noble claim to beauty and loveliness “will be found ever to set the highest value upon the minor observances of the Church—will be found most careful in their use, ever zealous in their defence of them. If then we see, as we always shall, the higher growth in virtue, and the full comeliness of holiness united with these practices, and going hand in hand with their application, should we not rather cherish than undervalue them; increase and encourage, rather than diminish them; uphold and vindicate rather than abandon them to obliquity and misrepresentation ?”2

Continuing, he writes: “If the principle of private devotion among Catholics be that of coming as near as possible to the feelings in faith and love of those who lived in our blessed Redeemer’s society upon earth, the great idea and principle of public worship in the Catholic Church is to copy, as faithfully as may be permitted, the homage paid to Him and His Father in heaven. With the Church triumphant she is one; and their offices in regard to praise and adoration are the same. Now, if we look up toward that happier sphere, we see the Lamb enthroned to receive eternal and unceasing worship, praise, and benediction.”3 This end is admirably attained in the devotion to the Most Holy Sacrament, especially as exhibited in the Forty Hours’ Adoration. And it is not to be the privilege of the few to assist at it; but, as the same writer remarks: “She (the Church) would not even leave this duty of perennial homage to those communities who, distributing the day and night into various portions, some at one hour, some at another, no doubt fill up the entire space with holy services. Through every season, and through every day, she would have ever going on a direct, uninterrupted worship of her Lord and Saviour, as the Adorable Victim on His altar-throne.”4

It is not the intention to treat in this essay of devotion to the Most Holy Sacrament in general, nor of those processions in which the same Holy Sacrament is carried, whether these take place within or without the church, nor even of those extraordinary expositions that are sometimes ordered by the Sovereign Pontiff, or by bishops, as sometimes happens in seasons of great spiritual or temporal necessity. Only the Forty Hours’ Adoration, as had in our churches, and the benediction as given then or at other times, will be considered, as the intention is to treat of such matters only as are of practical utility for the general reader. Extraordinary processions or expositions are usually explained when they take place.

The procession of the Blessed Sacrament antedates both the exposition and the benediction, and was, most probably, introduced soon after the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi, a feast that was established by Pope Urban IV. in the year 1264. At first, according to the best evidence at command, it would appear that the Blessed Sacrament was carried in procession in a sacred vessel entirely concealed from view, and that it was afterward placed in the tabernacle without a blessing being given to the faithful present. This latter custom is still continued by the religious of the order of Carthusians. Perhaps the first evidence we have of the Blessed Sacrament being carried in procession exposed to view is found in a work of the learned Thiers, who wrote on the Blessed Sacrament in 1673, and who mentions that he found in a missal, dated 1373, the picture of a bishop carrying a sacred Host in a monstrance or ostensorium—for both mean the same—with one side partly of glass. The imparting of a blessing at the close of the procession was added in time, but for what reason, or at what precise date, has not been ascertained with certainty. The Forty Hours’ Adoration—for that is the correct name—grew out of these processions and expositions. The faithful, and the reverend clergy, who were their leaders, seeing by the light of faith that the Real Presence was the source of all good, found their devotion so much enkindled by beholding their Redeemer under the mystic veil of the sacramental species that they both longed for more than a passing glance, as it were, and a continuous exposition was introduced. The mystic number forty was fixed upon to count the hours, a number so conspicuous in the Sacred Scriptures; and as it was to be a silent adoration, what more natural than that it should be had in honor of the forty hours during which the sacred body of Our Lord remained it the holy sepulchre, in the silent embrace of death ?

At first there were two kinds of Forty Hours’ Devotion. The former was celebrated during the Carnival, a festivity held on the two days immediately preceding Ash-Wednesday, during which the people were, and still are, in many places, accustomed to give themselves up to unbridled excesses, in which grievous sins were as a rule committed. Seeing this, many of the saints and other devout servants of God sought by various means to withdraw the people from them, on the one hand, and, on the other, to make reparation to the divine majesty by additional prayers and austerities. One of the means adopted in certain places was the exposition of the Most Holy Sacrament for forty hours preceding the beginning of Lent. But it is not necessary to treat of this exposition, as the other has superseded it.

Although authors are not agreed with regard to the date, place, and circumstances of the establishment of the Forty Hours’ Adoration, yet they differ only in minor details, and the following from the Raccolta (p. 79) must be accepted as the most reliable account: “The prayer for forty hours together before the Blessed Sacrament, in memory of the forty hours during which the sacred body of Jesus was in the sepulchre, began in Milan, about the year 1534. Thence it spread into other cities of Italy, and was introduced into Rome, for the first Sunday in every month, by the Archconfraternity of the Most Holy Trinity of the Pilgrims (founded by St. Philip Neri in the year 1548), and for the third Sunday in the month, by the Archconfraternity of Our Lady of Prayer, called La Morte, in the year 1551. This prayer of the Forty Hours was established forever by Pope Clement VIII., for the whole course of the year, in regular, continuous succession, from one church to another, commencing with the first Sunday in Advent in the chapel of the Apostolic Palace, as appears from the constitution Graves et Diuternæ, November 25. 1592. This Pope was moved to establish this devotion by the public troubles of holy Church, in order that day and night the faithful might appease their Lord by prayer before the Blessed Sacrament in solemn exposition.”

The first introduction of the devotion seems to have been due to Father Joseph di Fero of Milan, a Capuchin, who died in the year 1556. This beginning seems to have taken place in the year 1537, when Milan was desolated with a plague, and was also torn by civil strife.5

The constitution of Pope Clement VIII. referred to is commonly known as the Clementine Instruction, by which the whole matter relating to the Forty Hours’ Exposition was regulated for Catholic countries. But there are certain modifications permitted in missionary countries, of which mention will be made as we proceed. There has been, as we have seen, a gradual development in the external devotion to the Most Holy Sacrament, by which it has been brought down to what we have at present. First, there was the procession with the sacred Host concealed, which was made on but one or two days in the year; next, the procession with the Blessed Sacrament exposed to view; then the short procession with the long-continued exposition; after that the benediction during and at the close of the Forty Hours; and, finally, the benediction after a short exposition and without the procession, and that once or oftener in the week. But we have only meagre details of the manner in which the gradual development was effected. Many a reader, however, will remember the time when both the Forty Hours’ Adoration and the benediction were rare in this country.

Speaking of the Forty Hours’ Devotion, Cardinal Wiseman remarks: “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, and 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. The little children who come in, led by a mother’s hand, kneel down by her in silence, as she simply points toward the altar, overawed by the still splendor before them; the very babe seems hushed to quiet reverence on her bosom.”6

I can see no reason why some prayer-books, and some newspapers announcing the Forty Hours’ Devotion, continue to call it the “Quarant’ Ore.” The expression is not understood by some persons, and it savors of pedantry. The English language in this as in all else is sufficiently expressive. Another abuse, which I have seen condemned somewhere in the Acta Sanctæ Sedis, is that of decorating the altar at the Forty Hours more carefully in the evening or at other times when a larger concourse of people is expected, as it were to please them instead of honoring Our Lord. It is true indeed that the Church very wisely makes use of external pomp to excite devotion, since we are greatly influenced by what we receive through the senses; but this is only a means to an end. The end is the adoration of Our Saviour in the Most Holy Sacrament.

It is not certain who introduced the devotion of the Forty Hours into the United States; but it was most probably either Archbishop Kenrick of Baltimore or Bishop Neumann of Philadelphia, and about the year 1854. Finding that the Clementine Instruction could not be followed out in this country, so far as keeping the Blessed Sacrament exposed for the forty hours continuously, Archbishop Kenrick applied to the Holy See for such modifications of it for his archdiocese as circumstances demanded; and Pius IX., by a rescript dated December 10, 1857, granted the following, which were, at the request of the Fathers of the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, extended to the whole United States in 1868:

“1. That, as long as circumstances require it, the Blessed Sacrament may be exposed to public adoration, in the form of the Forty Hours’ Prayer, in all the churches and oratories of the diocese of Baltimore once or twice a year, as the archbishop may think best in the Lord, in the daytime only, and that at night it may be replaced in the tabernacle. 2. That the procession may be omitted, even inside the church, if it cannot properly be had. 3. To all the faithful, of either sex, he grants the indulgence of seven years, and as many quarantines to be gained each day that they visit the church where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed and remain there for some time in prayer, and a plenary indulgence to all who, besides visiting the church where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, and praying there once on each of the three days, also go to confession and receive Holy Communion.”7 But, according to a more recent decree, three visits are not necessary to gain the plenary indulgence.”8

It is not the intention to speak of local customs, but there is one which it may not be out of place to notice: that of closing the devotion on the evening of the third day, instead of on the morning of the day following, and with the Mass. This does not appear to be in harmony with the spirit of the Church, although the full period of forty hours may have been reached, from the fact that there is a Mass of reposition for the conclusion of the devotion, as well as one of exposition for its commencement; and the rubrics connect the one as intimately with the devotion as the other. Yet if the Mass of reposition is said on the morning before the devotion closes, or on the morning after, it does not fulfil its purpose, and is in no sense a Mass of reposition, being entirely separated from the act of reposing the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle and closing the exposition.

This being a silent devotion, as its name indicates, and as its purpose shows, it is not the intention of the Church that sermons should be preached during its continuance. But inasmuch as sermons are under certain circumstances likely to be productive of good, and will not interfere with the hearing of confessions, especially in the smaller country parishes, the bishop, should he deem it expedient, may grant permissions; but then the sermon should treat of the Most Holy Sacrament, and a veil should be placed before the monstrance.

It is the custom in some places to open the tabernacle door during Mass. This may be termed a kind of exposition, and is permitted by a decree of March 16, 1876.


According to the learned Thiers, already referred to, the giving of benediction with the Most Holy Sacrament is of recent origin; but just when it was introduced, and the manner in which it extended till it has become so common in the Church, it would be difficult if not impossible to say.

There are three kinds of benediction—that with the pyx, when communicating the sick; that with the ciborium in the church; and that with the monstrance—upon each of which remarks will be made. And first, of benediction when communicating the sick. It is superfluous to state that in Catholic countries the Holy Viaticum is borne in a solemn manner to the house of the sick; and the ritual directs that after the sick person has received, the priest shall make the sign of the cross with the pyx over those present. This is also to be done when the Blessed Sacrament has to be carried secretly to the sick, as among us, so long as there is a sacred Host in the pyx, as when more than one is to receive.

The second kind of blessing is that given with what is called in the language of the ritual the pyx, but which is commonly known among us as the ciborium, or sacred vessel in which the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the tabernacle on the altar. By a decree of the Sacred Congregation, dated September 11, 1847, this blessing is only to be given where such a custom exists, and with the permission of the bishop on account of the existence of the custom.9 When imparted it differs from that given with the monstrance, and has the following ceremonial: The tabernacle is opened, but the ciborium is not taken out; the singing and incensing take place as at the ordinary benediction ; and the same versicle, response, and prayer are sung; after which the priest takes the ciborium from the tabernacle, envelops it in the extremity of the shoulder veil, and, turning to the people, blesses them. It is seldom, however, that this blessing is given among us.

Little need be said of the third form of benediction—that given with the monstrance; it is so frequently seen in all our churches that the faithful are quite familiar with it. Although the provincial or plenary councils of the various countries fix the times when benediction may be given, the matter is still left to a very great extent to the prudent judgment of the bishops; and both priests and people are accustomed to look to them for guidance in the matter. Late decrees of the Sacred Congregation of Rites permit the singing of hymns and the recitation of prayers in the vernacular during the exposition before the Tantum Ergo.10

According to several decrees of the same Sacred Congregation, benediction must always be given in silence. When imparted by a priest he makes one sign of the cross with the monstrance; when given by a bishop he makes three. This principle, it will be observed, is also carried out in several other blessings.

The indulgences, plenary and partial, that may be gained by those who devoutly perform the Forty Hours have already been mentioned; but it will be of advantage to make a few remarks upon them. It frequently happens that persons will go to confession on the Saturday preceding the opening of the devotion, and to Holy Communion at an early Mass. Will this confession and Communion suffice for gaining the indulgence? This is an important question. Dr. Smith discusses it at length, and, on the authority of Benedict XIV., answers it in the affirmative.11 Again, inasmuch as the object of the Forty Hours is not simply to induce people to receive the sacraments of penance and Holy Eucharist, but their reception is made a necessary condition for gaining the plenary indulgence, is it essential that they should be received in the church where the exposition takes place? It is not. They may be received in any church, provided the other conditions are complied with. It may also be remarked that theologians hold that in order to gain a plenary indulgence it is only necessary to be in the state of grace when the last of the conditions enjoined is fulfilled.

As Vespers in the evening takes the place in some sort of the Mass in the morning, and closes the day, as it was begun, by a solemn act of divine worship, so does the benediction by our divine Lord after the one correspond to that given in His name by His minister after the other, and supplies in a measure for the deficiency between the Vespers and the Adorable Sacrifice. And all go to strengthen the claims of holy Church to be called our Mother.

1 “Essays,” vol. ii. pp. 255, 256.
2 “Essays,” vol. ii. pp. 259, 260.
3 Ib., vol. ii. p. 266.
4 Ib., vol. ii. p. 67.
5 “Catholic Dictionary,” p. 331; “A Manual of Devotion for the Forty Hours,” p. 6.
6 “Essays,” vol. ii. pp. 269, 270.
7 “A Manual of Devotion for the Forty Hours Prayer,” p. 10; “Concillii Plenar, Baltimorensis,” ii. N. 376.
8 Wapelhorst, p. 339.
9 Wapelhorst, pp. 348, 349.
10 Ibid., pp. 168, 338.
11 “Notes on the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore,” pp. 221-226.