by Michael Raia
“The practice of Eucharistic worship of the Blessed Sacrament…is intended to lead the faithful into a deeper participation in the paschal mystery of Christ in the liturgy!”
Multiple Church documents make clear the role of eucharistic worship (what is frequently referred to as “the cult of eucharistic worship”) and strongly encourage the practice. While in popular practice the purpose has been understood, somewhat simplistically, as spending more time with Jesus, this is only part of the picture. Not only is the liturgical theology that understands the respective roles of the devotional practice of eucharistic adoration and the Rite of Exposition beautiful in its own rite, but the distinction is necessary understand how each serves the liturgy. Both in private prayer and corporate liturgy, eucharistic worship leads us into more authentic participation in the Mass and sacraments – the primary place of personal encounter with Christ. The normative book governing the disciplines of these practices, Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass (HCWEOM), states, “The celebration of the eucharist in the sacrifice of the Mass is the true origin and purpose of the worship shown to the eucharist outside Mass.”
For many years the Church has been affirming and asserting the true presence of Christ in the eucharist, and in popular practice the proliferation of adoration chapels in churches has been of great assistance in addressing this need. The idea of spending time before the Blessed Sacrament to grow in love of Christ and to recognize more deeply with the eyes of faith his sacramental presence in the eucharistic host is well founded. However, it is not an end unto itself. From the nascent development of the practice of eucharistic worship of the Blessed Sacrament reserved to provide communion to the sick, the Church has understood its purpose to be more than merely leading the faithful into a deeper relationship with Christ – it is intended to lead the faithful into a deeper participation in the paschal mystery of Christ in the liturgy! Again, from from HCWEOM: “The principal reason for reserving the Sacrament after Mass is to unite, through sacramental communion, the faithful unable to participate in the Mass, especially the sick and the aged, with Christ and the offering of his sacrifice.”
“If adoration and Exposition are not leading us into a more reverent and zealous participation in the Mass and reception of Holy Communion as the visible sign of that participation, they are failing to serve their purpose.”
There are two forms of worship that the Church upholds as integral to Christian spirituality: liturgy which is public, and popular piety or devotion, which is private – even when prayed together among multiple individuals. An example would be the rosary prayed by multiple people; it remains devotion and is considered private prayer because it is not liturgy even if 100 or 1,000 people pray it together. The practice of adoration – that is spending time adoring the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle of a church or chapel – is rightly understood to refer to devotional worship and as such, is, strictly speaking, optional (see the Directory on Popular Piety for more on this). That said, multiple legislative documents strongly urge the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in the church, making daily adoration (not necessarily Exposition) available to the faithful. The Church encourages keeping churches and chapels accessible whenever possible to allow the faithful to develop a eucharistic spirituality. The Rite of Exposition, however, is a liturgy of the Church, and as such is public in nature; it leads from and flows to the Mass and the sacraments, which are properly understood to be participation in the paschal mystery of Christ. Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass several other interrelated documents linked below, while providing for the possibility of extended periods of Exposition, make clear that this is a rite, and as such is distinct from the general practice of adoration. It can safely be assumed that if Exposition is observed more similarly to how adoration is intended – that is, apart from the rite, something of the Church’s intention is lost. If the faithful who frequently or even occasionally attend adoration where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed in the monstrance but never witness or partake in any semblance of the rite, an important aspect of liturgical worship has been appropriated for individual devotion.
So why split hairs over this issue, and why does the Church even have a different theology behind each practice? Well if communion with Christ is the end goal, the Church professes that this does not just happen in private prayer; it happens sacramentally in the liturgy. In other words, if eucharistic worship outside of Mass is not leading us into a deeper relationship with Christ in the liturgy, it is failing to serve its purpose. Both adoration and Exposition serve this purpose: adoration does so in a private devotional context, and Exposition in one that is public, or corporate, and liturgical. These two parts reflect the beautiful understanding of the vertical (individual) and horizontal (communal) dimensions of our eucharistic faith, and the two parts of spirituality that are essential for every Christian. Most of us have been guilt of over-emphasizing one over the other at times, and I would propose that in America the tendency to emphasize one’s individual devotion over and sometimes against the liturgical action of the corporate body is frequently a problem.
The distinction is critical to allowing both forms to fulfill their purpose: leading the faithful back into vibrant worship in the Mass, where we actually encounter and participate in that which we merely recall through adoration and Exposition – the saving mystery of Christ made present at the altar. It is the joining of our hearts and our living sacrifice of praise that God wants, and every moment of eucharistic worship better prepares and disposes us to make this great act at our next Mass. And furthermore, the union of joining our sacrifice of praise to the saving act of Christ at the altar is sacramentalized – made visible, tangible, and present, in the reception of Holy Communion. Put another way, if adoration and Exposition are not leading us into a more reverent and zealous participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and reception of Holy Communion as the visible sign of that participation, they are failing to serve their purpose.
“Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament is a public rite, not a private devotion like adoration. Each serves its purpose to foster a greater love of him who is truly present.”
Practically speaking, how does this take shape in parish life or ministry, and what revisions to practice could be considered? A simple suggestion is cultivating an awareness of which act is which and encouraging the faithful to act accordingly. If a church or chapel with a tabernacle is available, eucharistic worship can take place in the form of adoration (not exposing the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance), which is private devotion. If Exposition with a monstrance is desired, at least according to the current rite (see note below) it is public liturgy and should follow the Rite of Exposition or one of the adaptations provided. I have recommended to several parishes to consider a greater encouragement of the faithful to use the church tabernacle to adore whenever possible, as encouraged by the documents, and intentionally emphasize the liturgical aspect of the Rite of Exposition. This could mean celebrating the Rite daily, weekly, or monthly, whether for 30-60 minutes immediately after Mass, or even with Exposition in the morning and benediction / reposition in the afternoon, observing the aspect of the rite that suggests the integration of Scripture readings and songs, and even offers the integration of Liturgy of the Hours. One parish I assisted with leading a youth retreat opted to observe devotional time in front of the tabernacle on one night, and the Rite of Exposition the following, illustrating the dynamics of how each of these are intended to be integrated into a liturgical spirituality that better prepares the faithful for the Mass.
To recap: Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament is a public rite, not a private devotion like adoration. Each serves its purpose to foster a greater love of him who is truly present, and to prepare the faithful to more deeply encounter him in the heart of the eucharistic mystery made present at Mass – the place where he principally and calls out to his mystical body and bride the Church to be joined to him and the divine life of the Trinity, for the glory of God and for their growth in holiness.
This article is not intended as – please excuse the unintended pun – a scholarly exposition. To request further resources, please feel free to contact me. I would highly recommend anyone who assists with the planning of eucharistic worship purchase a copy of Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass. It is worthy of note that the USCCB is in the process of revising this document, so we might expect to see some clarifications and changes, and at present the potential shifts that it could see are only a guess. Given that the widespread popularity of perpetual adoration is, strictly speaking, not currently addressed in the way it is observed, we might speculate this could be incorporated in some way. However, using the Church’s theology of liturgy and devotion, we can place the other aspects of this resource within the context of the larger theology to understand how the Church intends these elements to work together.
Resources for further study: