Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 29, 1999
Who can expose the Blessed Sacrament?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
Are the laity (acolytes, etc.) allowed to expose the Blessed Sacrament for adoration when there is no priest? What is the history of Eucharistic Adoration?
The Church's documents on the liturgy clearly say that the ordinary minister for exposition is "a priest or deacon." When there is no priest or deacon, "an acolyte or special minister of Communion may expose and repose."
These are likely members of minor orders since the document was written about 30 years ago and it probably did not envision the development that has taken place since then.
Then it adds, that in a religious community or pious association of laity "devoted to Eucharistic Adoration" a member of these groups may carry out these functions "upon appointment by the local ordinary."
Therefore, it seems that for exposition by anyone other than a cleric, permission would need to come from the local bishop. From what I can ascertain, permission has not been given to the laity here.
The practice of stopping into a church (if it is open) for a few moments on our way to and from work or at other times as our grandparents used to do might help us a great deal in our rushed, frantic lives.
Henri Nouwen in his book Clowning in Rome speaks of the importance of churches even though they stand empty most of the time. They are spaces without crowds, without loud noises, without hustle and bustle. They are tranquil spaces that invite is to be silent for a moment, to rest our whole being.
A city, Nouwen says, without protected empty spaces where one can "sense the silence from which all words grow and rest in the stillness from which all actions flow, . . . is in danger of losing its real centre" (p. 38).
The emptiness of churches speaks of the need we all have to leave empty spaces for God into which we can retreat periodically to regain our equilibrium. Otherwise, we, too, are in danger of losing our real centre and our lives become ever more frustrated and frazzled.
A church where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved is, for Catholics, a special place of peace and prayer. But seeing the host exposed does not add to the presence of Christ who is in the tabernacle. Although it provides a special atmosphere for adoration, there is no real need to expose the Blessed Sacrament when no priest is available.
We can spend an hour in prayer and adoration before the tabernacle as it is the same Christ in the monstrance and the tabernacle.
Early Christians actively participated in their ritual meal of breaking of bread, prayers, singing, the reading of Scriptures and a sharing of the bread and cup. From earliest times, a portion was saved for the sick and the absent.
During later centuries, participation in the celebration of the Eucharist began to diminish because people no longer understood what was going on. Several factors contributed to this lack of understanding. There was little education of the people.
Big churches were built and by the sixth century the altar was placed at the far end of the building, creating a distance between priest and people.
With his back to the people, the presiding priest used Latin which the people no longer understood. A more elaborate ceremony and some prayers said very softly added to the mysteriousness and distance of the Eucharistic action. These and other circumstances caused the people to retreat into private devotions.
Although they were physically present, the Mass became for them a ceremony to watch, a drama that unfolded with pomp, incense and the glitter of priestly robes.
At the same time, emphasis on the holiness of the Eucharistic bread and cup increased. Touching the sacred vessels was reserved to the ordained.
Adoration became the key factor and the host was elevated for the people to see and adore. It became necessary to ring a bell to let the people know something important was going on at the altar.
By the year 1000, the consecrated bread was placed on the tongue because it was considered too holy to be touched by the faithful. A natural consequence was that people, feeling too unworthy, did not receive Communion. As a result, in 1215, the Church had to legislate reception of Communion once a year at Easter time.
When people no longer received the bread of life, seeing the host became very important. It became common for people to rush from church to church to see the elevation because they believed a glimpse of the host would bring good luck or protection from sudden death.
In the 12th century, the tabernacles became elaborate locked safes which were placed in the sanctuary area where they became objects of Eucharistic devotion. (Only in the 16th century were they placed on the altar.)
As it developed during the Middle Ages, Eucharistic piety had little connection with the original meaning of the Eucharist. Sadly, worship outside of Mass, associated with Benediction or the tabernacle became more effective for people's spirituality than the Mass.
Only in this century, especially with Vatican II, did we begin to better understand the meaning of the Eucharistic bread as food for the journey, as the bread of life rather than an object simply to be adored.
Today, we understand the language of the Mass; we can see and hear what is going on as we participate in the sacred action; we receive Communion regularly.
We appreciate that adoration of the Blessed Sacrament stems from the Eucharistic liturgy.
We believe Christ is present in the Eucharistic bread but also in his word and in the worshipping community. We believe Christ is present in each of us and in the world. Therefore, we know that we can pray at any time and in any place.
We know praying before the Blessed Sacrament is a special privilege but we do not perceive an absolute need to see the consecrated host in order to pray and worship God.