Eucharistic Adoration: Don’t Call it a Comeback

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File this under “commenting on things I know nothing about.”

Still, it’s interesting.  Over at Christian Century, this is an interesting article about the Vatican’s attempt under the two most recent pontiffs to renew the practice of eucharistic adoration.  This is the practice by which the consecrated host – in Catholic view, the actual body of Christ – is displayed publicly for the purposes of prayer and spiritual reverence.  Some churches even have round-the-clock hosts on display, while others have particular prayer times dedicated to the sacramental bread.  Though discouraged in times past, John Paul II and now Benedict XVI are encouraging the practice once more.

But the tradition – admittedly ancient – has its detractors.  CC asked Fr. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame for comment:

McBrien acknowledged that some Catholics find adoration “spiritually enriching,” but said many liturgists see it is a “step back into the Middle Ages.”

“It distorts the meaning of the Eucharist,” McBrien said. “It erodes the communal aspect, and it erodes the fact that the Eucharist is a meal. Holy Communion is something to be eaten, not to be adored.”

For that reason, McBrien said, the practice should be “tolerated but not encouraged.”

To be fair, it looks as if Catholics who like JPII and Benedict aren’t going to listen to McBrien.  If wikipedia is to be trusted, McBrien is not very popular among traditionalist Catholics, both for his writings (which “overemphasize” change in Catholic history) and for serving as an adviser to the filming of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.  Yeah, that last one kind of offends me too.

But still, his take on the adoration of the host is very similar to what I have just been reading in The Oxford History of Christian Worship (edited, in part, by the awesome Geoffrey Wainwright, one of my favorite professors from seminary).   Timothy Thibodeau of Nazareth College argues along similar lines to McBrien, that the adoration rather than the consumption of the consecrated host – in addition to the medieval feast of Corpus Christi – led to an “objectification” of the Eucharist that undermined its sacramental and communal nature and reduced the body of Christ to something more like a saint’s relic:

By the end of the Middle Ages, however, the Eucharist had been reduced to  an object, the Eucharistic host consecrated by the hands of a properly ordained priest.  The late twelfth century practice of elevating the host at the moment of consecration – which first appeared in northern France at the close of that century – was the logical outcome of this reification of the Eucharist into a sacred object or relic par excellence of Christ’s body, to be seen, reverenced, and adored but not regularly received at communion….for a great majority of the laity, “seeing” the host had become an acceptable substitute for “receiving” it.

“Although clerical authorities insisted that the consecrated host was not to be treated as a relic per se,” he clarifies, “it was in fact subjected to the same sort of devotionalism as other objects associated with the cult of the saints.”  (from “Western Christendom” in The Oxford History of Christian Worship, p. 236, 248)

As with all communions, there is a great deal of diversity in contemporary Catholicism.  The debates over the actual meaning and implications of Vatican II are just one instantiation of this diversity.  Obviously, the Holy Father and many high-ranking ecclesiastical officials believe strongly in reviving this practice.  Contemporary supporters will point out that this is a nearly thousand-year-old practice that deserves to be brought back in the modern era, for the good of the church.  Others will see this as a return to practices best left in history.  No doubt such arguments are heavily bound up on views of the Roman Catholic Church itself: whether its health, vitality, and faithfulness lie in reclaiming the past (“we move forward by moving backward,” as many in the ecumenical movement put it) or in stepping forward into the future, accepting the norms and arguments of contemporary culture and thus becoming “relevant” (a word I despise) to the modern era.  This argument is not unique to Catholicism.

A parting thought: if antiquity is the sole criterion for returning to former practices, one might also argue that clerical celibacy should be abandoned in favor of the more ancient practice: married clergy.   What say you?

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