By Rebecca W. Martin
Imagine that Jesus Christ knocked on your door and asked to stay with you for the better part of two days. How would you welcome him? What conversations would you have around the kitchen table? What transformations might occur, as you drew close to him in friendship and rested together in the living room? What incredible grace would be available to you?
Take that spiritual encounter and renewal, and multiply it by the number of people in your parish. Young and old, singles and families, lay and clergy, each experiencing the Lord’s love through his physical, tangible presence — it’s a lovely dream, and more than a dream. In the words of Pope St. John Paul II in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia: “The Eucharist is a priceless treasure: by not only celebrating it but also by praying before it outside of Mass we are enabled to make contact with the very wellspring of grace. A Christian community desirous of contemplating the face of Christ … cannot fail also to develop this aspect of Eucharistic worship, which prolongs and increases the fruits of our communion in the body and blood of the Lord” (No. 25).
How do we “develop this aspect of Eucharistic worship” in our parishes, inviting each member to “make contact with the very wellspring of grace”? One immediately available method is the ancient tradition known as 40 Hours. It’s a straightforward practice: expose the Blessed Sacrament publicly in the parish church for 40 hours, during which parishioners take turns keeping watch so that Jesus is never alone. Typically, the devotion begins and ends with Masses, and might include the Liturgy of the Hours, a procession or a homily series. Many parishes combine 40 Hours with a parish mission, drawing the community together for prayer and preaching.
• History of the 40 Hours devotion
40 Hours has been part of the parish life of the Church for well over 500 years. It flourished under the promotion of saints like St. Charles Borromeo, St. Anthony Maria Zaccaria, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis de Sales, St. Philip Neri, St. John Neumann and many others. In 16th century Milan, Italy, Eucharistic adoration would move from church to church every 40 hours, with parishes working together to keep the devotion running throughout the entire year.
In the Middle Ages it was celebrated as supplication in times of crisis; during the Catholic Counter-Reformation, as an effort at the renewal of popular devotion; in 19th-century America, as a way of unifying persecuted Catholics. In our own day, when so many Catholics don’t understand or believe in the True Presence, 40 Hours is the natural next step for our National Eucharistic Revival.
Why 40 hours? Scripture gives us repeated symbolic instances of the number: Moses’ years in Egypt, the years the Israelites wandered in the desert, the days of Jonah’s preaching in Nineveh, Jesus’ days of fasting in the desert and many more. We spend 40 days in prayer, fasting and almsgiving during Lent. Most importantly, from the crucifixion on the afternoon of Good Friday to the Resurrection on Easter morning, Our Lord lay in the tomb for roughly 40 hours.
Crisis, persecution, exile, penance, death — what do all these dark themes have to do with Eucharistic adoration? The thread which binds them together is metanoia, that turning of the heart toward God which we also call conversion.
Those 40 years in the desert were an opportunity for the Israelites to be strengthened in faith. Jonah spent weeks pleading with the Ninevites to lay aside their sins and turn to God. Jesus’ own fasting prepared him to go out and bring souls to his Father, calling them to conversion. His death and resurrection opened the door for us not only to convert once, but to have an ongoing relationship with the God who loves us.
And that’s exactly what the 40 Hours devotion offers. In every era, in every cultural struggle, Christ comes in the Eucharist to be the heart of our communities. Made humble on the altar, he invites us to bring our troubled souls to him, and through him to the Father.
• Practical Notes
Pulling off the 40 Hours requires us to believe not only in the Real Presence, but in the power of that Presence. It’s all well and good to believe that Our Lord is there in the bread and wine at Mass. What do we do with that? How do we let that belief change us? I would argue that one concrete and effective way is this ancient tradition of the 40 Hours.
How do we make this daunting exercise in faith actually happen? To be sure, it requires commitment, buy-in from parish staff and parishioners alike, eager to share Christ’s welcome. That is the first requisite. (Though I use “parish” for brevity, the 40 Hours also works well for Catholic high schools, colleges and Newman Centers, parish groups, etc.) Assuming willing volunteers, the effort would look something like this:
- Assemble a core team, including a cleric, the music director, someone concerned with hospitality, and one or more with communication and marketing skills.
- Well in advance — 3-6 months, preferably — plan the dates of the celebration. You could start with Mass on a Thursday evening and finish at the anticipation Mass on Saturday evening; or begin on Sunday evening and run through Tuesday; any number of options are available.
- If preaching is desired, make arrangements to bring in a priest or lay speaker.
- Share a “save the date” with the parish and even the whole diocese.
- Start getting groups and organizations involved. You might ask the local Catholic schools to commit to an hour or more of daytime adoration; the Knights of Columbus to keep watch over the night alongside any other adorers for security; the Legion of Mary to make rosaries for a basket at the back of church; the youth group to distribute flyers after Mass to get the word out.
- As the days draw closer, plan beautiful, solemn Masses for the opening and closing. Plan the other paraliturgical events like Liturgy of the Hours and a Eucharistic procession, continuing to get various parish groups involved.
- Consider organizing a potluck, reception or other community gathering after the closing Mass. 40 Hours should be an opportunity for the parish to worship as a whole body, and nothing gets people together like food.
In the words of Pope Benedict XVI in Sacramentum Caritatis, “In the Eucharist, the Son of God comes to meet us and desires to become one with us; eucharistic adoration is simply the natural consequence of the eucharistic celebration, which is itself the Church’s supreme act of adoration” (No. 66).
He continues: “The personal relationship which the individual believer establishes with Jesus present in the Eucharist constantly points beyond itself to the whole communion of the Church and nourishes a fuller sense of membership in the Body of Christ. For this reason, besides encouraging individual believers to make time for personal prayer before the Sacrament of the Altar, I feel obliged to urge parishes and other church groups to set aside times for collective adoration” (No. 68).
Pope Francis echoed this same enduring truth of the Church on October 22, 2022, saying “It is good to adore in silence before the Most Blessed Sacrament, to be in the consoling presence of Jesus and there to draw the apostolic impetus to be instruments of goodness, tenderness and welcome in the community, the Church, and the world. … Adore, immerse yourself in divine love and give it with full hands to those you meet on your path.”
Eucharistic adoration, whether personal or parish-wide through the 40 Hours, is never a solo endeavor. It is an outpouring of the Church’s efforts for the salvation of souls, and an invitation for us to enter into that effort. We rest with Jesus, spending time with him, and we are individually consoled and nourished. From him we receive the grace and strength to bring about renewal in our families, our workplaces, our parishes and our world.
Rebecca W. Martin is a trade book Acquisitions Editor for Our Sunday Visitor, and lives in Michigan with her husband and too many cats. She is a perpetually professed Lay Dominican. Her children’s book, “Meet Sister Mary Margaret,” will release in fall 2023 from OSV Kids.