One of the genuinely hopeful developments in Catholic life in recent years has been the spread of Eucharistic adoration. Parishes across the country have begun to offer opportunities for people to meditate and pray before the Blessed Sacrament. In some places, Eucharistic adoration is a 24/7 program while elsewhere it takes place several days a week. It's a great idea.
Or at least, quite a few of us think it is. But apparently not all. It may come as a shock to people who cherish Eucharistic adoration, but there are some who have reservations about the practice. It's worth considering why.
Recently I read a magazine article by an articulate critic — the name hardly matters — who can reasonably be taken as representative of the rest. His point was simple and, simply on its own terms, impossible to quarrel with: The Mass is the most important act of Christian worship, and it's wrong to let adoration of the Blessed Sacrament overshadow it.
That's perfectly true. Just as it's perfectly true that this overshadowing may sometimes have been a problem in the past and may sometimes be a problem even today.
Many years ago, I lived in a parish where it was the practice to distribute communion before the first morning Mass. That was done, I assume, to oblige early risers who needed to head off to work. The intention was good, but there was a danger of conveying the impression that "receiving communion" by itself was an adequate substitute for "going to Mass."
But that was way back when. A few years ago, in response to something I'd written about the clergy shortage and the growing unavailability of Mass in some places, an intelligent layman whom I know made a remark that jarred me. What difference does it really make, he asked, as long as there's a communion service? If you can receive the Blessed Sacrament, that's all that really counts.
The only possible reply to this is, of course, that the heart of the Eucharistic celebration — the Mass — is Jesus' covenant-forming action made present for our participation here and now. This is, or at least it should be, the absolute center of our Christian lives. In case of need, communion outside Mass is excellent. But it just isn't comparable to participation in the Eucharistic celebration that includes receiving communion.
Eucharistic adoration shouldn't be allowed to overshadow that. But just here is where critics of Eucharistic adoration tend to miss the point.
Adoring the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar is not an action separate and apart from participating in the Eucharist. On the contrary, it's a way of continuing and extending that participation beyond the sacramental act itself. This is what Eucharistic adorers are in fact doing.
Participating in Mass and engaging in Eucharistic adoration, properly understood, are not in competition, much less in conflict. They are two aspects of the same profound reality. Pope Benedict XVI expresses that idea beautifully in his apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis ("The Sacrament of Charity"), published in March of last year.
"Eucharistic adoration," he writes, "is simply the natural consequence of the Eucharistic celebration, which is itself the Church's supreme act of adoration…. The act of adoration outside Mass prolongs and intensifies all that takes place during the liturgical celebration itself."
And the Pope quotes from a talk he gave to the Roman Curia in 2005: "Only in adoration can a profound and genuine reception [of communion] mature" (Sacramentum Caritatis, 66). If you haven't given it a try yet, it's time that you do.