For over 500 years one of the most beautiful of all Catholic devotions has been the one known as Quarant Ore, or Forty Hours. The Blessed Sacrament is solemnly exposed for 40 hours outside the tabernacle and continuously adored by the faithful.

In past centuries, especially in the late Middle Ages, people turned to the Blessed Sacrament, the Body and Blood of Christ, during times of crisis. Bishops frequently ordered exposition of the Sacrament for “serious and general need.” The faithful would come in shifts before the Sacrament seeking God’s intercession during events threatening the local community, such as war, epidemics, drought or famine. Calamities faced in our own era, such as terrorist attacks, the Iraq war and natural disasters, would have likely resulted in Forty Hours of prayer. In recent centuries, devotion before the exposed Sacrament has become less a community prayer for intercession in times of darkness (although certainly such times are not excluded) and more an individual time to make reparations for sin or offer thanksgiving, or perhaps general adoration or contemplating the majesty of Our Lord. 

Milanese Beginnings 

There is evidence that 12th-century Christians prayed a 40-hour vigil before the tabernacle during the Easter Triduum. Whether or not the Blessed Sacrament was exposed as part of those early Holy Week devotions is unclear. During the 12th and 13th centuries Christian worship increasingly accentuated the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist; this was in large measure a response to various groups who condemned this belief. The faithful sought to acclaim publicly their convictions about the Real Presence, and processing the Blessed Sacrament through city streets, such as on Corpus Christi Sunday, became popular. Also, this era introduced the custom of elevating the Host at the consecration during Mass for the faithful to adore. Over the next 200 years, the concept of combining public exposure of the Blessed Sacrament with 40 hours of prayer evolved. 

During the 1520s and ’30s, in the Archdiocese of Milan, Italy, this prayer devotion was extended beyond Holy W eek and often added to Pentecost, the feast of the Assumption and at Christmas. About 1529, an invading army confronted Milan; the faithful were called to 40 hours of prayer and soon thereafter the threat subsided. Almost simultaneously a fever or plague struck the city and again the people sought God’s intercession through 40 hours of prayer. At the prompting of a Capuchin priest, Joseph of Fermo, the devotion was conducted on a continuous basis, rotating between Milanese churches. It was at this time that the Eucharist was taken outside the tabernacle and placed on church altars throughout the 40 hours. The devotion was also conducted on the two days preceding Ash Wednesday. This timing was intended to help prepare Milan’s faithful for the holy season, especially after the secular pre-Lenten celebrations like carnival in which they had been participating. 

The original regulations regarding the devotion were issued in 1577 by St. Charles Borromeo, archbishop of Milan, specifying that the Eucharist be placed in a veiled vessel when exposed on the altar, and at least 10 large candles were to be kept lit around the Sacrament while all other lights were extinguished. The devotion started and ended with a procession of the Sacrament through the Church and the singing of the Litany of the Saints. In addition to parishioners, at least one cleric was in attendance both day and night during all times the Sacrament was exposed. The rules allowed for interruptions during nighttime hours if continuous exposition was not possible. The devotion ended with Benediction, and one hour before the devotion concluded in one church, the opening procession began in another. Exposure and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament would thus be continuous throughout the city. By the end of the 16th century the devotion was spreading to other areas of Italy and Continental Europe. 

A Roman Tradition 

About 1550, St. Philip Neri introduced the Forty Hours devotion in Rome, and in 1592 Pope Clement VIII became the first pope to give formal recognition to the devotion with his papal decree Graves et diuturnae . Pope Clement’s intention was to use the 40 hours to pray for God’s aid in protecting the Church against all dangers, both internal and external. He also intended the observance to be continuous: “We have determined to establish publicly in this Mother City of Rome an uninterrupted course of prayer in such wise that in the different churches … on appointed days, there be observed the pious and salutary devotion of the Forty Hours, with such an arrangement of churches and times that, at every hour of the day and night, th e whole year round the incense of prayer shall ascend without intermission before the face of the Lord.” 

The Vatican instructions or rubrics associated with the Forty Hours were issued by Pope Clement XI in 1705 and later in that century revised by Pope Clement XII. These rubrics, known as the Clementine Instructions, provide, with great solemnity, minute details for conducting the devotion and are mostly still followed today during exposure, benediction and reposition of the Blessed Sacrament. All the instructions are designed to focus attention on the sacredness of the Sacrament. 

For centuries there was little doubt when the devotion was taking place, as a picture or banner depicting the Blessed Sacrament was hung on the church door, the church bells were rung every hour and the Sacrament was surrounded with at least 20 lit candles. While the Clementine Instructions were binding only on the churches in the city of Rome, they were quickly adopted throughout the rest of the world. In 1853, St. John Neumann, fourth bishop of Philadelphia, introduced Forty Hours as a diocesanwide devotion in the United States. 

With Greatest Possible Solemnity 

At one time all Catholic parishes were obligated to conduct this popular devotion. The 1917 Code of Canon Law prescribed that the Eucharist be annually exposed for 40 hours of adoration, “with greatest possible solemnity,” in all places where the Blessed Sacrament was normally reserved and on dates determined by the local bishop. Today, except in churches where there is Perpetual Adoration, such annual periods of Eucharistic exposure are less common and only “recommended” by the Code of Canon Law that was promulgated in 1983. Guidance from the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation of Divine Worship and the Sacraments, in the document Eucharistiae Sacramentum , issued in 1973, states that the local bishop can approve extended adoration of the Blessed Sacrament outside the tabernacle and can order exposition “for any serious and general need … in those churches to which the faithful come in large numbers” (No. 87). 

Other Eucharistic devotions such as continuous or Perpetual Adoration and the well-known holy hour of prayer are outgrowths of the Quarant Ore . TCA

Why Forty Hours? (sidebar) 

The Forty Hours Devotion is 40 hours of prayer before the exposed Blessed Sacrament, where we come face-to-face with Our Lord. This devotion is also widely known as Forty Hours Prayer and Forty Hours Adoration. The selection of 40 as the number of hours the faithful pray and the Blessed Sacrament is exposed outside the tabernacle is likely because that was the number of hours Jesus spent in the tomb between His death and resurrection. The number 40 is found repeatedly throughout the Old and New Testaments, including: the number of days Jesus fasted and was tempted in the wilderness, the days of rain causing the great flood during Noah’s time, and the years of journey the Israelites wandered in the desert.

F or over 500 years one of the most beautiful of all Catholic devotions has been the one known as Quarant Ore , or Forty Hours. The Blessed Sacrament is solemnly exposed for 40 hours outside the tabernacle and continuously adored by the faithful. 

D.D. Emmons writes from O’Fallon, Ill. 

An English Cardinal on the Forty Hours Devotion (sidebar) 

Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman (1802-1865), first Archbishop of Westminster, England, observed of the Forty Hours: 

“In no other time or place, is the sublimity of our religion so touchingly felt. No ceremony is going forward in the sanctuary, no sound of song is issuing from the choir, no voice of exhortation proceeds from the pulpit, no prayer is uttered aloud at the altar. There are hundreds there, and yet they are engaged in no congregational act of worship. Each heart and soul is alone in the midst of a multitude; each uttering its own thoughts, each feeling its own grace. Yet you are overpowered, subdued, quelled, into a reverential mood, softened into a devotional spirit, forced to mediate, to feel, to pray. The little children who come in, led by a mother’s hand, kneel down by her in silence, as she simply points toward the altar, overawed by the still splendor before them: the very babe seems hushed to quiet reverence in her bosom.” — From “The Sacramentals of the Holy Catholic Church,” by Andrew A. Lambing (Benziger Brothers, New York, 1892)