Last fall, Notre Dame theologian Father Richard McBrien delivered a sharp critique of the practice of Eucharistic adoration, the resurgence of which in the life of the Church he bitterly laments.
In a National Catholic Reporter column, he writes, “It is difficult to speak favorably about the devotion today.” His principal argument against Eucharistic adoration is that the practice is grounded in naïve and questionable theology that would divorce the Eucharist from its proper context within the liturgy.
Though adoration might have been understandable in a more primitive time, “now that Catholics are literate and even well-educated, the Mass is in the language of the people … and its rituals relatively easy to understand and follow, there is little or no need for extraneous Eucharistic devotions.”
Father McBrien concludes that “Eucharistic adoration … is a doctrinal, theological and spiritual step backward.” In short, those who bother to adore the Blessed Sacrament are (the poor things) just not that bright.
In the 1940s and 1950s, whenever he was home in Paris, a slight, mustachioed man would make his way nightly through the Montmartre neighborhood, heading for the church of Sacre Coeur. Once ensconced in his pew, he would kneel down and participate in the all-night adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
The man’s name was Jacques Maritain, and he was one of the most significant Catholic philosophers of the 20th century. Along with Etienne Gilson and Martin Grabmann, he led the contemporary Thomistic revival, and his masterwork “The Degrees of Knowledge” (University of Notre Dame Press, $29) is a stunningly complex treatment of the act of human knowing. The elegance and verve of his writing are deeply admired by devotees of French literature.
During the 1920s, a young German woman, who was an instructor at a teacher’s training college, would come regularly to the Dominican church and sit down in a chair situated directly in front of the tabernacle. There she would spend hours in silent adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. So intense was her devotion that the nuns with whom she lived would stare in wonder at her.
This young woman’s name was Edith Stein, and she was one of the most important Catholic thinkers of the last century. She received her doctorate in philosophy under the great Edmund Husserl and was generally acknowledged to be, along with Martin Heidegger, Husserl’s most important disciple. She wrote a series of texts comparing the phenomenology of her master with the classical philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, and just before her death at the hands of the Nazis, she completed a dense study of the mysticism of St. John of the Cross.
Karol Wojtyla received his doctorate in 1946, having completed a study of the phenomenological ethics of Max Scheler. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, he was professor of moral philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, and produced a number of sophisticated studies of Christian ethics, including his masterpiece, “The Acting Person.” During the 1970s, then-Cardinal Wojtyla lectured at universities around the world, and in 1978 he was elected pope.
Practically every morning when he was in Rome, he would kneel before the Blessed Sacrament as a preparation for his daily Mass. Those who prayed with him witnessed to the extraordinary intensity of his devotion, visible in his face and his body.
These examples of extremely smart, theologically plugged-in people who were devoted to the adoration of the Eucharist could be multiplied endlessly: St. Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, Teilhard de Chardin, Dorothy Day, G.K. Chesterton, Pope Paul VI and so on.
Father McBrien’s assertion that only unlearned people would give themselves to the practice is simply untenable on empirical grounds. And his argument that Eucharistic adoration somehow detracts or distracts from the central prayer of the Mass is so much nonsense.
In a penetrating essay from the 1950s, Father Karl Rahner, one of the most significant Catholic theologians of the last century, argued that the Eucharist is always a “word event.” Christ becomes really present through the pronouncing of the words “this is my body” and “this is my blood” by the priest at Mass. The Council of Trent, Father Rahner reminds us, taught that Christ is present vi verborum (by the power of words). The conclusion that Father Rahner draws is that Jesus, even when he is present in the quiet of the tabernacle, is present “verbally,” which is to say, in reference to the consecratory words of the Eucharistic liturgy. Accordingly, the Christ sacramentally present in the tabernacle or the monstrance comes from the Mass and points back toward the Mass.
The “tension” between the liturgy and the tabernacle, insisted on by far too many post-conciliar theologians, is phony, and this is borne out by the fact that those who love the Eucharistic Lord in the Blessed Sacrament are usually those who are most devoted to the Mass.
Therefore, I would applaud the revival of Eucharistic adoration in so many parishes and dioceses, precisely because I accept the Second Vatican Council’s call to consider the liturgy “the source and summit of the Christian life.”
Father Robert Barron, founder of WordOnFire.org, is the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at Mundelein Seminary.