Monday, August 17, 2009

Adoration with no end

24-hour Eucharistic ritual returns to Boston

By Michael Paulson Globe Staff / August 10, 2009

The adorers sit in silence before the wafer Christ.

Some settle cross-legged on the floor by the altar. Others kneel in a favorite pew. They read, or say the rosary; they pray, or think, or just allow the mind to wander.

Hour after hour, day after day, they take part in an unusual Catholic ritual that appears to be making a modest comeback - a quest for silence in a noisy life, a desire to be part of a team, a hunger to feel closer to God.

The ritual, called perpetual adoration, is, at one level, strikingly simple: around-the-clock, people take turns sitting in a chapel in the presence of a consecrated wafer. But at another level, the ritual reflects an embrace of the teaching of Catholicism that many find hardest to understand: the belief that, during Mass, bread and wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus.

Later this week, in a Back Bay shrine, the Archdiocese of Boston will celebrate the return of perpetual adoration to Boston for the first time in decades. Volunteers at St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine are signing up 336 people - two for every hour of the week except during Mass - who will agree that, starting Saturday and continuing indefinitely, they will spend an hour a week in the presence of the consecrated wafer, a practice they understand as spending an hour a week with God.

“To get anything done these days, you have to make an appointment, so let’s make an appointment with God,’’ said the Rev. Peter Grover, the shrine director. “You can get cigarettes 24/7, you can buy milk, and you can’t have a church open?’’

At St. Clement’s, the wafer is displayed in a simple monstrance - a golden wafer-holder placed in a red velvet niche surrounded by wood carvings of sunrays and angels carrying incense.

“God is everywhere, but there is a difference when you are physically in the presence of God,’’ said Tim Van Damm, a 31-year-old Somerville resident who is spearheading the effort to launch perpetual adoration at St. Clement. “Any time you come in contact with Christ, you are changed.’’

The practice of Catholics demonstrating reverence toward the consecrated bread appears to date back about eight centuries, to a time when very few took Communion, and some believed that simply looking at the consecrated wafer could lead to miraculous healings, according to the Rev. Edward Foley, a professor of liturgy at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Over time, some groups of nuns began spending time “adoring’’ the consecrated bread as a device to enhance their contemplation.

In Boston, in the 1940s, a group of cloistered nuns began spending time in adoration at St. Clement’s - a one-time Universalist Church that was originally purchased by the archdiocese to handle spillover from nearby St. Cecilia’s Parish. Soon, there was a nocturnal adoration society, for others to join in.

The practice withered by the late 1960s, with changes in both the church and the neighborhood. But perpetual adoration has begun popping up at parishes in suburban Boston - including churches in Natick, Tewksbury, and Whitman - and around the country. The trend has been reported in several scholarly journals, including “Worship’’ and “Liturgical Ministry.’’

Some scholars have expressed concerns that the practice could distract from the centrality of the Mass in Catholic life, or that people might feel compelled to join in. But participants say they believe the practice brings personal and communal benefits - that prayer can help bring about anything from a reduction in crime to an increase in the number of priests - and church officials are enthusiastic.

“Eucharistic devotion seems to be growing in popularity among the young, both inside and outside of religious communities,’’ said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The real presence of people before the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist bodes well for us when places of true peace are few and far between.’’

The order of priests that now oversees the shrine, the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, keeps it open for adoration every afternoon. That wasn’t enough for Van Damm and his friends, who are convinced that there should be a place in Boston where people can go to pray before the Eucharistic host at any hour. So they set up a website (, took out ads on billboards, on subway cars, and in MBTA stations, and on Saturday, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley will preside at a Mass to celebrate the relaunch of perpetual adoration at the shrine.

O’Malley, in an interview, noted that one of his last acts as bishop of Fall River was to dedicate a chapel on Cape Cod for perpetual adoration.

While he has been in Boston, he said, St. John’s Seminary has begun adoration during the afternoons, a monthly young adult worship program called LIFT concludes contemporary worship, featuring a live band and video, with a period of Eucharistic adoration, and numerous parishes have adopted the practice for some portion of the week.

“For us to have the Eucharist visible for adoration is a very ancient tradition in the church, and a way to nourish people’s faith and spirituality,’’ O’Malley said. “Throughout the country, there is a renewed spirit of Eucharistic devotion, and we certainly want to encourage that here.’’

O’Malley said he occasionally participates in the practice. He said that when he is sitting in front of the consecrated wafer, he prays, meditates, or reflects on his faith. He expresses gratitude to God, asks forgiveness for failings, prays for the sick, or asks for help.

“It’s a wonderful form of prayer,’’ he said. “The sacramental presence of Christ is right there, and that’s an encouragement. It strengthens our faith, and our connection with the Lord.’’

Preparing to have people in a church in the middle of the night in the middle of the city has required a few security precautions. The shrine has installed a key card system so only the adorers will be able to get in during the night, and each adorer will pass to the next a crucifix with a panic button that will send an alarm to the police station.

Those who have signed up offer a variety of reasons for agreeing to participate.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to renew my faith,’’ said Marie-Claude Tanny, 28, an immigrant from Ivory Coast, by way of France, who chose an hour on Friday nights so she could review her week.

Tanny is new to the practice but another St. Clement’s participant, 22-year-old Peter Syski, started it in high school in Maryland and continued at Harvard, in both instances at chapels run by Opus Dei, and in Cambridge also at St. Paul’s Parish.

Syski said he chooses shifts in the middle of the night because he likes the challenge of staying awake, given that the saint for whom he was named, Peter, famously fell asleep while awaiting Jesus in Gethsemane.

Syski doesn’t tend to tell his colleagues at State Street Bank about his practice - “I don’t come into work and say, ‘I’m so tired because last night I was up at 2 in the morning looking at a wafer’ - there’s no need for me to completely blow their mind.’’ But, he says, he believes he gains spiritually from the experience, and he believes the city does too.

“I think this is really going to work wonders in Boston, and the church in Boston really needs a lot of prayers,’’ he said.

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