40 Hours of Adoration-Part I
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.
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.