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Sunday, August 19, 2018
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Straight Answers

Forty Hours Devotion

by Fr. William P. Saunders

My parish is having Forty Hours devotions. What is the history of this devotion?

The Forty Hours Devotion is a special 40-hour period of continuous prayer made before the Blessed Sacrament in solemn exposition. Of course, the focus of this devotion is on the Holy Eucharist. As Catholics, the words of our Lord burn in our hearts: "I myself am the living bread come down from Heaven. If anyone eats this bread, He shall live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world" (Jn 6:51).

Affirming our belief in the real presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, the Vatican Council II taught that the Holy Eucharist is "the source and summit of the Christian life" ("Lumen Gentium," No. 11). While the Mass is the central act of worship for us Catholics, an act which participates in the eternal reality of our Lord?s passion, death and resurrection, Vatican Council II upheld and encouraged the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass. Of course such devotion derives from the sacrifice of the Mass and moves the faithful to both sacramental and spiritual communion with our Lord ("Eucharisticum Mysterium," No. 50). As Pope Pius XII taught in "Mediator Dei," "This practice of adoration has a valid and firm foundation." Our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, had repeatedly "highly recommended" public and private devotion of the Blessed Sacrament, including processions on the feast of Corpus Christi and the 40 Hours Devotion (cf. "Dominicae Cecae," No. 3, "Inaestimabile Donum," No. 20-22, and "Ecclesia de Eucharistia," No. 25).

Second, the number 40 has always signified a sacred period of time: the rains during the time of Noah lasted 40 days and nights; the Jews wandered through the desert for 40 years, our Lord fasted and prayed for 40 days before beginning His public ministry. The Forty Hours Devotion remembers that traditional "40-hour period" from our Lord?s burial until the resurrection. Actually in the Middle Ages, the Blessed Sacrament was transferred to the repository, "the Easter Sepulcher," for this period of time to signify our Lord?s time in the tomb.

The Forty Hours Devotion begins with a Solemn Mass of Exposition, which concludes with the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and a procession. The Blessed Sacrament remains on the altar in a monstrance. During the next 40 hours, the faithful gather for personal or public prayer in adoration of our Lord. The Blessed Sacrament is reposed in the tabernacle for the daily Mass, and then returned for exposition after Mass. At the end of the devotions, the Mass of Reposition is offered, again concluding with a procession, benediction and final reposition of the Blessed Sacrament. While the 40-hour period should be continuous, some Churches break up the time, reposing the Blessed Sacrament at night because of security reasons.

The Forty Hours Devotion can be seen almost like a parish mini-retreat or mission. A guest priest may be invited to give a series of homilies. Confessions should be offered and encouraged. Consequently, a most appropriate time to schedule Forty Hours is either Advent or Lent.

While the Forty Hours Devotion nurtures the love of the faithful for our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, three special dimensions have also surrounded this devotion: the protection from evil and temptation; reparation for our own sins and for the poor souls in purgatory; and deliverance from political, material or spiritual calamities. Here the faithful implore our Lord to pour forth His abundant graces not only for themselves, but their neighbors, not only for their own personal needs, but for those of the world. Such practices are evidenced in the history of this devotion, which we shall explore next week.

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