Reflections on Eucharist in Light of "Adoro Te Devote" (Part 2)

1st Advent Sermon of Pontifical Household Preacher

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 5, 2004 ( Here is a translation of the conclusion of the first sermon in preparation for Christmas, delivered Friday, before the Pope and his aides in the Roman Curia, by the Pontifical Household preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa.

The sermon, in the Apostolic Palace’s Redemptoris Mater chapel, was the first of a series of Eucharistic reflections in the light of the hymn Adoro Te Devote.

Part 1 of this sermon appeared Friday.

* * *

First Sermon
Adoro te devote

3. Eucharistic contemplation

What remains to be reflected on is the highest flame which arises from the two last verses of the stanza: «Quia te contemplans totum deficit»: Contemplating you everything fails. The characteristic of certain venerable Latin liturgical hymns, such as the Adoro Te Devote, the Veni Creator and others, is the extraordinary concentration of meaning that is found in every single word. Every word is «meaningful» in them.

To understand fully the meaning of this phrase, as of the whole hymn, it is necessary to take into account the environment and the context from which it is born. We are, I said, this side of the great change in Eucharistic theology occasioned by the reaction to the theories of Berengarius of Tours. The problem on which Christian reflection concentrates almost exclusively is that of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which at times exceeds in the affirmation of a physical and almost material presence.[9] From Belgium came the great wave of Eucharistic fervor which was soon to spread to the whole of Christianity and, in 1264, led to the institution of the feast of Corpus Domini by Pope Urban IV.

The sense of respect for the Eucharist increased and, in a parallel manner, so did the sense of the unworthiness of the faithful to approach it, also because of the almost impracticable conditions established to receive Communion (fasting, penance, confession, abstention from conjugal relations). Communion by the people became such a rare event that the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 had to establish the obligation to go to Communion at least at Easter. But the Eucharist continues to draw souls irresistibly and thus, little by little, the lack of the edible contact of communion was remedied by developing the visible contact of contemplation. (We note that in the East, for the same reasons, the laity were also denied the visible contact because the central rite of the Mass takes place behind a curtain which later became the wall of the iconostasis.)

The elevation of the host and of the chalice at the moment of the consecration, first unknown (the first written testimony of its institution is in 1196), has become for the laity the most important moment of the Mass, in which their feelings of devotion are poured out and they hope to receive graces. Bells are rung at that moment to notify those who are absent, and some run from one Mass to another to attend several elevations. Many Eucharistic hymns, among which the Ave Verum, were born to accompany this moment; they are hymns for the elevation. To them belongs also our Adoro Te Devote. From beginning to end its language is that of seeing, contemplating: «te contemplans, non intueor, nunc aspicio, visu sim beatus.»

We no longer have the same idea of the Eucharist; for some time Communion has become an integral part of participation in the Mass; the achievements of theology (biblical, liturgical, ecumenical movement) that came together in the Second Vatican Council and in the liturgical reform have again valued, together with faith in the real presence, other aspects of the Eucharist, the banquet, the sacrifice, the memorial, the communal and ecclesial dimension.

It might be thought that in this new climate there is no longer a place for the Adoro Te Devote and the Eucharistic practices born in that period. Instead it is precisely now that they are more useful and necessary for us so as not to lose, because of today’s achievements, those of yesterday. We cannot reduce the Eucharist only to contemplation of the real presence in the consecrated Host, but it would also be a grave loss to give it up. The Pope has not ceased to recommend it since his first letter The Mystery and Worship of the Most Sacred Eucharist, of Holy Thursday 1980: «The adoration of Christ in this sacrament of love must find its expression in different forms of Eucharistic devotion: personal prayer before the Most Holy Sacrament, hours of adoration, brief, prolonged, annual expositions … Jesus awaits us in this sacrament of love. Let us not lose any time to go to meet him, full of faith, in adoration and contemplation.»

Our Orthodox brothers do not share this aspect of Catholic piety; some of them note amiably that the bread is made to be eaten, not to be looked at. Others, also among Catholics, observe that the practice was developed at a time of grave obscuring of liturgical and sacramental life.

There are, however, no particular theological or theoretical explanations in favor of the excellence of Eucharistic contemplation but the impressive testimony of facts, literally «a cloud of testimonies.» A quite recent one is that of Charles de Foucauld who made adoration of the Eucharist one of the strong points of his spirituality and of that of his followers. Innumerable souls attained holiness by practicing it and the decisive contribution it has given to the mystical experience is demonstrated.[10] The Eucharist, within and outside of the Mass, has been for the Catholic Church what in the family was, until recently, the domestic hearth during winter: the place around which the family rediscovered its own unity and intimacy, the ideal center of everything.

This does not mean that there are not also theological reasons as the basis of Eucharistic contemplation. The first is that which comes from the word of Christ: «Do this in memory of me.» In the idea of memorial there is an objective and sacramental which consists in repeating the rite completed by Christ which recalls and renders present his sacrifice. But there is also a subjective and existential aspect which consists in cultivating the memory of Christ, «in having constantly in the memory thoughts that regard Christ and his love.»[11] This «sweet memory of Jesus» («Jesu dulcis memoria») is not limited to the time that one spends before the tabernacle; it can be cultivated with other means, such as the contemplation of icons; but it is true that adoration before the Most Blessed Sacrament is a privileged means to do so.

The two aspects of the memorial — celebration and contemplation of the Eucharist –, do not exclude one another, but integrate with each other. Contemplation in fact is the means with which we «receive,» in a strong sense, the mysteries, with which we interiorize them and open ourselves to their action; it is the equivalent of the mysteries on the existential and subjective plane; it is a way of allowing the grace, received in the sacraments, to mold our inner universe, namely, thoughts, affections, will, memory.

There is a great affinity between the Eucharist and the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, says St. Augustine, «Mary conceived the Word first with her mind than with her body» («Prius concepit mente quam corpore»). In fact, he adds, it would have been of no value to her to carry Christ in her womb, if she had not carried him with love in her heart.[12] The Christian must also receive Christ in his mind, before receiving and after receiving him in his body. And to receive Christ in the mind means, concretely, to think of him, to have one’s gaze turned to him, to remember him, contemplating the sign that he himself chose to remain among us.

4. Forgetfulness of everything

«Te contemplans,» contemplating you, says our hymn. What does that pronoun «you» enclose? Surely the Christ really present in the
Host, but not a static and inert presence; it indicates the whole mystery of Christ, the person and his work; it is a listening silently to the Gospel again or to a phrase in the presence of the author himself of the Gospel who gives to the word a particular force and immediacy.

But it is not yet the summit of contemplation. The great teachers of the spirit defined contemplation as: «A free, penetrating and immobile glance» (Hugh of Saint Victor), or: «An affectionate gaze on God» (St. Bonaventure). To engage in Eucharistic contemplation means then, concretely, to establish a heart to heart contact with Jesus really present in the Host and, through him, to be raised to the Father in the Holy Spirit. In meditation, the search for truth prevails, in contemplation, instead, it is the enjoyment of the found Truth. Contemplation tends always to the person, to the whole and not to the parts. Eucharistic contemplation is to look at one who is looking at me.

This stage of contemplation is that described by the author of the Adoro Te Devote when he affirms: «te contemplans totum deficit,» contemplating you everything fails. These are words born surely from experience. «All fails,» that is, what fails? Not only the external world, people, things, but also the internal world of thoughts, images, worries. «Forgetfulness of everything outside of God,» wrote Pascal describing a similar experience. And Francis of Assisi admonished his brothers: «It would be a great misery, and miserable evil if, having Him so present, you were to pay attention to anything in the whole universe!»[13]

Around the same date that our hymn was composed, namely at the end of the 13th century, Roger Bacon, another great lover of the Eucharist, wrote these words, which seem like a commentary to the first stanza of the Adoro Te Devote and a confirmation of the experience that shines through it: «If the divine majesty were to manifest itself sensibly, we would not have been able to sustain it and we would have failed (‘deficeremus!’) altogether in reverence, devotion and wonder. … Experience demonstrates it. Those who exercise themselves in the faith and in love of this sacrament do not succeed in enduring the devotion that is born from a pure faith, without dissolving in tears and without their soul, coming out of itself, liquefying by the sweetness of the devotion, to the point of no longer knowing where one is or why.»[14]

Eucharistic contemplation is altogether other than indulging in quietism. It was noted how man reflects in himself, at times even physically, what he contemplates. One is not long exposed to the sun without showing the traces on one’s face. Remaining long and with faith, not necessarily with sensible fervor, before the Most Holy Sacrament, we assimilate the thoughts and feelings of Christ, not in a discursive but in an intuitive way, almost «ex opere operato.»

It occurs as in the process of photosynthesis of plants. In the spring, green leaves appear on the branches; they absorb from the atmosphere certain elements that, under the action of solar light, are «fixed» and transformed into the plant’s nutriment. We must be like those green leaves! They are a symbol of Eucharistic souls that, contemplating the «sun of justice» who is Christ, they are «fixed» to the nutriment, which is the Holy Spirit himself, for the benefit of the whole great tree that is the Church. In other words, it is that which the Apostle Paul also says: «And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit» (2 Corinthians 3:18).

If now however, from these shafts of light that the author of the hymn has made us perceive we return in thought to our reality and to our poor world after being before the Eucharist we risk feeling disheartened and discouraged. It would be all together mistaken. It is already an encouragement and a consolation to know that these experiences are possible; that that which we have perhaps experienced in moments of great fervor of our life and then lost, can be rekindled, thanks also to the Eucharistic Year that has been given us to live.

The only thing that the Holy Spirit asks of us is that we give him our time, even if at the beginning it might seem like lost time. I will never forget the lesson that was given to me one day in this regard. I said to God: «Lord, give me fervor and I will give you all the time you desire in prayer.» I found the answer in my heart: «Raniero, give me your time and I will give you all the fervor you want in prayer.» I mention it, in case it might help someone else, besides me.

— — —


[9] The first formula of faith articulated to support Berengarius asserted that, in Communion, the body and blood of Christ were present on the altar «sensibly and were really touched, and broken by the hands of the priest and chewed by the teeth of the faithful»: Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, 690. St. Thomas Aquinas corrects this affirmation, saying that the body of Christ «is not broken, shattered or divided by the one who receives it»: cfr. S. Th. III, q. LXXVII, a.7.

[10] Cfr. E. Longpré, «Eucharistie et expérience mystique,» in Dict. Spir. IV, coll. 1586-1621.

[11] N. Cabasilas, «Vita in Cristo,» VI,4 (PG 150,653).

[12] Cf. Augustine, «Sulla santa verginità,» 3 (PL 40, 398).

[13] St. Francis, «Lettera a tutti I frati,» 2 (FF 220).

[14] Roger Bacon, «De sacramento altaris, in Moralis philosophia,» ed. E. Massa, Zurich 1953, pp. 231 s.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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