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Liturgy Q&A: Charles de Foucauld and Solitary Adoration

And More on the Pandemic Indulgence

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

 Q: With the recent announcement of the impending canonization of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, I have begun pondering anew your response concerning the liceity of a priest opening the tabernacle or placing a monstrance on the altar for private adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It is well-known that a monstrance containing a consecrated Host was found in the sand some days after Blessed Charles’ martyrdom, and hence it seems obvious he was accustomed to such solitary adoration as a desert hermit. While he had much difficulty obtaining a papal dispensation to celebrate Mass by himself, given the strictures of the 1917 Code of Canon Law — relaxed by the 1983 Code — I have never heard of a similar indult for his practice of Eucharistic adoration. It seems to me, moreover, that such a practice, mutatis mutandis, could easily be seen as an implied corollary to the current permission of a solitary Mass «for a just and reasonable cause.» I would appreciate your thoughts now that we have a canonized saint who seems to have done what your response on ZENIT claimed is currently illicit. — J.C., Rochester, New York

A: The question posed has various levels. First is the strictly legal question. Second is whether a canonized saint’s having possibly carried out a technically illicit practice somehow changes the law for that practice.

With respect to the first question, the legal situation remains what we said December 24, 2019, based on the reply from the Sacred Congregation of Rites in its Decreta authentica, No. 3832, in volume 3 published in 1900, page 372.

The official decree from the congregation said: “Dubium II. An liceat Sacerdoti pro sua privata devotione sacrum Tabernaculum aperire pro adorando Sacramento, precibus ad libitum fundenis ac postea illud claudere? […] Ad. II. ‘Negative.’”

This norm was still considered binding in the 1960s, and nothing in subsequent norms, which indeed stress even more the essentially public and community dimensions of exposition, would seem to have changed it.

With respect to the second aspect of the question regarding the practice of canonized saints and the law, we must first remember that laws are framed for normal situations and must be obeyed in such situations.

It is understood that in extraordinary situations some laws are not applied. Thus, to use another example, priests in Nazi or Communist concentration camps had no qualms about celebrating Mass secretly wearing prison uniforms with no vestments to provide the Eucharist for their fellow prisoners. Even if it had been possible, they did not feel obliged to seek a dispensation from the Holy See. Those who survived, on returning to normal circumstances, did not continue to celebrate without vestments, nor was this considered justified by the subsequent canonization of some of the imprisoned priests.

In the process of beatification and canonization the most difficult hurdle to pass, except in the case of martyrs, is actually that of the decree of heroic virtues. Proving the miracle is also tough, but that depends more on the future saint than on the earthly judges.

To obtain the decree of heroic virtues, those promoting the canonization must prove that the candidate for sanctity lived the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity as well as the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude to a heroic degree. It is not asked that the virtues all be lived to the same degree, as some saints stand out for their charity, others for their faith. But no virtue can be absent and all must be heroic.

It does not mean that saints have to be perfect in everything, nor that they never made misjudgments, nor that they had absolutely no defects or limitations. It means that over a lifetime, and especially in the final years of their lives they lived these virtues to a heroic degree.

In this way canonization does not make licit everything that a saint may have done, nor are all the practices of a saint to be followed. For example, St. Pio of Pietrelcina was an inspired confessor with special gifts of intuition for the needs of souls. The fact that he would occasionally bluntly refuse absolution to some penitents is not necessarily a model for priests lacking his mystical gifts.

During the investigation of heroic virtues, themes such as violation of liturgical laws would be addressed and answered if necessary. I was once informed, off the record, of how one canonization process was stopped in its tracks by the candidate’s having once presided at a Mass in which doubtfully consecrated hosts were distributed to the faithful.

I have not read St. Charles de Foucauld’s beatification process and so am unaware if the theme of his solitary adoration was addressed.

I doubt very much it would have been much of an argument against his sanctity. He had been living as a hermit since 1897 and was ordained a priest in France in 1901 before leaving once more to live as a hermit in the desert before his assassination in 1916.

It is more than likely that he was totally unaware of a two-line decree issued by a Roman congregation in 1900, and therefore the question of disobedience is moot.

Even if it were known, it could have been dispensed with, even verbally, by the local ecclesiastic superior who could have judged that a norm issued above all for priests in parishes and convents would not necessarily apply to a hermit living in a desert.

I do not think that the relaxation of the rule regarding solitary celebration of Mass is necessarily relevant to the question of solitary adoration. This was a long process above all influenced by the great Jesuit canonist Felix Capello (1879-1962), whose canonization cause is also open. During the 1930s he persuaded the Roman congregations to gradually relax their hitherto restrictive attitude toward allowing priests to celebrate alone, arguing that the desire of priests to offer the holy sacrifice could constitute a sufficient cause even when it was impossible for anybody to be present.

It is one thing for a priest to exercise his unique ministry to offer the Church’s greatest gift for the glory of God and the benefit of souls. It is quite a different thing to engage in an act of private devotion in what the Church considers as being essentially public in nature.

* * *

Follow-up: Widening of Indulgences

Pursuant to our June 16 piece on the special indulgence for the COVID-19 pandemic, it would appear that the terms of Vatican decrees are not crystal clear to all.

One elderly reader wrote: “I am confused. I am 77 years old and cannot return to Mass or sacraments yet. I am on a very fixed income that does not cover my expenses. This decree implies a plenary indulgence for everyone and then ends it when it says only when death is imminent or you have the virus. It’s not, and I don’t, but cannot return to church or sacraments. I continue reading and get more confused.”

I will attempt to clarify matters.

First, who can benefit from the plenary indulgence? The decree mentions three categories:

— Those who have the virus or are under quarantine.

–Health care workers.

— All those who “implore from Almighty God the end of the epidemic, relief to those who are afflicted and eternal salvation to those the Lord has called to Himself.” Our reader falls under this category.

How to obtain the indulgence?

The faithful in this latter category, with a spirit detached from any sin, must carry out one of these practices:

“Offer a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, or Eucharistic Adoration, or the reading of the Holy Scriptures for at least half an hour, or the recitation of the Holy Rosary, or the pious exercise of the Way of the Cross, or the recitation of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.”

In the case of our reader, a visit to the Blessed Sacrament or Eucharistic adoration are probably out of bounds. The others are possible from home.

The condition of reception of Communion and confession would be the same as for the first two categories — that is, as soon as it becomes reasonably possible due to the conditions of lockdown and other public health restrictions. For a person who is housebound, it may be fulfilled as soon as a priest can visit for confession and Communion.

The mention of the plenary indulgence for the dying was not part of the new concession but a practical application of an already existing indulgence to current situations.

I hope this clears up any confusion for our readers.

* * *

 Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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