Editorial: O Salutaris Hostia

by Duncan G. Stroik, appearing in Volume 42

"For the Eucharist is at once a sacrifice and a Sacrament; but it differs from the other Sacraments in this: that it not only produces grace, but contains in a permanent manner the author of grace himself. When, therefore, the Church bids us adore Christ hidden behind the Eucharistic veils and pray to him for spiritual and temporal favors, of which we ever stand in need, she manifests living faith in her divine spouse who is present beneath these veils, she professes her gratitude to him, and she enjoys the intimacy of his friendship.”

—Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII

Architects and liturgists have spent over fifty years making our churches more casual and more simple, supposedly to help us focus on Jesus without distractions. One aspect has been a commitment to hiding the tabernacle from the faithful and in doing that, discouraging belief in transubstantiation. Now, over two-thirds of Catholics believe the Sacrament is merely a symbol.

Can art and architecture help us regain our faith in this central tenet? Inasmuch as we are visual beings attuned to signs and symbols, part of our lack of faith must be due to our non-sacral meeting houses. And part of our recovery of faith will come through churches that proclaim the reality of God with us.

In meditation or worship, what we look at should help us to pray. Even within the limits of the most modernist churches, we can do much to aid belief in Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament. To emphasize belief in the Blessed Sacrament, the tabernacle should be given a place of honor in our churches, raised up for all to see in the center of the sanctuary, and enriched with marble, bronze, and gold. In addition, we can show further honor with flanking candlesticks, flower vases, and imagery. 

Chapels of Adoration

Another thing we can do is build chapels of adoration. Many of the faithful have been renewed in their faith by being able to visit one. These chapels can be freestanding, attached to the church, or in another building, and sized for anywhere from four to fifty.

The interiors should be thought of as beautiful little temples with many of the qualities of a church. The colors, the materials, and the designs should be worthy of a king. 

A Visible Sacrament

Since revealing Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is the main purpose of adoration, whether it is taking place in the church proper or in a separate chapel, the design of the altar, the tabernacle, and the backdrop for the monstrance is crucial. They are to make visible in earthly splendor the eternal giftedness of the host. Also important are the surroundings: a tester or canopy above the monstrance, columns or pilasters around the room, and the ceiling, floor, and walls richly appointed. 

Along with a beautiful tabernacle, there should be an elegant gold or silver monstrance to place in front of the tabernacle or upon a throne. The monstrance, which “shows” the Sacrament, needs a contrasting backdrop to make it visible. When the monstrance is placed on a freestanding altar in the middle of a large sanctuary with no contrast, the Blessed Sacrament can virtually disappear.

A design similar to a high altar is better for Eucharistic adoration, because then we can create a panel behind the monstrance using silk, book-matched marble or mosaic, gold rays to expand the monstrance, or iconography. A painting or sculpture of a biblical subject helps us to meditate on the Corpus Domini, particularly images from the life of Christ. This can both make the Sacrament more visible and offer aids to devotion.

At the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., the monstrance sits upon the tabernacle in front of a mosaic of the supper at Emmaus with the inscription, “They recognized him in the breaking of the bread.” In Saint Peter’s Basilica, a thirteen-foot-tall domed tempietto tabernacle in bronze and lapis lazuli sits in front of a monumental image of the Trinity with kneeling angels to either side.

At a local high school chapel, a painting of the nativity has the Christ child shown in a crib directly above the tabernacle. It reminds one of Saint Francis’ placement of the Eucharist in the crib at Greccio. At the chapel an inscription above the painting states, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In other places, altarpieces show angels and saints in prayer and supplication before Christ or his mother, and are exemplars of Eucharistic adoration.

The main focus of adoration is on the creator as made present in the Blessed Sacrament, but his creation can be present as well. Icons of the saints help us to pray and remind us they are there too. Images of the sky, the stars, or the heavens help to expand our vision beyond the here and now into the mystery which intimates the beatific vision.

O salutaris hostia quae caeli pandis ostium. 

Bella premunt hostilia; da robur, fer auxilium. 

Uni trinoque Domino, sit sempiterna gloria: 

Qui vitam sine temino, nobis donet in patria.