The History of Eucharistic Adoration
The phenomenal growth of devotion to the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist has puzzled not a few sincere people. Nocturnal adoration societies, perpetual adoration groups, national associations of the faithful promoting organized visits to the Blessed Sacrament, holy hours before the tabernacle, monthly, weekly, and even daily exposition of the Eucharist in churches and chapels, in one country after another, have become commonplace.
What to make of all of this? Is this another form of pious eccentricity, or is it founded on authentic Catholic doctrine and grounded on the solid rock of Christian revelation?
It is authentic Catholic doctrine and it rests on the unchangeable truth of our revealed faith. But it needs to be explained, and the explanation is a classic example of what we call development of doctrine.
By development of doctrine, we mean that some divinely revealed truth has become more deeply understood and more clearly perceived than it had been before. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whom Christ promised to send to teach us, the Church comes to see more deeply what she had always believed, and the resulting insights find expression in devotion of the faithful that may have been quite uncommon in the Church’s previous history.
The whole spectrum of Christology and Mariology has witnessed such dogmatic progress. Adoration of the Eucharist, therefore, is simply another, though dramatic, example of doctrinal development.
Always implied in such progress is that, objectively, the revealed truth remains constant and unchanged. But through the light of the Holy Spirit, the subjective understanding of the truth becomes more clear, its meaning becomes more certain and its grasp by the believing mind becomes increasingly more firm.
Our purpose in this short study is to show how the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist has undergone a marvelous development over the centuries. We are now witnessing what can only be described as the work of the Holy Spirit, whom Christ promised, “the Father will send in my name. He will teach you all things, and bring to your mind whatever I have said to you” (John 14:26).
Apostolic Times to the Early Middle Ages
Belief in the real, physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist grew out of the teaching of the evangelists and Saint Paul. They made it plain to the apostolic Church that the Eucharistic elements were literally Jesus Christ continuing his saving mission among men.
John and Paul were especially plain. The skepticism of Christ’s followers, when he preached the reality of his body and blood as food and drink, made John record the fact that “many of his disciples withdrew and no longer went about with him.” Seeing this, Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also want to leave me?” Simon Peter did not understand any more than those who left Christ, but his loyalty was more firm. “Lord,”he answered, “to whom shall we go?” (John 6:66-68).
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians rebuked them for making the Agape, which should have been a beautiful sign of unity, into an occasion of discord. He reminded them that the Eucharist is no ordinary food. It is actually the body and blood of Christ according to “the tradition which I handed on to you that came to me from the Lord himself” (1 Corinthians 11: 23-26).
At the turn of the first century, Ignatius of Antioch, on his way to martyrdom in Rome, had to warn the Christians not to be taken in by the gnostics—a good modern term would be “visionaries,” who denied the real presence. Ignatius said these people abstained from the Eucharist because they did not accept what true Christians believe, that in the Eucharist is the same Jesus Christ who lived and died and rose from the dead for our salvation.
Under the impact of this faith, the early hermits reserved the Eucharist in their cells. From at least the middle of the third century, it was very general for the solitaries in the East, especially in Palestine and Egypt, to preserve the consecrated elements in the caves or hermitages where they lived.
The immediate purpose of this reservation was to enable the hermits to give themselves holy communion. But these hermits were too conscious of what the real presence was not to treat it with great reverence and not to think of it as serving a sacred purpose by just being nearby.
Not only did they have the Sacrament with them in their cells, but they carried it on their persons when they moved from one place to another. This practice was sanctioned by the custom of the fermentum, that certainly goes back to as early as A.D. 120.
The rite of fermentum was a particle of the Eucharistic bread (sometimes dipped in the chalice) transported from the bishop of one diocese to the bishop of another diocese. The latter would then consume the species at his next solemn Mass as a token of unity between the churches.
It was called a fermentum not necessarily because leavened bread was used but because the Eucharist symbolized the leaven of unity which permeates and transforms Christians, so that they become one with Christ.
Already in the second century, popes sent the Eucharist to other bishops as a pledge of unity of faith; and, on occasion, bishops would do the same for their priests.
As monasticism changed from solitary to community life, the monks received something of the same privilege of carrying the Eucharist with them. They would have it on their persons when working in the fields or going on a voyage. The species was either placed in a small receptacle (chrismal) worn bandoleer-fashion, or in a little bag (perula) hung around the neck under their clothes.
Irish and British manuscripts make frequent mention of the practice. It was not only to have the hosts ready for communion but also to insure safety against robbers and protection against the hazards of travel.
The life of Saint Comgall (died 601) tells how on one occasion he was attacked by heathen Pietists while working in a field. On seeing the chrismal around his neck, the attackers did not dare touch him for fear of some retaliation since they surmised (as the narrator says) that Comgall was carrying his God. The saint was so moved by the experience that he exclaimed, “Lord, you are my strength, my refuge, and my redeemer.”
As early as the Council of Nicea (325) we know that the Eucharist began to be reserved in the churches of monasteries and convents. Again, the immediate reason for this reservation was for the sick and the dying, and also for the ceremony of the fermentum. But naturally its sacred character was recognized and the place of reservation was set off from profane usage.
From the beginning of community life, therefore, the Blessed Sacrament became an integral part of the church structure of a monastery. A bewildering variety of names was used to identify the place of reservation. Pastoforium, diakonikon, secretarium, prothesis are the most common. As far as we can tell, the Eucharist was originally kept in a special room, just off the sanctuary but separated from the church where Mass was offered.
Certainly by the 800s, the Blessed Sacrament was kept within the monastic church itself, close to the altar. In fact, we have a poem from the year 802, telling of a pyx containing the Sacred Species reserved on the high altar of the abbey church at Lindisfarne in England.
The practice of reserving the Eucharist in religious houses was so universal that there is no evidence to the contrary even before the year 1000. In fact, numerous regulations are extant which provided for protection of the sacred elements, as the wording went, “from profanation by mice and impious men.” The species were to be kept under lock and key and sometimes in a receptacle raised high enough to be out of easy reach of profaning hands.
It is interesting to note that one of the first unmistakable references to reserving the Blessed Sacrament is found in a life of Saint Basil (who died in 379). Basil is said to have divided the Eucharistic bread into three parts when he celebrated Mass in the monastery. One part he consumed, the second part he gave to the monks, and the third he placed in a golden dove suspended over the altar.
This would suggest that, though we have less access to Oriental sources, the Eastern monasteries were centuries ahead of the West in reserving the Eucharistic elements in the monastic church proper and not only in a separate place.
Among the treasures of Monte Cassino that seem to have been destroyed during the Second World War were two small ancient tabernacles, one of gold and the other of silver. They were gifts of Pope Victor III (died 1087), who had been abbot at Cassino before his election to the papacy.
Berengarius to Saint Francis of Assisi
Toward the end of the eleventh century we enter on a new era in the history of Eucharistic adoration. Until then the real presence was taken for granted in Catholic belief and its reservation was the common practice in Catholic churches, including the chapels and oratories of religious communities.
Suddenly a revolution hit the Church when Berengarius (999-1088), archdeacon of Angers in France, publicly denied that Christ was really and physically present under the species of bread and wine. Others took up the idea and began writing about the Eucharistic Christ as not exactly the Christ of the gospels or, by implication, as not actually there.
The matter became so serious that Pope Gregory VII ordered Berengarius to sign a retraction. This credo has made theological history. It was the Church’s first definitive statement of what had always been believed and never seriously challenged. The witness came from the abbot-become-pope, whose faith in the Blessed Sacrament had been nourished for years in a Benedictine monastery.
Gregory’s teaching on the real presence was quoted verbatim in Pope Paul VI’s historic document Mysterium Fidei (1965) to meet a new challenge to the Eucharist in our day—very similar to what happened in the eleventh century.
I believe in my heart and openly profess that the bread and wine placed upon the altar are, by the mystery of the sacred prayer and the words of the redeemer, substantially changed into the true and life-giving flesh and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord, and that after the consecration, there is present the true body of Christ which was born of the Virgin and offered up for the salvation of the world, hung on the cross and now sits at the right hand of the Father, and that there is present the true blood of Christ which flowed from his side. They are present not only by means of a sign and of the efficacy of the Sacrament, but also in the very reality and truth of their nature and substance.
With this profession of faith, the churches of Europe began what can only be described as a Eucharistic Renascence. Processions of the Blessed Sacrament were instituted; prescribed acts of adoration were legislated; visits to Christ in the pyx were encouraged; the cells of anchoresses had windows made into the church to allow the religious to view and adore before the tabernacle. An early ordinal of the Carmelites included the words “for the devotion of those in the choir” when referring to the reservation of the species.
From the eleventh century on, devotion to the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle became more and more prevalent in the Catholic world. At every stage in this development, members of religious orders of men and women took the lead.
The Benedictine Lanfranc, as Archbishop of Canterbury, introduced from France into England numerous customs affecting the worship of the real presence.
Saint Francis of Assisi, who was never ordained a priest, had a great personal devotion to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. His first admonition on the Holy Eucharist could not have been more precise.
Sacred Scripture tells us that the Father dwells in “light inaccessible” (1 Timothy 6:16) and that “God is spirit” (John 4:24) and Saint John adds, “No one at any time has seen God” (John 1:18). Because God is a spirit he can be seen only in spirit; “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing” (John 6:63). But God the Son is equal to the Father and so he too can be seen only in the same way as the Father and the Holy Spirit. That is why all those were condemned who saw our Lord Jesus Christ in his humanity but did not see or believe in spirit in his divinity, that he was the true Son of God. In the same way now, all those are damned who see the Sacrament of the body of Christ which is consecrated on the altar in the form of bread and wine by the words of our Lord in the hands of the priest, and do not see or believe in spirit and in God that this is really the most holy body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It was this clear faith in Christ’s presence in the Eucharist that sustained Francis during his severest trials. It was this same faith which inspired a whole new tradition among religious communities of women. Convents had the Sacrament reserved for adoration—apart from Mass and holy communion.
Feast of Corpus Christi
There was nothing startling, therefore, when Pope Urban IV, in the thirteenth century, instituted the feast of Corpus Christi. When establishing the feast, the Pope stressed the love of Christ who wished to remain physically with us until the end of time.
In the Eucharist, said the Pope, “Christ is with us in his own substance.” For “when telling the apostles that he was ascending into heaven, he said, ‘Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world,’ thus comforting them with the gracious promise that he would remain and be with them even by his bodily presence” (August 11, 1264).
Urban IV commissioned Thomas Aquinas to compose the Liturgy of the Hours for the feast of Corpus Christi, to be celebrated annually on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday.
Three hymns which Aquinas composed for the feast are among the most beautiful in the Catholic liturgy. They express the unchangeable faith of the Church in the abiding presence of her founder on earth. They also explain why the faithful adore Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
All three hymns are part of the Divine Office. They are best known by each of their last two verses, which have become part of the treasury of Catholic hymnology.
• O Salutaris Hostia is an act of adoration of Christ the saving victim who opened wide the gate of heaven to man below.
• Tantum Ergo Sacramentum is an act of adoration of the Word-made-flesh, where faith supplies for what the senses cannot perceive.
• Panis Angelicus is an act of adoration of that sondrous thing where the lowly and poor are fed, banqueting on their incarnate Lord and king.
Aquinas, like the Church, never separated the Eucharist as sacrifice, communion, and presence. But, with the Church, he also realized that without the real presence there would be no real sacrifice nor real communion.
Aquinas assumed that God became man so he might offer himself on Calvary and continue to offer himself in the Mass. He became man that he might give himself to the disciples at the Last Supper and continue to give himself to us in holy communion.
He became man to live in flesh and blood in Palestine and continue to live now on earth as the same Jesus who died and rose from the dead and is seated at the right hand of his heavenly Father.
Middle Ages to the Council of Trent
Since Pope Urban IV instituted the feast of Corpus Christi, the bishops of Rome had been vigilant to protect the Church’s faith in her founder’s unceasing presence on earth in the Holy Eucharist. But every time a new difficulty arose, it became a stimulus to making this faith more clear and meaningful, in a word, there was increased development of Eucharist doctrine.
Before the Council of Trent
A variety of situations occasioned papal declarations of the Eucharist. In the fourteenth century, the Armenians asked Clement VI for financial assistance to pay the heavy subsidies laid on them by the reigning sultan. Correspondence with the Armenian bishops made him wonder if they professed the full Catholic faith.
Among other propositions he required them to accept was the statement that, “After the words of consecration there is present numerically the same (idem numero) body of Christ as was born of the Virgin and was immolated on the cross” (September 29, 1351).
Twenty years later, a theoretical question was raised that had serious practical implications. Some writer speculated whether Christ still remained in the Eucharist when the sacred species were desecrated. Pope Gregory XI demanded rejection of the following statements:
If a consecrated host falls or is thrown into a sewer, the mud, or some other profane place, even though the species remain, the body of Christ ceases to be present and the substance of bread returns.
If a consecrated host is eaten or consumed by a rodent or some other animal, even while the species remain, the body of Christ ceases to be present under the species and the substance of bread returns (August 8, 1371).
More serious was the problem created by the so-called Calixtines in the fifteenth century. They claimed that the whole Christ is not received unless the faithful receive holy communion under both forms, including the chalice.
This time, the General Council of Constance decided to “declare, decree, and define” as an article of faith that “the entire body and blood of Christ are truly contained both under the species of bread and under the species of wine.”
This definition was confirmed by Pope Martin V (September 1, 1425). The implications for the exposition and adoration of the Eucharist are obvious.
The Council of Trent
By the sixteenth century, the whole spectrum of Catholic belief in the Holy Eucharist was challenged by the Reformers. As a consequence, the Council of Trent treated this subject exhaustively. Every aspect of the sacrifice of the Mass, holy communion, and the real presence was clarified and defined.
For our purpose, the Council’s teaching on the real presence was historic. It was the dawn of the most significant development of Eucharistic doctrine since apostolic times. Even a few sentences from Trent are revealing.
The other Sacraments do not have the power of sanctifying until someone makes use of them, but in the Eucharist the very author of sanctity is present before the Sacrament is used. For before the apostles received the Eucharist from the hands of our Lord, he told them that it was his body that he was giving them.
The Church of God has always believed that immediately after the consecration the true body and blood of our Lord, together with his soul and divinity, exist under the species of bread and wine. His body exists under the species of bread and his blood under the species of wine according to the import of the words.
But his body exists under the species of wine, his blood under the species of bread, and his soul under both species in virtue of the natural connection and concomitance which unite the parts of Christ our Lord, who has risen from the dead and dies now no more.
Moreover, Christ’s divinity is present because of its admirable hypostatic union with his body and soul.
It is, therefore, perfectly true that just as much is present under either species as is present under both. For Christ, whole and entire, exists under the species of bread and under any part of that species, and similarly the whole Christ exists under the species of wine and under its parts.
Given this fact of faith, Trent could logically go on to declare that, “The only-begotten Son of God is to be adored in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist with the worship of latria, including external worship. The Sacrament, therefore, is to be honored with extraordinary festive celebrations (and) solemnly carried from place to place in processions according to the praiseworthy universal rite and custom of the holy Church. The Sacrament is to be publicly exposed for the people’s adoration.”
Approved by Pope Julius III (October 11, 1551), these conciliar statements became the foundation for dogmatic and devotional progress ever since.
Development of Eucharistic Adoration
As we have seen, there had been reservation and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament since the early days of the Church.
But with the Council of Trent began a new era in the devotion of the faithful to Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist.
The Forty Hours Devotion
Before the end of the sixteenth century, Pope Clement VIII in 1592 issued a historic document on what was called in Italian Quarant’ Ore (Forty Hours). The devotion consisted of forty hours of continual prayer before the Blessed Sacrament exposed.
Introduced earlier on a local scale in Milan, the Bishop of Rome not only authorized the devotion for Rome, but explained how it should be practiced.
We have determined to establish publicly in this mother city of Rome an uninterrupted course of prayer in such wise that in the different churches [he specifies them] on appointed days, there be observed the pious and salutary devotion of the Forty Hours; with such an arrangement of churches and times that, at every hour of the day and night, the incense of prayer shall ascend without intermission before the face of the Lord.
About a century later (1731) his successor, Clement XII, published a detailed set of instructions for the proper carrying out of the Forty Hours devotion, for example:
• The Blessed Sacrament is always exposed on the high altar, except in patriarchal basilicas.
• Statues, relics, and pictures around the altar of exposition are to be removed or veiled.
• Only clerics in surplices may take care of the altar of exposition.
• There must be continuous relays of worshippers before the Blessed Sacrament and should include a priest or cleric in major orders.
Gradually the Forty Hours devotion spread throughout the Catholic world. Proposed by the Code of Canon Law in 1917, the new Code states that in churches or oratories where the Eucharist is reserved, “it is recommended (commendatur) ... that there be held each year a solemn exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for an appropriate, even if not for a continuous, time so that the local community may more attentively meditate on and adore the Eucharistic mystery” (Canon 942).
The term “perpetual adoration” is broadly used to designate the practically uninterrupted adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The term may mean several things:
• The adoration is literally perpetual, so that someone is always in prayer before the Holy Eucharist.
• The adoration is morally perpetual, with only such short interruptions as imperative reasons or uncontrollable circumstances require.
• The adoration is uninterrupted for a longer or shorter period, a day or several days, as in the Forty Hours devotion.
• The adoration is uninterrupted in one special church or chapel.
• The adoration is uninterrupted in different churches or chapels in a locality like a diocese or a country, or throughout the world.
Some writers trace the first beginnings of perpetual adoration to the late fourth century, when converts to the faith in some dioceses were to adore the Blessed Sacrament exposed for eight days after their baptism. It is certain, however, that even before the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi, not only religious in convents and monasteries but the laity practiced Eucharistic adoration.
After his victory over the Albigenses, King Louis VIII of France asked the Bishop of Avignon to have the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the Chapel of the Holy Cross (September 14, 1226).
The throng of adorers was so great that the bishop decided to have the adoration continue day and night.
This was later ratified by the Holy See and continued uninterrupted until 1792 during the French Revolution. It was resumed in 1829.
It was not until after the Council of Trent, however, that perpetual adoration began to develop on a worldwide scale. We may distinguish especially the following forms.
Cloistered Religious Institutes
These were founded for the express purpose of adoring the Holy Eucharist day and night. Some, like the Benedictines of the Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in Austria (1654), took a solemn vow of perpetual adoration.
Apostolic Religious Institutes
These were started to both practice adoration themselves and promote perpetual worship of the Eucharist among the faithful. Thus began the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and of the Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. Formally approved in 1817, its aim is to honor and imitate the four states of Christ’s life to be honored and imitated by the exercise of adoration of the Eucharist.
Men’s Nocturnal Adoration
These societies began on an international scale in Rome in 1810 with the founding of the Pious Union of the Adorers of the Most Blessed Sacrament. They spread throughout Europe and into North and South America. Their focus was (and is) on perpetual adoration in the strict sense.
Perpetual Eucharistic Associations of the Faithful
These go back to the seventeenth century. One of the earliest was started by Baron de Renty in 1641 at Saint Paul’s parish in Paris. It was a perpetual adoration society for ladies. At Boulonge in France (1753), the parishes were divided into twelve groups representing the twelve months of the year. Each group contained as many parishes as there were days in the month it represented. Each church in every group was assigned one day for Eucharistic adoration.
Among the apostles of perpetual adoration for the laity, none has had a more lasting influence in the modern world than Saint Peter Julian Eymard. In 1856 he founded the Blessed Sacrament Fathers in Paris and two years later, with Marguerite Guillot, he established the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament, a cloistered contemplative congregation of women. Peter Eymard’s published conferences on the real presence have inspired numerous lay associations. They have taken his words literally when he said, “In the presence of Jesus Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament, all greatness disappears, all holiness humbles itself and comes to nothing. Jesus Christ is there!”
Visits to the Blessed Sacrament
Not unlike perpetual adoration, the history of visits to the Blessed Sacrament is best known from the monastic spirituality of the early Middle Ages. In the thirteenth century Ancren Riwle, or Rule for Anchoresses, the nuns were to begin their day by a visit to the Blessed Sacrament.
Priests, who had easy access to the reserved Holy Eucharist, would also regularly visit Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Thus the martyr, Saint Thomas à Becket (1118-1170), in one of his letters writes to a friend, “If you do not harken to me who have been wont to pray for you in an abundance of tears and with groanings not a few before the majesty of the body of Christ” (Materials, V, 276).
By the fourteenth century, we read how the English mystic, Richard Rolle, strongly exhorts Christians to visit the nearby church as often as they can. Why? Because “In the church is most devotion to pray, for there is God upon the altar to hear those who pray to him and to grant them what they ask and what is best for them” (Works, I, 145). Church historians tell us that by the end of the century, the practice of people visiting the Blessed Sacrament became fairly common.
One of the sobering facts of the Reformation is to know what happened when the English Reformers separated from Rome. At first they did not forbid the clergy to reserve some of both species after the Lord’s Supper ceremony—to be taken to the sick and the dying. But before long, reservation of the Eucharistic elements became rare. This was to be expected after the Thirty-Nine Articles (1571) declared that transubstantiation was untrue and that the Eucharist should not be worshipped or carried about in procession.
Three hundred years later, the Anglicans who started the Oxford Movement restored continuous reservation of the Eucharist and encouraged visits to the Blessed Sacrament. Credit for this return to Catholic Eucharistic piety belongs to the Anglican Sisterhood of Saint Margaret, founded in 1854. The community records show that soon after its foundation the sisters were making daily visits to the Eucharist in their oratory and, about the same time, benediction of the Blessed Sacrament was introduced.
In the Catholic Church, visits to the Blessed Sacrament have become a standard part of personal and communal prayer. The first Code of Canon Law urged the “faithful to visit the Most Blessed Sacrament as often as possible” (Canon 1273). The new Code is more specific.
Unless there is a grave reason to the contrary, a church, in which the Blessed Eucharist is reserved, is to be open to the faithful for at least some hours every day, so that they can pray before the Blessed Sacrament (Canon 937).
Members of religious institutes are simply told that each day they are to “adore the Lord himself present in the Sacrament” (Canon 663, #2).
Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament
As with other Eucharistic devotions, benediction, as it is commonly called, began in the thirteenth century. It was strongly influenced by the establishment of the feast of Corpus Christi. Two hymns, especially O Salutaris Hostia and Tantum Ergo, composed by Saint Thomas Aquinas, became part of the benediction service.
One aspect of the history of benediction that is not commonly known is its early association with devotion to the Blessed Virgin. This was already expressed in the Pange Lingua for the first vespers of the Corpus Christi liturgy, saying, “To us he was given, to us he was born of a pure Virgin.” Except for Mary, there would have been no Incarnation, and except for the Incarnation there would be no Eucharist.
As related by historians, by the early thirteenth century there were organized confraternities and guilds in great numbers whose custom was to sing canticles in the evening of the day before a statue of Our Lady. The canticles were called Laude (praises) and were often composed in the vernacular or even the local dialect of the people. In the hands of such people as the Franciscan Giacopone da Todi (1230-1306), these hymns helped to develop a native Italian literature. The confraternities were called Laudesi.
With the stimulus given by the Feast of Corpus Christi, these Marian canticle meetings were often accompanied by exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. What began as a practice to add solemnity to the Marian devotions became, in time, a distinctive form of Eucharistic piety.
In France these Marian canticle sessions were called Salut, in the Low Countries Lof, in Germany and England simply Salve. They were gradually combined with exposition of the Eucharist, especially when the Blessed Sacrament was carried in procession or the sick were blessed with the Holy Eucharist. When people made out their wills, many included bequests for the continued support of these evening song-fests honoring Our Lady and would specify that the Blessed Sacrament should be exposed during the whole time of the Salut. The generations-old practice of blessing the sick with the Holy Eucharist at Lourdes is merely an extension of this combining of benediction with devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
As public demonstrations of faith in the real presence, local Eucharistic congresses go back to the Middle Ages. But the first international congress grew out of the zeal of Marie-Marthe Tamisier (1834-1910) a French laywoman who from childhood had an extraordinary devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. She called a day without holy communion her Good Friday. Having several times tried unsuccessfully to enter a religious community, she spent much of her life spreading devotion to the real presence. Inspired by the conferences of Peter Julian Eymard and directed by Abbé Chevier of Lyons, she first promoted pilgrimages to shrines where Eucharistic miracles were reported to have taken place. Finally the first international Eucharistic congress was held at Lille in 1881. At the fifth congress at Toulouse in 1886, over 1,500 bishops and priests, and 30,000 of the laity participated.
By now international congresses have been held on all the continents, including Africa, Asia, and Australia. Pope Paul VI attended the thirty-eighth and thirty-ninth Eucharistic congresses at Bombay in 1964 and Bogotá in 1968. Pope John Paul II was to have attended the centenary congress at Lourdes in 1981, but was prevented because of the assassination attempt on his life on May 13th of that year.
National congresses have become widespread. During one of these in Brazil in 1980, Pope John Paul II synthesized the role which, in God’s providence, a Eucharistic congress is meant to serve.
The Eucharistic congress is first and foremost a great community act of faith in the presence and in the action of Jesus in the Eucharist, who remains with us sacramentally to travel with us along our ways, so that with his power, we can cope with our problems, our toil, our suffering.
From this moment let us unite round the consecrated host, the divine pilgrim among pilgrims, eager to draw from him the inspiration and strength to make ours the needs and aspirations of our emigrant brothers.
The Eucharistic congress should demonstrate particularly and highlight the fact that the people of God here on earth lives by the Eucharist, that it draws from it its strength for everyday toils and for the struggles in all spheres of its existence (July 9, 1980).
More than a century of experience has verified this judgment of the Pope.