Revised “norms”, or regulations, governing exposition of the blessed sacrament and benediction were first published in the 1967 Instruction on the Eucharist and appeared again along with new prayers and rubrics in the 1973 Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass (HCWEOM). Although it is more than a quarter of a century since the latter was promulgated, there appears to be a lack of awareness of the changes.
The word “benediction” comes from the Latin benedicto meaning “blessing”. In the Catholic Church it has come to mean the rite in which the people are blessed with a consecrated host after a period of “exposition”, the exhibiting of the host for public veneration.
The rite appeared first in Belgium in the 13th century where, along with the feast of Corpus Christi, it arose in response to controveries regarding Christs’ presence in the consecrated bread and wine. Devotion to the reserved sacrament grew in the Roman church as a result of Reformation questioning of certain eucharistic practices. Its popularity was a response to the distancing of people from the action of the Mass because of language and other barriers.
Current norms concerning the reserved sacrament emphasise that devotions must be related to the celebration of the Mass. Practices during benediction have been harmonised with practices during Mass. Reverence is shown by genuflecting on one knee; the former “double” genuflection is abolished (HCWEOM #84). The number of candles used at benediction should be the same as at a festive Mass, that is, four or six; the continued use of the seven-branch benediction candelabra is against the spirit of the norms (#85).
Exposition does not replace or compete with Mass, so Mass cannot be celebrated in the same area of the church where the eucharist is exposed (# 82) and a brief exposition solely for benediction is forbidden (# 89). If a lengthy exposition begins after Mass, the host should be consecrated at that Mass (# 94).
What happens at Benediction?
The priest approaches the sanctuary (while the assembly sings an appropriate song) and makes a sign of reverence. He then removes the sacrament from the tabernacle, puts it in a monstrance (decorated receptacle with a glass window) or leaves it in a covered ciborium, and places it on the altar. The blessed sacrament is then incensed.
The current rubrics prescribe that there are then “prayers, songs and readings to direct the attention of the faithful to the worship of Christ the Lord”, as well as a homily or brief exhortations and time spent in silence (#95). The order in which these occur is left up to local determination.
In 1998 the Congregation for Divine Worship issued a statement saying that, while the Eucharist is not to be exposed only to recite the rosary, the recitation of the rosary may be included among the many prayers that are used during adoration.
After this, the priest returns to the altar and incenses the sacrament while a eucharistic hymn is sung. Then, standing and facing the people, he says a prayer from the seven options offered.
The priest then makes a sign of the cross with the sacrament over those assembled in silence, replaces the eucharist in the tabernacle, makes an appropriate reverence and returns to the sacristy while the people sing an acclamation or hymn.
The documents make it clear that benediction is an optional and secondary devotion. Since it is unknown among the Eastern Churches (both Catholic and Orthodox), its absence in parish life cannot be taken to indicate any lack of reverence toward the reserved sacrament. After all, the circumstances which led to its origin and growth have changed. Our challenge is to find forms of worship that respond to contemporary spirituality, piety and needs and are in the best liturgical traditions of our church.