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Eat, drink, and be blessed.

LITERALLY, THE WORD BENEDICTION MEANS "to speak well." Liturgically, it names a Roman Catholic sacramental centered on the worship of Christ present under the form of eucharistic bread. Catholics born before the Second Vatican Council will remember that Benediction was added to almost any devotion, such as a May crowning, graduation, or parish mission. Catholics born after Vatican II will most likely not ever have participated in it.

Being one of those Catholics with one foot before and the other after Vatican II, I remember Benediction being added to Tuesday-evening Mother of Perpetual Help Devotions in my parish. Once the priest finished leading the congregation in the prayers, he returned to the sacristy to don a white cope over his cassock, surplice, and stole, while one altar boy lit 12 candles, six on each side of the tabernacle, for Benediction. Another server struck wooden matches against the side of the Red Diamond box and with the spark set pieces of charcoal ablaze.

The procession of thurifer and "master"--the server who supposedly knew what he was doing--came to the center of the sanctuary. After all genuflected together, the servers knelt while the priest opened the tabernacle and removed the pyx containing the luna into which was mounted a large host. He took it and placed it into the center of the monstrance, closed the tabernacle, and arranged the monstrance in front of it. After returning to his place and kneeling on the step in front of the altar, the priest and the servers would bow together, stand up, and then proceed to place incense on the charcoal.

At first a small streak of smoke would appear rising up between the trio, then a huge cloud as all knelt and the priest incensed the Blessed Sacrament while the congregation sang O Salutaris Hostia. After the first verse of Tantum Ergo, another hymn, the same sweet-smelling smoke ritual occurred again. Then, after a prayer, the master got the humeral veil, placed it on the priest's shoulders, and prepared to ring a bell three times as the priest took the monstrance in his hands, turned to face the people, elevated it, and traced it in the sign of the cross over the assembly. Another prayer and song later, and the service was complete.

I can still remember the sounds of the words I repeated every Tuesday evening. I can still see the fire consuming the ranks of candles behind the altar. My nose still twitches at the smell of the incense as it hit the glowing charcoal and made my eyes tear as the smoke rose up from the censor. The sound of the silk vestments swooshing as the priest wearing them ascended and descended the steps to the altar helps me recall a prayerful past.

However, I have to admit that when I was an altar boy, I didn't understand Benediction, I just accepted it as part of my Catholic life as my ancestors had done for years before me.

Ours, you see, was a linear view of eucharistic presence. We didn't connect it to Mass, other than during Forty Hours devotion when the priest said Mass in front of the monstrance sitting on top of the tabernacle. Benediction just took place.

As modern directives make clear, the host used for Benediction should be consecrated during a Mass earlier the same day to better show the connection between the activity of celebrating Eucharist and the passivity of adoring the Lord under the form of bread.

More so, Benediction is not a service complete in itself, but one that is meant to awaken in the worshiper a hunger to celebrate the Eucharist, to eat and drink at the Lord's table. Benediction leads to celebration, which can lead to Benediction, which leads to celebration--a circular movement.

So important is this theology of the Eucharist that modern directives recommend that Benediction not be added to devotions, such as Mother of Perpetual Help or Stations of the Cross. It is not meant to be a service that is tagged onto anything else. It is designed to be celebrated with a Liturgy of the Word--two or three passages of scripture with a sung response after the first reading, a homily, and general intercessions. Then, after some time for private reflection, Benediction concludes the service. To stress the circular connection between active celebration and passive adoration, the same number of candles used for Mass are used for Benediction and the same altar used for Mass is used for Benediction.

By Father Mark G. Boyer, editor of The Mirror, the newspaper of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Missouri and author of books on biblical and liturgical spirituality.
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Title Annotation:Benediction
Author:Boyer, Mark G.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Mar 1, 1999
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