Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament
Description of the basics of this popular devotion
Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.—One of the most generally popular of Catholic services is Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, known in France as Salut and in Germany as Segen. It is ordinarily an afternoon or evening devotion and consists in the singing of certain hymns, or litanies, or canticles, before the Blessed Sacrament, which is exposed upon the altar in a monstrance and is surrounded with lights. At the end, the priest, his shoulders enveloped in a humeral veil, takes the monstrance into his hands and with it makes the sign of the cross (hence the name Benediction) in silence over the kneeling congregation. Benediction is often employed as a conclusion to other services, e.g. Vespers, Compline, the Stations of the Cross, etc., but it is also still more generally treated as a rite complete in itself. There is a good deal of diversity of usage in different countries with regard to details, but some of the elements are constant. The use of incense and wax candles, which even in the poorest churches must not be less than ten in number, the singing of the “Tantum ergo” with its versicle and prayer, and the blessing given with the Blessed Sacrament are obligatory everywhere.
In Rome the principle obtains that the only portion of the service which is to be regarded as strictly liturgical is the singing of the “Tantum ergo” and the giving of the Benediction which immediately follows. This idea is emphasized by the fact that in many Roman churches the celebrant, vested in cope and preceded by thurifier, acolytes, etc., only makes his entry into the sanctuary just before the “Tantum ergo” is begun. Previously to this the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, informally so to speak, by a priest in cotta and stole; and then choir and congregation are left to sing litanies and canticles, or to say prayers and devotions as the occasion may demand, the whole service being of a very popular character.
In English-speaking countries the service generally begins with the entry of the priest and his assistants in procession and with the singing of the “O Salutaris Hostia” as soon as the Blessed Sacrament is taken out of the tabernacle. Indeed in England the singing of the “O Salutaris” is enjoined in the “Ritus servandus”, the code of procedure approved by a former synod of the Province of Westminster. On the other hand, the Litany of Our Lady, though usually printed after the “O Salutaris” and very generally sung at Benediction, is nowhere of obligation. It may be added that further solemnity is often given to the service by the presence of deacon and subdeacon in dallnatics. When the bishop of the diocese officiates he uses mitre and crosier in the procession to the altar, and makes the sign of the cross over the people three times in giving the benediction. On the other hand, a very informal sort of service is permitted, where the means for carrying out a more elaborate rite are not available. The priest, wearing cotta and stole, simply opens the tabernacle door. Prayers arid devotions are said or sung, and then the priest blesses those present with the veiled ciborium before the tabernacle door is again closed. The permission, general or special, of the bishop of the diocese is necessary for services where Benediction is given with the monstrance.
HISTORY OF THE DEVOTION. It is easy to recognize in our ordinary Benediction service, the traces of two distinct elements. There is of course in the first place the direct veneration of the Blessed Sacrament, which appears in the exposition, blessing, “Tantum ergo’, etc. But besides this we note the almost invariable presence of what at first sight seems an incongruous element, that of the litany of Loreto, or of popular hymns in honor of Our Lady. Tracing our present service back to its origin we find that these two features are derived from different sources. The idea of exposing the Blessed Sacrament for veneration in a monstrance appears to have been first evolved at the end of the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century. When the elevation of the Host at Mass was introduced in the early years of the thirteenth century, probably as a form of protest against the theological views of Peter the Chanter, the idea by degrees took firm hold of the popular mind that special virtue and merit were attached to the act of looking at the Blessed Sacrament. To such extremes did this prepossession go, that the seeing of the Host at the moment of the elevation was judged to be the most vital part of attendance at Mass. In certain churches in Spain a screen of black velvet was held up behind the altar in order that the priest’s hands and the Host might be more easily seen from afar; in others strict injunctions were given to the thurifer that he should on no account allow the smoke of the thurible to obstruct the view of the Host. Futhermore, we read that when men were dying and were unable on account of vomiting or any other cause to receive Holy Viaticum, the Blessed Sacrament was brought to them and held up before them to look at. Indeed, a virtual prohibition of this practice stands to this day amongst the rubrics of the “Rituale Romanum”.
Under the influence of this idea, the Blessed Sacrament in the processions which became common after the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi in 1246, came by degrees to be carried in transparent vessels, resembling our present monstrances. Moreover, a custom grew up, especially in Germany, of keeping the Blessed Sacrament continually exposed to view in churches. It was forbidden by many synods, but a sort of compromise was arrived at through the construction of the Sakramentshauschen of which so many examples still exist in central Europe. These tabernacles, of great height and imposing appearance, were erected in the most conspicuous part of the church, and there the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in a monstrance behind a metal door of lattice-work which allowed a more or less free view of the interior. It was thus that the practice developed, though partly kept in check by synodal decrees, of adding solemnity to any function, even the Mass itself, by exposing the Blessed Sacrament during its continuance.
Turning now to our second element, we find that from the beginning of the thirteenth century, a custom prevailed among the confraternities and guilds which were established at that period in great numbers, of singing canticles in the evening of the day before a statue of Our Lady. These canticles were called Laude and were often composed in the vulgar tongue, becoming in the hands of such poets as the Franciscan Giacopone da Todi, one of the great popular influences which helped to develop a native Italian literature. Confraternities were formed for the express purpose of singing these canticles and their members were called Laudesi. It was such a company of Laudesi that brought together the seven holy founders who, in the first half of the thirteenth century, established the Order of Servites, or Servants of Mary. Although the laude hardly flourished outside Italy, where both the language and the character of the people lent themselves readily to the composition of innumerable canticles, the idea of an evening service of a popular character sung before the statue of Our Lady, spread through-out Europe. In particular, the “Salve Regina“, a special devotion of the Servites, Dominicans, Carmelites, and other orders, was consecrated by usage to this rite, and we find traces everywhere of its being sung, often by choirs of boys, for whom a special endowment was provided, as a separate evening service. In France, this service was commonly known as a Salut, in the Low Countries as the Lo f, in England and Germany, simply as the Salve.
Now it seems certain that our present Benediction service has resulted from the general adoption of this evening singing of canticles before the statue of Our Lady, enhanced as it often came to be in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, which was employed at first only as an adjunct to lend it additional solemnity. The blessing at the close seems to have been added simply because the custom gained ground of making the sign of the cross over the people whenever the Blessed Sacrament was replaced in the tabernacle after a procession or after being carried to the sick or any kind of an exposition. But in the course of the seventeenth century, we find numberless bequests for Saluts in French wills, the items to be sung, often of a most miscellaneous character, being minutely specified, and among these the condition is frequently appended that the Blessed Sacrament should be exposed during the whole time of the Salut.