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Forty Hours’ Devotion

A devotion in which continuous prayer is made for forty hours before the Blessed Sacrament exposed

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Forty Hours’ Devotion, also called Quarant’ Ore or written in one word Quarantore, is a devotion in which continuous prayer is made for forty hours before the Blessed Sacrament exposed. It is commonly regarded as of the essence of the devotion that it should be kept up in a succession of churches, terminating in one at about the same hour at which it commences in the next, but this question will be discussed in the historical summary. A solemn high Mass, “Mass of Exposition”, is sung at the beginning, and another, the “Mass of Deposition“, at the end of the period of forty hours; and both these Masses are accompanied by a procession of the Blessed Sacrament and by the chanting of the litanies of the saints. The exact period of forty hours’ exposition is not in practice very strictly adhered to; for the Mass of Deposition is generally sung, at about the same hour of the morning, two days after the Mass of Exposition. On the intervening day a solemn Mass pro pace is offered—if possible, at a different altar from the high altar upon which the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. It is assumed that the exposition and prayer should be kept up by night as well as by day, but permission is given to dispense with this requirement when an adequate number of watchers cannot be obtained. In such a case the interruption of the devotion by night does not forfeit the indulgences conceded by the Holy See to those who take part in it.

HISTORY OF THE DEVOTION.—Although the precise origin of the Forty Hours’ Devotion is wrapped in a good deal of obscurity, there are certain facts which must be accepted without dispute. The Milanese chronicler Burigozzo (see “Archie. Stor. Ital.”, III, 537), who was a contemporary, clearly describes the custom of exposing the Blessed Sacrament in one church after another as a novelty which began at Milan, in May, 1537. He does not ascribe the introduction of this practice to any one person; but he gives details as to the church with which it started etc., and his notice seems to have been actually written in that year. Less than two years afterwards, we have the reply of Pope Paul III to a petition soliciting indulgences for the practice. This is so important, as embodying an official statement of the original purpose of the devotion, that we copy it here: “Since [says the pontiff] . Our beloved son the Vicar General of the Archbishop of Milan at the prayer of the inhabitants of the said city, in order to appease the anger of God provoked by the offenses of Christians, and in order to bring to nought the efforts and machinations of the Turks who are pressing forward to the destruction of Christendom, amongst other pious practices, has established a round of prayers and supplications to be offered both by day and night by all the faithful of Christ, beforetittr Lord’s-Most Sacred Body, in all the churches of the said city, in such a manner that these prayers and supplications are made by the faithful themselves relieving each other in relays for forty hours continuously in each church in succession, according to the order determined by the Vicar.:. We, approving in our Lord so pious an institution, and confirming the same by Our authority, grant and remit”, etc. (Sala, “Documenti”, IV, 9; cf. Ratti in “La Scuola Cattolica” [1895], 204).

The parchment is endorsed on the back in a contemporary hand, “The first concession of Indulgence” etc., and we may feel sure that this is the earliest pronouncement of the Holy See upon the subject. But the practice without doubt spread rapidly, though the details cannot be traced exactly. Already before the year 1550 this, or some analogous exposition, had been extablished by St. Philip Neri for the Confraternity of the Trinita dei Pellegrini in Romel while St. Ignatious Loyola, at about the same period, seens to have lent much encouragement to the practice of exposing the Blessed Sacrament during the carnival, as an act of expiation for the sins committed at that season. As this devotion also commonly lasted for a period of about two days or forty hours, it seems likewise to have shared the name “Quarant’ Ore”; and under this name it is still maintained in many places abroad, more especially in France and Italy. This form of the practice was especially promoted by the Oratorian Father, Blessed Juvenal Ancina, Bishop of Saluzzo, who has left elaborate instructions for the carrying out of the devotion with greater solemnity and decorum. It seems that it is especially in connection with these exercises, as they flourished under the direction of the Oratorian Fathers, that we trace the beginning of those sacred concerts of which the memory is perpetuated in the musical “Oratorios” of our greatest composers. Elaborate instructions for the regulation of the Quarant’ Ore and for an analogous devotion called “Oratio sine intermissione” (uninterrupted prayer) were also issued by St. Charles Borromeo and will be found among the “Acta Mediolanensis Ecclesiae”. However, the most important document belonging to this matter is the Constitution “Graves et diuturnie” of Pope Clement VIII, November 25, 1592. In the presence of numberless dangers threatening the peace of Christendom and especially of the distracted state of France, the pontiff strongly commends the practice of unwearied prayer. “We have determined”, he says, “to establish publicly in this Mother City of Rome (in hac alma Urbe) an uninterrupted course of prayer in such wise that in the different churches (he specifies the various categories), 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 whole year round, the incense of prayer shall ascend without intermission before the face of the Lord”. It will be noticed that, as in the case of the previously cited Brief of Paul III, the keynote of this document is anxiety for the peace of Christendom. “Pray,” he says, “for the concord of Christian princes, pray for France, pray that the enemies of our faith the dreaded Turks, who in the heat of their presumptuous fury threaten slavery and devastation to all Christendom, may be overthrown by the right hand of the Almighty God“. Curiously enough the document contains no explicit mention of the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, but inasmuch as this feature had been familiar on such occasions of public prayer both in Milan and at Rome itself for more than half a century, we may infer that when the pope speaks of “the pious and salutary devotion of the Forty Hours” he assumes that the prayer is made before the Blessed Sacrament exposed. More than a century later Pope Clement XII, in 1731, issued a very minute code of istructions for the proper carrying out of the Quarant’ Ore devotion. Upon this, which is known as the “Instructio Clementina”, a word must be said later.

With regard to the actual originator of the Forty Hours’ Devotion there has been much difference of opinion. The dispute is too intricate to be discussed here in detail. On the whole the evidence seems to favor the conclusion that a Capuchin Father, Joseph Piantanida da Fermo, was the first to organize the arrangement by which the Forty Hours’ Exposition was transferred from church to church in Milan and was there kept up without interruption throughout all the year (see Norbert in the “Katholik”, August, 1898). On the other hand, the practice of exposing the Blessed Sacrament with solemnity for forty hours was certainly older; and in Milan itself there is good evidence that one Antonio Bellotto organized this in connection with a certain confraternity at the church of the Holy Sepulchre as early as 1527. Moreover, a Dominican, Father Thomas Nieto, the Barnabite, St. Antonio Maria Zaccharia, and his friend, Brother Buono of Cremona, known as the Hermit, have all been suggested as the founders of the Forty Hours’ Devotion. The claims of the last named, Brother Buono, have recently been urged by Bergamaschi (“La Scuola Cattolica”, Milan, September, 1908, 327-333), who contends that the Quarant’ Ore had been started by Brother Buono at Cremona in 1529. But the evidence in all these cases only goes to show that the practice was then being introduced of exposing the Blessed Sacrament with solemnity on occasions of great public calamity or peril, and that for such expositions the period of forty hours was generally selected. That this period of forty hours was so selected seems in all probability due to the fact that this was about the length of time that the Body of Christ remained in the tomb, and that the Blessed Sacrament in the Middle Ages was left in the Easter Sepulchre. St. Charles Borromeo speaks as if this practice of praying for forty hours was of very ancient date; and he distinctly refers it to the forty hours our Lord’s Body remained in the tomb, seeing that this was a period of watching, suspense, and ardent prayer on the part of all His disciples. In all probability this was the exact truth. The practice of reserving the Blessed Sacrament with some solemnity in the Easter Sepulchre began in the thirteenth or fourteenth century; and seems in some places, e.g. at Zara in Dalmatia, to have been popularly known as the “Prayer [or Supplication] of the Forty Hours”. From this the idea grew up of transferring this figurative vigil of forty hours to other days and other seasons. The transference to the carnival tide was very obvious, and is likely enough to have occurred independently to many different people. This seems to have been the case with Father Manare, S.J., at Macerata, c. 1548, but probably the idea suggested itself to others earlier than this.

RUBRICAL REQUIREMENTS.—The “Instructio Clementina” for the Quarant’ Ore which has been already mentioned stands almost alone among rubrical documents in the minuteness of detail into which it enters. It has also been made the subject of an elaborate commentary by Gardellini. Only a few details can be given here. The Blessed Sacrament is always, except in the patriarchal basilicas, to be exposed upon the high altar. Statues, pictures, and relics in the immediate neighborhood are to be removed or covered. At least twenty candles are to be kept burning day and night. The altar of exposition is only to be tended by clerics wearing surplices. Everything is to be done, e.g. by hanging curtains at the doorways, by prohibiting the solicitation of alms, etc., to promote recollection and silence. There must be continuous relays of watchers before the Blessed Sacrament; and these, if possible, should include a priest or cleric in higher orders who alone is permitted to kneel within the carrying out sanctuary. At night the great doors of the church must ‘be closed and women excluded. No Masses must be said at the altar at which the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. Precise regulations are made as to the Masses to be said at the time of Exposition and Deposition. Except on greater feasts, this Mass must be a solemn votive Mass de Sanctissimo Sacramento. No bells are to be rung in the church at any private Masses which may be said there while the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. When a votive Mass de Sanctissimo Sacramento cannot be said, according to the rubrics, the collect of the Blessed Sacrament is at least to be added to the collects of the Mass. No Requiem Masses are permitted. As already intimated, the Mass pro pace is to be sung on the second day of the Exposition; and the litanies of the saints are to be chanted, under conditions minutely specified, at the conclusion of the procession both at the opening and at the close of the Quarant’ Ore. Finally it may be said that this “Instructio Clementina” is the foundation upon which is based the ritual for all ordinary Benedictions and Expositions. For example, the incensing of the Blessed Sacrament at the words “Genitori Genitoque” of the “Tantum Ergo“, the use of the humeral veil, and the giving of the Blessing with the monstrance, etc., are all exactly prescribed in section thirty-one of the same document.


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