Adoration Angst: Christ Before My Eyes, Fr. McBrien in My Head

Once, when I was a teenager (right after the Visigoths swept through Rome on spring break), a friend yelled at me for drinking Coca-Cola. It seems Coca-Cola held investments in South Africa, which was still a few years away from ditching Apartheid. At least I think that’s what the problem was. Anyway, loath to be morally bullied, I went right on drinking Coke. The idea that I was contributing somehow to a gross injustice continued to gurgle in my stomach, like extra carbonation. I paid for my intransigence by belching a lot.

Anyway, that’s when I learned that an effective culture war deals in covert operations. Some message — carping, unreasonable, easy to reject consciously — embeds itself in your conscience like a splinter. It doesn’t take over completely, but neither can it be dug out. The result? You’re not converted, just doomed to constant moral fidgeting.

I revistited the whole Coke-in-JoBurg cycle about two years ago, when I first took to Eucharistic adoration. My first experience of the practice came during a “morning of discernment” — a mini-retreat at the diocesan pastoral center for people who were thinking about clerical or religious life. The gathering lasted about three hours; about halfway through, we marched into the chapel. There, after mumbling our way through Tantum Ergo, we directed our attention toward the Blessed Sacrament, set in a monstrance on the altar, perfectly aligned with the alabaster corpus on the wall.

What wasn’t to like? We were in a cool and quiet room, tastefully garnished — not stuffed, you understand — with pretty tchotchkes, and faintly smelling of incense. There was the Body of Christ, reality and representation, both in white. Best of all, the onus to adore diverted us from the distressing fact that almost nobody had showed up to the meeting. The next generation of priests was still in Lagos or Manila, futzing with mosquito netting.

From that day, I made a habit of popping into the Valley’s various adoration chapels at odd times, and spending a few minutes with the Blessed Sacrament. Nobody got hurt, I swear. But then, just as I was getting to the point where I could adore for half an hour without taking a cigarette break, Fr. Richard McBrien published this article:

Another excess that unfortunately perdured into the mid-20th century in some parishes was the practice of putting the consecrated host “to bed” following Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and accompanied by the singing of “Good Night Sweet Jesus,” as the church lights were turned off, one by one from the back of the church to the front.

The practice of eucharistic adoration began in the 12th century, when the Real Presence of Christ was widely rejected by heretics or misunderstood by poorly educated Catholics. The church saw eucharistic adoration as a way of reaffirming its faith in the Real Presence and of promoting renewed devotion to it.

However, as time went on, eucharistic devotions, including adoration, drifted further and further away from their liturgical grounding in the Mass itself.

Notwithstanding Pope Benedict XVI’s personal endorsement of eucharistic adoration and the sporadic restoration of the practice in the archdiocese of Boston and elsewhere, it is difficult to speak favorably about the devotion today.

Now that most Catholics are literate and even well-educated, the Mass is in the language of the people (i.e, the vernacular), and its rituals are relatively easy to understand and follow, there is little or no need for extraneous eucharistic devotions. The Mass itself provides all that a Catholic needs sacramentally and spiritually.

Eucharistic adoration, perpetual or not, is a doctrinal, theological, and spiritual step backward, not forward.

Well, thanks, pal. Way to make a guy feel like a superstitious dingleberry. I wrote a rebuttal, which NCR was game enough to publish, and for a week felt the thrill of having walked up to the biggest guy in the bar, sucker-punched him, and run like mad. But the milk, as Spanky once warned, was spoiled. Part of me simply couldn’t shake the fear that I’d been duped by some hopelessly retrograde faction. Any minute now, I’d start a relic collection. Where on earth would I put it?

It’s not that McBrien’s history of adoration is wrong, or even that it requires refutation. Things that outlive their original purposes often find new ones. Consider bells — no one really needs the things anymore, now that everyone has a wristwatch or a cell phone to tell him exactly how much time is left until Mass. But they sound pretty, so many churches have been good enough to keep them around, even with no hunchback to ring them.

No, what bothered me was seeing the point behind McBrien’s point. Eucharistic adoration is passive — at least in the conventional sense — and requires (at some point) the service of a priest. Anyone fearing a Church where laypeople are sitting down and shutting up can be excused for seeing adoration as a backdoor to that effect. And young people, when they get involved, bring to the enterprise all the intensity of youth. When Boomers adore, they sit quietly. Millennials bow their heads, clamp their eyelids shut, and hold their breath. For anyone with a more laid-back approach, it can seem a little eerie.

Once, I had the pleasure of meeting one of the leaders of our local chapter of Adore Ministries. She was a slender, pretty woman of about my own age, but she wore a constant, high-beam smile that seemed as out of place in a Catholic chapel as the Budweiser eagle. With al the grace of your average J-school dropout, I tried to quiz her on the points McBrien had raised — was her group aware that it was reviving a practice that some found contrary to the post-Conciiar spirit? She sidestepped the question, said something about being guided by the Holy Spirit, and offered — unbidden – to pray for me.

Dear God, I remember thinking. We’ve brought the Wasilla Bible Church into communion.

Long story short, adoration has proved just as hard to give up as Coca-Cola. To salve my conscience, I do it in the spirit of the brown paper bag. I show up only at times and places where I will be the only person present under the age of 60. For protective coloring, I bring a book. I’ve put out the word that I’m working undercover, collecting data for Georgetown’s CARA, and no one’s called me on it yet.

Adoration attracts simple folk, after all.

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  • Jennifer

    Our parish has restored perpetual adoration (Cape Cod). Folks are outraged and leaving.

    I just don’t get that. I honestly don’t get that.

    Even Fr. McBrien’s statement seems like a reach–like he had to come up with some explanation for why—IT BURNS! IT BURNS!

    I’m just kidding. For people who would like to get rid of superstition they sure act superstitiously around the practice of Adoration.

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  • Elizabeth Scalia

    I don’t understand why anyone who believes that Christ is present in the Holy Eucharist would actively work to keep us “little ones” away from Him. It’s really pretty simple: in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ asks this friends to wait with him. I’m His friend — a poor one, it’s true; he’s had bett…er friends, but it is my privilege to wait with him an hour (and sometimes, I fall asleep, too, but not usually. It’s okay — holy rest!) I look at Him; He looks at me. We talk or we don’t. It’s comfortable and consoling, and amazingly, quietly, INSTRUCTIVE. A Buddhist friend told me he went once, just to observe, and likened it to a student sitting before his master. I like the way I heard a nun describe it best, though: Adoration is like sitting in the sun. While you’re there, you don’t feel any effect; later you realize you were singed! If you really believe it is Christ, truly present, why would anyone be a cranky Martha, discourage people from spending time with him, like Mary?

  • DWiss

    Max, the Budweiser eagle? You’re lucky I wasn’t drinking Diet Coke when I read that or I’d be sending you a bill for a new monitor.

    Honestly, why get upset about an opportunity to sit quietly before our Savior? I’m finally at the point in my spiritual evolution where I want more of everything Catholic, so I’m really stunned to think that people would be offended by Adoration. I mean, no one is calling it an obligation.

    The older I get the more I think I’ve seen it all. But I haven’t.

  • lethargic

    The excerpt you quoted makes me wonder whether McBrien really believes in the Real Presence he cites. I don’t see how anyone who believes in the Real Presence could diss any amount of time spent in prayer in the presence of or adoration of the Blessed Sacrament … AKA Jesus Christ. Exactly who or what is he worshipping during the Mass, then? It don’t compute in this peasant’s brain. I wouldn’t give any credence to that man’s notions.

    As for the woman with the creepy fixed smile … she is not alone. A lot of good-hearted people mistakenly believe that there is a “Christian” personality and try to ape it. These are usually people who do the mule’s job of lifting and hauling in the parish, so bless them for that rather than for their scholarship.

    And your comment, Max, about adoration being a passive activity … ummmmm … my experience is very different from that. Prayer in the silence of the adoration chapel is anything but passive.

  • Bill

    Eucharistic Adoration was a linchpin in my transition from Buddhism to Catholicism. If Buddhism helped me to calm down, the exposed Eucharist gave me the best reason to.

    Fr McBrien is a poopyhead.

  • Martha

    The trouble with Fr. O’Brien’s critique is that it does come across as being in the spirit of “Dear Lord, it’s so peasant. Is there to be no progress?”

    Hey, if we had good taste, we’d be Episcopalians.

    Bog-Irish and proud of it :-)

  • Max Lindenman

    That’s jsut it, Martha — it pricks at your vanity. I imagined Gene Wilder telling Cleavon Little: “Come on, these are the simple faithful, the common clay of the new evangelization. You know…morons.”

  • jan

    Max – not many people take McBrien seriously. One of the only books I’ve ever thrown away in my whole life is one he wrote on Church history.

    Adoration is a wonderful thing. So is Coke.

  • TimD

    Let’s see: BXVI (as did JPII and Mother Teresa) thinks Eucharistic adoration is a valuable spiritual exercise; Fr. McB thinks it’s a “spiritual step backward.” How to choose? How to choose?

    Has anyone asked the “eminent” theologian if he believes the BBS&D of our Savior is substantially present in the adored Host?

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  • Daniel Muller

    I used to go around singing:

    I drink Coca-Cola and I’m proud
    to be a part of the apartheid crowd.

    It got just about the reaction you would expect, no matter how quietly and to how few people I sang it.

    Of course, the only reason that I knew the jingle “Be a Pepper” so well was that I drank Dr. Pepper.

    On the topic of McBrien: no further comment.

  • PNP, OP

    McBrien belongs to that all-too-common variety of Baby Boomer Catholic theologians, the “Embarrassed by My Grandma’s Peasant Catholicism.” What will my better credentialed colleagues at Yale and Harvard Divinity think if they knew I hadn’t publicly repudiated all that superstitious Dark Age mumbo-jumbo? It all comes down at an inferiority complex brought on by the thwarted desire of Boomer theologians to join the LibProt theologians at the Big Kids’s Table. When they ridicule their own tradition, they are saying to their Betters, “See, you can trust me to be as modernist, as tolerant, and as liberal as you. . .I really hate all that Catholic stuff. It’s embarrassing!”

  • Anushree Shirali

    From a letter from St. Damien Molokai (The “Leper Priest”)

    “The Blessed Sacrament is indeed the stimulus for us all, for me as it should be for you, to forsake all worldly ambitions. Without the constant presence of our Divine Master upon the altar in my poor chapels, I never could have persevered casting my lot with the lepers of Molokai; the foreseen consequence of which begins now to appear on my skin, and is felt throughout the body. Holy Communion being the daily bread of a priest, I feel myself happy, well pleased, and resigned in the rather exceptional circumstances in which it has pleased Divine Providence to put me.”

    If only St. Damien had the wisdom of Fr. McBrien, he wouldn’t have been such a spiritually and theologically backward Saint.

  • Jonathan


    As a former seminarian I think I have some solid background to bring to the discussion. And so:

    I find Richard McBrien to be of no relevance or interest whatsoever. I would set him aside, whole cloth, and continue to worship our Blessed Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. McBrien’s view of Eucharistic Adoration is biased, tendentious, unfair, inaccurate, and again—irrelevant! Forget all about him.

    Theologians and religious thinkers of McBrien’s ilk have done a great deal of damage to the authentic Catholic faith.

    I’m grateful I was able to enjoy a Tridentine Mass this morning, on the beautiful Ember Day of Whit-Friday.

    If these be backward steps, then I will glue my gearshift into reverse!

    Pray for me, a sinner.

  • Melody

    Good for you, Max. I’ve been a member of Perpetual Adoration for the last 12 years, wouldn’t trade it for anything. I get the idea that some people can’t hold more than one idea in their head at the same time; they think if they adore Christ in the Blessed Sacrament they can’t see Him in other people, or find Him in the Word. How about all of the above? In our parish we have people from 9 years old to 90-plus who take part.

  • anne quinlan

    Jesus said to St.Margaret Mary “Make reparation for the ingratitude of men. Spens an hour in prayer to implore mercy for sinners, to honor Me, to console Me for My bitter suffering wwhen abndoned by My Apostles, when they did not WATCH ONE HOUR WITH ME

  • Jennifer

    BTW. I had an acquaintance who wouldn’t eat Oreos because they SYMBOLIZED apartheid.

    And that is no joke.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    I said it about Corapi and I’ll say it about adoration: stick with the Church. If the Church says it’s okay, who cares what anyone else says?

    Besides, if only 1/3 of Catholics believe in the True Presence, then I guess we do need “extraneous Eucharistic devotions.”

  • Eka

    I really need to remember to read your blog…it is so good!

    …and I can’t help it…whenever I read anything of McBrien’s, I immediately think of SNL’s Debbie Downer and go “Wha-wha!”

  • Tony Hayden

    Father McBrien should visit Our Lady of Hope in St Augustine Fl where my brother in law kicked a heroin addiction of 10 years in which he tried everything, he has been sober for 4 years and he credits Eucharistic Adoration with his recovery and his return to the world and his family, Father McBrien’s comment about “the uneducated” was best, I guess Jasques Maritain, John Paul II and Pope Benedict are just a few country idiot

  • Jacqueline Y.

    @PNP, OP: Richard McBrien was born in 1936, which makes him 75 years old this year. The post WW II Baby Boom generation takes in those born between 1946 and 1964. Fr. McBrien and many other liberal dissidents are actually members of the so-called Silent Generation (born 1925-1945).

    I agree with the rest of your comment, just not the “Boomer” part.

  • Jacqueline Y.

    Anushree Shirali, thank you very much for the quotation from St. Damien of Molokai, which I had never heard before. I plan on sharing it with my 5th grade RE class, next time I tell them about Fr. Damien.

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  • D

    Jennifer wrote that people are leaving her parish in Cape Cod because perpetual adoration has been restored. That is really sad.

    At St. Therese of Lisieux in Alhambra, California, the perpetual adoration chapel always has people in it. Its always nice to see people of all ages and of different cultural backgrounds adoring Christ. This parish seems so alive with activity and enthusiasm compared to my home parish in Los Angeles. I always thought that is was because of the graces received for having a perpetual adoration chapel.

  • Aric

    Here’s Fr. Barron on this very article. Maybe it will quell your psychological angst: