By 1550, both St. Philip Neri and St. Ignatius Loyola had also instituted this practice, especially for the reparation of sin. Recognizing the tremendous graces offered through this devotion as well as the dangers threatening the Church, Pope Clement VIII in his letter Graves et diuturnae (November 25, 1592) proclaimed, "We have determined to establish publicly in this Mother City of Rome an uninterrupted course of prayer in such ways that in the different churches, 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." He also issued regulations for the devotions, which were later collected and promulgated by Pope Clement XI in 1705, and known as the Instructio Clementina.
In our own country, St. John Neumann (1811-60), the fourth bishop of Philadelphia, was a strong promoter of the Forty Hours Devotion. While the practice had already existed in individual churches throughout the city (as well as in other places in the country), no organized, cohesive diocesan schedule for it had ever before been attempted. St. John had an tremendous devotion to our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, and desired to foster such a spiritual life in his people.
Unfortunately at this time, a strong anti-Catholic sentiment plagued Philadelphia. During the Know Nothing riots of 1844, two churches were burned and another was saved simply by the threat of gunfire. Some priests, therefore, advised St. John that the introduction of 40 Hours Devotion would only flame the hatred against the Catholics and expose the Blessed Sacrament to desecration. St. John was left in a quandary.
A strange incident occurred which helped St. John decide. One night, he was working very late at his desk and fell asleep in his chair. The candle on the desk burnt down and charred some of the papers, but they were still readable. He awoke, surprised and thankful that a fire had not ignited. He fell on his knees to give thanks to God for protection, and heard His voice saying, "As the flames are burning here without consuming or injuring the writing, so shall I pour out my grace in the Blessed Sacrament without prejudice to My honor. Fear no profanation, therefore; hesitate no longer to carry out your design for my glory."
He introduced the practice of 40 Hours Devotion at the first diocesan synod in April, 1853, and the first devotions began at St. Philip Neri Parish, an appropriate place since that saint had initiated the devotion in the city of Rome. St. John himself, spent most of the three days in the Church praying. No trouble ensued. St. John then introduced the program for the whole diocese, so that each parish would have Forty Hours Devotion during the course of the year. He composed a special booklet for the devotions and obtained special indulgences for the faithful attending them. The Forty Hours Devotion was so successful it spread to other dioceses. At the Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1866, the Forty Hours Devotion was approved for all Dioceses of the United States.
The Forty Hours Devotion provides a wonderful opportunity for the spiritual growth of each person and the parish as a whole. In a world where temptation and evil abound, where devotion to the Mass and our Lord in the Holy Eucharist have declined, where the practice of penance and confession have been forgotten, we need the Forty Hours Devotion more than ever.
Saunders, Rev. William. "40 Hours, Part Two." Arlington Catholic Herald.
This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.
Father William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Sterling, Virginia. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is also the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.
Copyright © 2003 Arlington Catholic Herald