Rekindling the 40 Hours

RC2 enjoys Elizabeth Lev's articles on Catholic traditions over at Here's her latest on the preparation for Corpus Christi known as the 40 hours devotion. RC2 did not know that it was connected with St. Philip Neri (feast May 26), who is one of her favorite saints. Mostly because he told a lot of jokes.

By Elizabeth Lev ROME, MAY 26, 2005 ( Santa Maria Maggiore proudly crowns the Esquiline Hill. It is Rome's most important church dedicated to the Blessed Mother as well as a patriarchal basilica. This week it also led Romans and pilgrims alike toward a greater experience of the Year of the Eucharist. From May 19 to 21, Rome saw the Forty Hours devotion offered for the first time in decades.

The basilica stayed open all day and all night allowing residents and pilgrims to stop by for a few moments with the Blessed Sacrament. The Host was in a monstrance on the high altar, above the crypt containing the relic of the Christ Child's crib. Under the splendid canopy of porphyry columns entwined with gilt bronze candles, the altar was beautifully decorated with flowers and candles to create a glorious setting for the Eucharist.

The event even piqued interest among the more jet-setting crowd. Santa Maria Maggiore is located near a train station, but over the last few years, the area has been developed with trendy restaurants and nightclubs. Elegant revelers heading home from fancy watering holes were astonished to see a staid, old church staying up later than they were. Entering, they were even more taken aback at the sight of people praying while they had been partying.

Over the two days, the complete Liturgy of the Hours was prayed publicly, another rarity in modern-day Rome. The Forty Hours devotion recalls the time span during which the body of Christ lay in the tomb. The practice of this solemn exposition began in Milan, somewhere between 1527 and 1537. It seems to have been first proposed by the founder of the Barnabites, St. Anthony Zaccaria, although accounts vary. The first recorded Forty Hours took place in the cathedral in Milan at the altar in the left transept dedicated to the Madonna dell'Albero. In a climate of terrible plagues as well as fear of the Turkish fleet pressing hard against Christendom, the devotion was introduced in this cathedral and then spread to all the Milanese churches. It devolved rapidly and soon the practice received the concession of an indulgence.

Eventually the 40 hours became part of preparations for important feasts. This year Forty Hours adoration precedes two feasts which will coincide on the same day, Corpus Christi and the feast of St. Philip Neri. Corpus Christi is one of the very few days one can still see a grand papal procession in Rome. The Pope carries the Host from St. John Lateran to St. Mary Major as thousands turn out to participate. St. Mary Major could not have chosen a better way to prepare herself for Benedict XVI's first Corpus Christi procession. But for Rome and the Forty Hours, St. Philip Neri was the matchmaker that bought the two together. Among the many things this great saint did to revitalize the spiritual life of the city, he introduced the Forty Hours to Rome around 1550. With the support of St. Ignatius and the Jesuits, the devotion spread to all the churches in Rome and out into the world. The Body of Christ was adored every day, all day, all over the world in a truly Christian definition of globalization. We can pray that St. Mary Major's initiative might reignite that same fire throughout the world.