In Your Midst

Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament at St. James Cathedral

Summer 2001

In This Issue:
Incense and candlelight, song and silence, adoration and praise: the beautiful, traditional service of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is the perfect way to make a retreat, whether for an hour or for an entire day, in the midst of the busyness of urban life. Those who attend Vespers on Sunday afternoons or participate in our Cathedral’s daylong First Friday celebrations each month know that these services are among St. James Cathedral’s best-kept secrets.

The Eucharist is the heart of the church.
Where the Eucharistic life flourishes,
there the life of the church blossoms.

— Pope John Paul II

The tradition of Benediction — a service in which the people are blessed with the consecrated host — developed in the late 13th century at the same time that the Feast of Corpus Christi, honoring the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, was added to the calendar. Unlike the Mass, the “Holy Hours” which sprang up around Benediction, focused on the participation of the assembly: they were often celebrated in the vernacular, with hymn singing, litanies, and other participatory prayers. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Benediction was almost as much a staple of Catholic life as the Mass. Catholic writer Caryll Houslander vividly described a wartime Benediction service in 1941: “Benediction was at 4 o’clock. At half past three the church was full, the benches crowded, the people kneeling in the aisles... It is in Benediction that hundreds find the only visible beauty that shines out on the drabness of their lives, like stars burning into a grey twilight. It is an easy and sweet ceremony, with the singing of hymns and the relief of prayers spoken out loud, a sweetness, a gentleness, a goodnight to the little flock.”

With the Second Vatican Council, and its renewed emphasis on the supremacy of the Mass in the liturgical life of the church, Benediction died out in many parishes. It has survived at St. James Cathedral, where it has been part of the parish’s prayer-life for nearly a century now. In recent years more and more Catholics are rediscovering the beauty of this quiet, joyful prayer in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

Vespers: Singing and Psalms

At St. James, Benediction is celebrated as part of Vespers, or Evening Prayer, on Sunday afternoons at 4:00 PM The celebration of Vespers has its own long history at St. James Cathedral. On December 22, 1907, the solemn rites of dedication of the brand-new Cathedral concluded with an historic celebration of solemn Vespers — the “first time that vespers have been completely chanted on Puget Sound according to the rites of the church,” wrote the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

With the revival of Vespers at St. James in the early 1980s, the Liturgy of the Hours is back in the hands of the people. At this prayer, the assembly sits “in choir,” facing each other, singing traditional hymns and praying the psalms. Each week at Vespers we pray in a special way for all who have died. Incense plays an important role in this liturgy. The Blessed Sacrament is incensed to honor Christ’s presence there; and the assembly is incensed as well, a sign of reverence for the One who makes us his dwelling-place.

First Friday: A Day of Recollection in the Heart of the City

On the First Friday of each month, Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament begins immediately following the 8:15 AM Mass. Throughout the morning, people stop in to pray in silence — some for an hour, some for just a few minutes. At Holy Hour, beginning at 2:00 PM, we respond to Jesus’ question to his disciples: “Could you not keep watch with me one little hour?” This simple service, a vigil of prayer in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, includes familiar hymns, readings, silence, and the rosary. First Fridays are a daylong retreat of quiet and prayer in the midst of a bustling city, a wonderful way to end a busy week, or begin a busy month.

Corinna Laughlin is an associate in the St. James Cathedral Liturgy and Music Office.

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