Originally written by Rev. Thomas J. McManus, S.T.L., M. Div., Archdiocese of Philadelphia
“Thursday, the 26th is the Feast of Corpus Christi, a holy day of obligation. We understand that on this day the devotion of the Forty Hours will commence in Saint Philip Church, Southwark. It will begin at six o’clock in the morning and will be continued through the remaining days of the week. The faithful are advised to visit that church to join in the devotions some time during its continuance.” Those few sentences from the Catholic Herald, on 26 May 1853, mark an epoch in the history of a young American church. They signal one of the chief glories of the heroic career of Saint John Neumann, C.SS.R., fourth bishop of Philadelphia.
Neumann is somewhat slighted in the traditional annals of American Church history. The sagas of the missionaries, the wrangling of the theologians, the jovian thunders of the Irelands, the Corrigans, and the Gibbonses tend to get star billing from the academicians. A sublimely, apostolically, simple pastor like Saint John does not always get his due. But when the tumult and the shouting dies, we are left to this day with the enduring legacy of a saint in his introduction of the Forty Hours Devotion into the life of the American Church.
Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament was very close to the heart of Saint John – as it would be to any Redemptorist. Their founder, Saint Alfonso de Liguori, told his confreres: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” These saints valued and loved one treasure only – and their treasure was Jesus Christ; hence their hearts and all of their love went out to the Most Blessed Sacrament.
The sixteenth century devotion of the Forty Hours adoration of the Blessed Sacrament went deep into the European roots of Neumann’s piety. From the beginning of his tenure as Bishop of Philadelphia, he wanted to bring this treasure of Eucharistic devotion into the American Church. The Forty Hours had been celebrated intermittently and locally in Philadelphia and other dioceses. Neumann would organize the Forty Hours as a diocesan program and eventually a national act of parish spirituality. He broached the matter informally with his priests early in 1853, and was met with a surprising amount of resistance. The Nativist riots of 1844, during which several churches in Philadelphia were destroyed or damaged, were still a green wound in local Catholic memory. The priests feared that so lengthy and so public an exhibition of Catholic piety would provoke further desecration. Neumann tabled the matter for the time being.
Then, late one night, while pondering and praying over the response of the priests, he fell asleep at his desk. He awoke to find that his candle had ignited the papers on which he had been working. He extinguished the blaze, and found that amid the charred remains of his correspondence, his papers concerning the Forty Hours had remained undamaged. As he fell to his knees in prayer, he tells us that he heard a voice saying within him: “As the flames are burning here without consuming or injuring the writing, so I pour out my work in the Blessed Sacrament without prejudice to my honor. Fear no profanation, therefore. Hesitate no longer to carry out your design for my glory.”
And so it happened. In April of 1853, Saint John convened a synod of the Church of Philadelphia. He later wrote: “Last month I assembled all the priests of my diocese and gave them the spiritual exercises; then followed a synod; and I have reason to rejoice over the success of both… Besides several statutes enacted upon various points of discipline, it was also proposed to introduce into the larger churches of the diocese the Devotion of the Forty Hours so that there might be no week in the year in which the Blessed Sacrament would not be exposed for the adoration of the faithful.”
It was surely no accident that Neumann chose Saint Philip Neri Parish in Southwark as the inaugural site for his program of Forty Hours Devotions. Saint Philip Neri is often credited as the founder of the Forty Hours in sixteenth century Rome. Also, St. Philip’s was the last of the churches to be desecrated during the tragic summer of 1844. So, with something between a prayer and a dare, Neumann launched a movement of piety that still lies very close to the heart of the American Church.
Saint John composed the manual for the celebrations himself. He spent the entire forty hours in the church rapt in prayer. There were no disturbances, and the devotions spread from parish to parish. A year later he wrote to his sister: “In the nearby church of Saint Paul, the Forty Hours were held on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. The church was always crowded. Fourteen priests heard confessions, and about three thousand people received Holy Communion… and so it goes the whole year, almost without interruption.” And so it has gone for a century and a half. In the Eucharist, we live and move and have our being. In the Forty Hours Devotion, the heart of Saint John Neumann still speaks to the Church of Philadelphia.