Faithful devote time in unending prayer vigil At 1,000 churches, parishioners keep Lord constant company

May 10, 1998|By Kristin Holmes | Kristin Holmes,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - In search of heavenly peace, Daniel and Rosemarie Heim rise at 3:30 a.m. twice a week and drive 10 minutes through the night silence to a small chapel that never closes.

Inside St. Isaac Jogues Roman Catholic Church in Wayne, Pa., Daniel Heim, a retired printer, props his cane in a corner and slides slowly into a red-cushioned pew. His wife kneels in the row behind him, setting her gaze on the altar.

In this place, the Lord is ever-present, the Heims believe, and must not be left alone.

They keep the Savior company on the 4 a.m. shift. In two hours, they will be relieved by another parishioner, then another and another in a prayer vigil that began long before the Christmas season arrived and will continue long after it has gone.

The Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration has no end.

St. Isaac Jogues is one of an estimated 1,000 Catholic churches nationwide to institute the nonstop devotion in recent years. Through holidays and workdays, through the busiest hours of the evening rush and the emptiest stretches of early morning, at least one of the faithful is stationed in prayer.

In the chapel in Wayne, the Heims sit before a small altar where the consecrated Communion wafer, the host, is displayed in an ornate holder called a monstrance. Roman Catholics believe the host is more than a symbol of the body of Jesus Christ, that the Lord is truly present in it. In perpetual adoration, the eucharistic bread is permanently exhibited, meaning the Lord is always there.

'We just sit in silence'

"We just sit in silence," said Rosemarie Heim. "Everyone needs ++ the special peace and grace to do what has to be done every day, because it's a battlefield. The struggle to do good and be better never stops."

The Heims embody the wish of Pope John Paul II, who in the early 1980s began encouraging Catholics worldwide to embrace the then-obscure devotion. Although the roots of perpetual adoration reach into the 1300s, its practice became common two centuries later during the Counter-Reformation as the Catholic response to the Protestant argument that Christ was not physically present in the Eucharist.

The devotion, however, gradually fell out of favor with the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Perpetual adoration, leaders feared, would diminish the place of the Eucharist - the church's most important sacrament - in the lives of the faithful, according to R. Bruce Miller, coordinator of the religious studies/humanities libraries of the Catholic University in Washington.

In 1981, at the direction of John Paul II, Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration was begun at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. At the 45th International Eucharistic Congress in 1993, he expressed the hope that "this form of perpetual adoration, with permanent exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, will continue in the future."

Today, about 5 percent of the 20,000 parishes in the United States offer the devotion, according to the Rev. Victor Warkulwiz of Bensalem, a missionary of the Blessed Sacrament order who travels the country helping churches start the vigils. In the

Philadelphia Archdiocese, less than 10 percent of the 287 parishes have it; of the Camden Diocese's 126 parishes, only a few do.

More numerous are the parishes that haave limited versions, usually during daytime hours. Others offer it for a three- or four-day period, perhaps once a year.

"The primary celebration in the Catholic Church is to attend Mass," said the Rev. Daniel E. Mackle, director of the Philadelphia Archdiocese's Office of Worship.

Many parishes, he said, have "special days of exposition and feel that is sufficient."

The impetus to start perpetual adoration often comes not from parish priests but from the laity, said the Rev. James Checchio, ++ vice chancellor of the Camden Diocese.

"Death and pain are all around us, and people are thinking of how they can handle it in their own lives," he said. "For some, this is the way."

But that way is not without hurdles.

The Vatican has imposed strict rules on how and when the devotion is to be practiced. It must, for instance, be interrupted -- for Mass, and at no time can the host be left unattended.

In many churches, safety is an issue for middle-of-the-night devotees. No less worrisome are the logistics of organizing the prayer schedule; at St. Isaac Jogues, 150 parishioners are needed to cover all 168 hours in a week.

Msgr. James Mortimer, pastor of St. William Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia, put off his parishioners for several years after they began asking for the devotion.

"I didn't want to accept it," Mortimer said. "I told them, 'When you can give me names of 500 people who will take an hour a week, then I will consider it.' And for heaven's sake, they did it."

The parish has had perpetual adoration for nine years.

During their shifts, parishioners can pray the rosary, meditate or read the Bible and other spiritual writings.

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