When the plague struck the Italian city of Milan and the surrounding area in the 1570s, St Charles Borromeo, then a cardinal, became well-known for his efforts to remind people of their faith in a time of sickness and death.
According to multiple accounts, St Charles would process the streets of his diocese barefooted, carrying a cross, as an act of penance. He also visited the sick with a relic of one of the nails of the Cross, and promoted the practice of 40 Hours Devotion, in which people take turns praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament for 40 straight hours.
“St Charles Borromeo actually is one of the (clerics) who is often associated with the 40 hour devotion during the plague,” Fr Jonathan Meyer, a priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis in Indiana, told CNA.
The history of this devotion is part of the reason Meyer and a group of priests and laypeople in the US are hosting a Virtual 40 Hours Devotion streamed on Facebook starting this Friday, just before the start of Holy Week.
The devotion comes at a time when much of the world is experiencing another pandemic, and when most public Masses and other services are closed to slow its spread.
The number of hours of devotion comes “from the 40 hours from our Lord being in the tomb from Good Friday to Easter Sunday morning,” Meyer explained.
“So there’s 40 hours of darkness, of very few people believing. And we’re at a period of darkness in the Church,” he said. The number 40 frequently signifies a time of darkness in the bible – the 40 days of Jesus in the desert being tempted, the 40 years of the Jewish people wandering in the wilderness, the 40 days of rain Noah experienced on the ark.
“But at the end of all of those, the story of hope.” Meyer said. “And so (we) gather around our Lord for 40 hours..to pray and petition and to be a people of hope. Our Lord is in the Blessed Sacrament, he is our hope. And so, God willing, our ability to gather with him and spend time with him as a Church will bring people hope.”
The idea, Meyer said, originated on a Facebook group of priests who were sharing best practices of how to bring Christ to people during the time of the coronavirus pandemic.
Once Meyer and a former classmate of his, Fr Thomas Szydlik, came up with the idea, they sent out emails to other priests and bishops, asking them to sign up and take an hour, during which they would livestream a holy hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament in their respective churches, during which they can preach or pray the rosary or offer other prayers.
Meyer said he’s been struck by the eager response of so many priests.
“I think it just shows a lot about the generosity of our priests,” Meyer said, “and how they want terribly for our people to gather around our Lord, and to pray in prayers of petition, prayers of reparation for what’s happening right now in our world.”
Each hour will be posted to the Facebook page, Virtual 40 Hours. Meyer will kick off the Virtual 40 Hours with a live-streamed Mass starting at 6 p.m. Central on Friday, April 3.
Joan Watson, who works as the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Nashville, was recruited by Szydlik and Meyer, friends of hers, to help with the project. Watson helped establish the Facebook page and to recruit more priests and bishops to take hours.
Each priest will be streaming their hour on the 40 Hours Facebook page, Watson said, so “people don’t need to leave that page, which is going to be really nice. There’s no need to jump around. It’ll all happen on that page.”
The devotion has even gone international.
“We have a group from the Notre Dame Newman Center in Dublin that’s going to be doing some Taizé worship music. So I’m really excited for that,” Watson said. “Each hour might look a little different depending on the spirituality of the priest.”
Watson said she hopes the 40 Hours is a time for Catholics to unite as a Church in prayer and focus on the prayers they can offer and the graces they can receive during this time.
“I think rather than kind of dwelling on what we don’t have, this gives us an opportunity to unite our hearts…and really unite that yearning for the Blessed Sacrament, and turn that itself into a prayer,” she said.
“I think there’s so much grace there. And learning how to pray as a Church – I think that’s one thing that maybe this time has given us an extra grace not to be divisive and not to find ourselves picking fights where there shouldn’t be fights, but rather really uniting with our Church and uniting across the country as a Catholic Church. I think it’s really beautiful to see what’s coming out of all this.”
Kate Johnson, the sister of Fr Szydlik, was recruited to help with Virtual 40 Hours as one of the page “watchdogs”, who will be taking turns moderating the Facebook page to make sure the Blessed Sacrament is being respected and the livestreams are running smoothly.
Johnson said she is grateful for the idea to do the Virtual 40 Hours because it focuses on what Catholics can do at this time even while public Masses and services are closed.
“There’s so much you can do. And this is something that you can do…to help people that are hurting in one way or another, but also to beg the Lord’s mercy and grace upon our nation and upon the world” she said.
Johnson, who lives in the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis, said she has been grateful to be able to attend adoration in her church with her mother, but that she misses receiving the Eucharist at Mass.
She encouraged Catholics who feel that same hunger for the Eucharist to participate in the Virtual 40 Hours.
“This is something you can do. It’s easy. You can get dressed up. You can come in your pajamas. If you’re an insomniac, you can do this in the middle of the night,” she said.
“It’s an opportunity to hear some fantastic preaching…it’s an opportunity to experience the bigness of the Church, because this is a very old devotion, so we’re going back in time but we’re also spreading it out around the world. So, it’s an opportunity to pray with others who are as hungry and sad as we are, as I am.”
There are at least four bishops who will be offering an hour of adoration in the Virtual 40 Hours, including Bishop Edward Rice of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in Missouri, Bishop Andrew Cozzens, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Bishop Joseph Strickland of the Diocese of Tyler, and Bishop James Wall of Gallup, New Mexico.
Wall told CNA that he will take the 8:00 a.m. Central hour on Sunday, and that he plans to preach for about half the time and have silent adoration for the rest of the time.
“I’m going to preach on the Eucharist, and I’m going to preach on sacrifice, and the sacrifices that many people are invited to make right now, and how sacrifice is related to our baptismal call,” he said. “Because when we’re baptized, we’re made priest, prophet, and king. What does a priest do? A priest offers sacrifice. Obviously this is different from ordained priesthood, but we’re all called to offer sacrifice.”
As a bishop during this time of pandemic, Wall said it has been a sacrifice for him to offer Mass without an assembly, and that not only as a bishop but also as an extrovert, he’s really missed interacting with his people.
“It’s a little difficult, but again, it’s a sacrifice, and if we receive the sacrifice well, if we unite it to the sacrifice of Christ and the cross, we know that Christ will bring glory out of it. So I think the word that’s been just coming up to me over and over and over is ‘sacrifice’ and how we can imitate the sacrifice of Christ on the cross,” he said.
Wall said when he was invited to join the Virtual 40 Hours by a friend, he was “really excited and grateful that they called me and asked me to participate in this endeavor. I’ve been thinking of ways that we could bring our Lord to people and I think this is a great way. We have to be creative, and I think this is one of the ways we’re being creative.”
He encouraged Catholics to not let the opportunity for spending some time with the Lord, even virtually and during a pandemic, to pass them by.
“Think about in the scriptures where Jesus is passing by and the cripple cries out, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.’ And what a courageous thing he did by calling out to the Lord, not letting him pass by,” Wall said.
“I think we, as we’re at home too…(let’s) not let this pass by. (Let’s) see Jesus and cry out to him, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.’ And we can do that from our homes as we watch our Lord and adore our Lord, virtually adore our Lord, in the Eucharist.”
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