A word of explanation: Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is an expression Roman Catholic spirituality originating in the 1300s that involves a solemn blessing of the congregation with a consecrated host mounted in a decorative metal display. The devotion is also observed by some Anglican, Lutheran and other churches. The blessing, performed by a priest or deacon, is usually preceded by “adoration,” a period of prayer and mediation. Until 1973 there was no officially approved Catholic rite for this ceremony although the songs and features within different Catholic cultures were long established.
The evening began strangely. When I arrived at the church, all was in darkness, but the front door was unlocked. As I walked up the side aisle to the sacristy, I saw someone standing in the shadows near the pulpit. After I had turned on the lights and set the altar for adoration, the old man wearing a khaki jacket came up and spoke to me in Spanish. I replied as best I could that there would be prayer before the Blessed Sacrament for the next hour.
“Si, si,” he replied, “muy bueno.”
A light cold rain was falling outside and the prayer service was sparsely attended. In addition to our lay minister, David Knouff, dressed in a long white alb, there were only three persons there: Sharon Levesque, the old man, and myself. Although I suspected that the elderly gentleman could not read, I had given him a song book, suggesting “es mejor quando todos cantan,” that is, “its better when everyone sings.” Together, we sang the opening hymn, “O Saving Victim.”
The first part of the hour passed uneventfully. David, Sharon and I sat and meditated quietly. The old man, however, knelt in prayer for the entire hour, now and then swaying gently from side to side. Then a strange thing happened: the church began slowly to fill with families of our Hispanic community, young and old, parents and children. Some knelt in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, others sat respectfully in silence.
At the end of the hour, David stood to give a few closing spiritual thoughts to end the service. This, I thought, was going to prove interesting. Just as he was about to speak, the old man rose to his feet, walked up to David said a few words, and the two of them mysteriously disappeared into the sacristy where they found our parish Hispanic minister Raul Rodriquez who helped them converse. A few moments later, David emerged beaming.
“We are very fortunate this evening,” David announced, “to have a priest to celebrate Benediction for us.” A few moments later, the old man also emerged, but dressed in alb an
d stole and in a simple, take-charge manner invited the congregation to kneel. He then intoned in a clear, loud voice a song I had never heard, “Bendito sea Dios, que estas en altar, occulto en la Hostia” — Blessed be God, present on the altar, hidden in the host.” The entire congregation, singing the words by heart, joined in fervent unison.
When the song had ended, the priest recited a short prayer in Latin, then firmly and reverently proceeded to bless us with the Eucharist, the first time this had happened in over two years of Monday adoration. “O Sacramento Mistico,” the priest sang out, and the assembly again joined in rendering the closing hymn. It was the first time that I had encountered our then small Hispanic community in prayer.
Adoration was scheduled to be one hour of meditative prayer before the Blesssed Sacrament. It turned out to be much more.
As I went to leave the church, the old priest spoke to the congregation. I paused momentarily in the entranceway to listen, and somehow the Spanish was coming clearer now. The priest explained that he was from Tijuana, Mexico, and was happy to be present that evening for the special mission. He explained that he was a Salesian of St. John Bosco, a Catholic order of priests and brothers dedicated to the service of youth, that he was happy to be with them that evening for their mission, and how blessed they were to be able to honor the Holy Eucharist with the ceremony that had just concluded.
It was still raining as I left, and my eyes were misting as well. It had been a very special evening.