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Suday Star Ledger Feb11, 2001
Adoration marathon lifts spirits
BY DAVID GIBSON
Skeptical isn't a word they like to use around the parish of Our Lady of Lourdes in Mountainside (or any church, for that matter).
But a year ago, when Irene Ciccarino resolved to start a perpetual adoration devotion, she ran into her share of doubters.
Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration, as it is formally known, is a demanding and largely bygone tradition that requires at least one congregant always be in prayer before the Host, the consecrated bread that Catholics revere as embodying Christ in a mysterious but real way.
As its name suggests, this prayer is a kind of relay race in which an "adorer" will not leave the adoration chapel until another arrives to take up the vigil.
It is the devotional version of the 24/7 life -- every day and every night, through holidays, illnesses, snowstorms and vacations -- a schedule that over the course of a year works out to 8,760 one-hour shifts.
"It just didn't seem to add up," said Jack Schuvart, a longtime Lourdes parishioner from Westfield whom Ciccarino approached to help out. "We were shooting for over 300 adorers in a parish of 1,200 families. How do you get at least 350 people to come every day of every week?"
"We heard all sorts of horror stories, of parishes that had tried this and fallen flat on their face," he said. "I was one of the doubters.
But it didn't take long for Schuvart to become a "convert," as he jokingly put it, and today as the parish celebrates a special Mass for the one-year anniversary of the perpetual adoration, he and the entire congregation are counting their blessings.
"It is a great grace," said the Rev. Patrick Leonard, the pastor. "The atmosphere here is changing, and this brings people together so that a camaraderie exists."
Javier Santalla of Mountainside, a securities trader and father of five who has been active in assisting the adoration, agreed.
"All of a sudden we had a focal point," said Santalla, whose ability to work from home gives him the flexible hours to help cover the chapel prayer in a pinch. "It was the piece of the puzzle that completed the picture."
Yet for all of its benefits -- or graces, as Leonard would say -- perpetual adoration is still a daunting challenge for a parish, so it was no surprise that the tradition had fallen into disuse in recent decades after centuries of popularity.
The first recorded instance of perpetual adoration was in France on Sept. 11, 1226, at the order of King Louis VII to celebrate the suppression of the Albigensian heresy. But the devotion became a regular and passionately observed part of Catholic life after the Reformation, when Protestantism called into question the whole idea of the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
In the last century, however, as Catholic parishes became more dispersed, especially in the rapidly suburbanizing United States, perpetual adoration declined to the point where it was almost extinct.
"I've been 37 years a priest and I'd never really heard of a perpetual adoration except in a religious order," said Leonard.
Today, the devotion is experiencing a remarkable resurgence. In 1981, Pope John Paul II called on parishes to re-establish perpetual adoration, and some 1,200 parishes in the nation have done so to date.
In New Jersey, the Church of St. Peter the Apostle in Parisppany has had perpetual adoration since June 1999, and in April 1997 St. Michael's parish in Neptune started the practice and has kept it going. In the Archdiocese of Newark, the Church of St. John the Apostle in Linden started perpetual adoration a few years ago, and St. Lucy's in Newark followed suit.
Some critics raise concerns that perpetual adoration old-style devotion represents a move toward an orthodox retrenchment in the church. But that critique certainly does not seem to hold at the New Jersey parishes, which are as representative as any of the wider American Catholic community.
"It's very nice because we get a whole cross-section of people from all different walks of life -- young, old, everyone," said Sister Regina McTiernan, spiritual director at St. Peter's.
"It's incredible how many people are coming," she said. "Life is so stressful that it's important to find a place of quiet and peace. People find solace (in perpetual adoration), and rightfully so, because we believe that Christ is really present there."
The adoration at Our Lady of Lourdes in Mountainside takes place in a spare chapel on the side of the main church, a simple room that has a dozen chairs and kneelers arrayed before an altar with four candles, which are always lit, surrounding a gilt monstrance holding the consecrated Host. The chapel has an entrance that is open 24 hours a day for adorers and passers-by.
While they never filled all of the shifts with at least two adorers, Schuvart said the committed core of about 30 people covered every hour of the year. The adorers range in age from 9 to 90, and the whole group is divided into four divisions -- morning, afternoon, evening, and midnight -- with "captains" for each shift.
Still, no amount of preparation could guarantee the parish would be able to continue this year- round.
"New Year's Eve, Christmas Eve -- those were tough nights," said Schuvart. "And I thought we'd never get through the summer" with all the vacations.
The folks at Our Lady of Lourdes also note that contemporary adoration has at least one important advantage over the worshippers of the Middle Ages: computers.
Parishioner Miguel Perez, a father of three, used his digital expertise to set up a database and generate an impressive chart that plots every shift, every day of the year. The schedule is posted on the church's Web page, and shows prayer slots that still need to be filled.
With that boost, the leap of faith seemed like a smaller step.
"Last night someone, I don't know who she was, walked in, knelt down and prayed the whole hour," Javier Santalla said. "The adorer behind me came in. I left. She stayed. I still don't know who she was."
Bartenders getting off an early morning stint would come to pray, as would shift workers and other night owls who might otherwise have remained a mystery to most of the congregation.
"It broadens your perspective on how people live their lives," said Santalla.
He and others in the parish say they that because of the perpetual adoration experience, they developed bonds with each other that before would not have gone any deeper than the exchange of the sign of peace at Sunday Mass. They also came to understand people's various problems and needs.
The real test of the devotion's efficacy, however, came during the most heart-rending moment of the past year, when 13-year-old Ryan Faella went to bed one August evening with a headache and never woke up. The sudden death of this young member of the church -- the cause was an undetected brain tumor -- rocked the community, especially his peers.
The day after Ryan's death dozens of them showed up at the church, and talked for hours with Leonard. Then, looking for some closure for their grief, many went late that night to the perpetual adoration chapel. Others wrote their feelings on the prayer petition board. Those slips were then collected in a basket and placed near the casket at his funeral liturgy.
Given experiences like these, it is no surprise that the parish intends to keep the unbroken string of devotion going into a another year, and maybe beyond.
"It's perpetual," said Frank Ciccarino. "That's what it means."