ST. LOUIS—The Gateway City has a new passion, and it isn't baseball slugger Mark McGwire.

Nearly two years after the St. Louis Archdiocese began promoting it, every one of its 227 parishes has some form of eucharistic adoration: 24 perpetually, 125 weekly, and the rest at least monthly.

The reason: Archbishop Justin Rigali has made eucharistic adoration a top priority. His effort has made St. Louis a leader in a spiritual movement that has had appeal throughout the United States and abroad.

“The theme of eucharistic adoration emerged very felicitously during discussions of the [archdiocese's] Strategic Pastoral Plan,” he told the Register. “It wasn't a question of imposing this at all; people were very pleased at the benefits when it was promoted.

“Yesterday, a man on the plane next to me tapped me on the shoulder and thanked me for the adoration in his parish. The hour he and his wife spend from 8 to 9 in the evening is the most important of their day.”

In February 1998, when the program began, those benefits were less obvious.

Back then, the biggest concern of lay organizers of eucharistic adoration was how to deal with unresponsive, or even resistant, pastors. A story circulates about a group of friends who fasted and prayed for a month before approaching one such pastor whom they were certain would be reluctant to start adoration. He was worried, in part, because it would mean leaving the church open after hours. That parish now offers adoration weekly.

In eucharistic adoration, worshippers pray before the Blessed Sacrament which usually is reverently exposed in a monstrance. The challenge — especially for programs with extended hours — is to have an adorer present at all times, which is required when the Eucharist is exposed.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Because Christ himself is present in the sacrament of the altar, he is to be honored with the worship of adoration. ‘To visit the Blessed Sacrament is ... a proof of gratitude, an expression of love, and a duty of adoration toward Christ our Lord’ (Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei 66)” [No. 1418].

A witness book kept by St. Ferdinand's parish contains dozens of testimonies about the fruits of adoration. “I look at Jesus and Jesus looks at me,” said one testimony, “... I tell him everything and he reveals himself to me in many ways.” Said another, “My hour in the chapel is the most rewarding of my week.” Others talk of resentments lifted, families reconciled, strength to combat illness.

Commitment to eucharistic adoration can be clearly seen in the archdiocese's Strategic Pastoral Plan.

Action Step One of Goal One called for pastors, religious and laity to “promote adoration of, and reverence for, the Blessed Sacrament, both exposed on the altar, and in the tabernacle.”

The plan has only two “super-priorities”: Eucharistic adoration and the fostering of religious vocations. The two are closely linked: Adorers are urged to pray for increased vocations whenever they make their hours.

St. Louis’ eucharistic renewal did not occur overnight. A small group of lay men and women, some involved in adoration since the 1970s, “started meeting on our own to develop an approach deserving of the archbishop's attention,” said George Knollmayer, an original member of the group.

Archbishop John May approved the group's proposal just before his death from cancer in March 1994. When Justin Rigali, who had spent many years of service in the Vatican, was installed as archbishop that same month, he told the group that their wishes coincided completely with his own, “so the timing was right,” concluded Knollmayer.

In 1997, Archbishop Rigali founded the Committee on Eucharistic Adoration, on which Knollmayer now serves. The committee laid the groundwork for a series of diocesan events promoting adoration.

In January 1998, the archbishop sent a letter to all parishes urging them to “use every means possible to ensure a renewed devotion to and appreciation of the Eucharist as the source and summit of our Christian life.”

Archbishop Rigali brought up the topic of adoration at the Vatican's Synod of the Americas, calling it “an emerging sign of the times, confirmed in the experience of many bishops throughout the world.”

“Bishops are very pleased about where this is going,” he said. “It leads people back to the sacrament of reconciliation, to greater solidarity with each other, and to more active participation in the Mass.”

The St. Louis program is the first of its kind for an American diocese, according to the Apostolate for Perpetual Adoration in Mount Clemens, Mich.

“Other bishops are very supportive of adoration and they invite our priests in — even on a permanent basis — to preach in their churches and establish programs,” said Pat Fortun, an administrator of the apostolate. “But we have never heard of a program like this — in which the initiative has come from the top along with detailed follow-up coming from the chancery.”

Why did eucharistic adoration, once a mainstay of Catholic devotion in other forms, decline in recent years?

One reason, according to Mark Holtz, assistant professor of theological studies at St. Louis University, was that many interpreted the Second Vatican Council as emphasizing the centrality of the Mass to the point of discouraging extraliturgical devotions.

But the new generation also finds the old post-conciliar debates increasingly irrelevant, making them ripe for the new evangelization. Holtz believes that much of the involvement in adoration today comes from the under-35 crowd.

“The question they're asking is, ‘Where shall we go to find models of worship?’” he said.

Archbishop Rigali stressed the link between adoration and the fostering of vocations. Not only are adorers praying for vocations, the easy availability of time before the Blessed Sacrament has been shown to attract young people and to equip them with the grace they will need to answer God's call.

The Committee on Eucharistic Adoration is led by Father Ed Rice, who has preached on adoration at parishes and hosted conferences while serving as director of Kenrick College at Kenrick/Glennon Seminary.

Father Rice credited recent enrollment gains — from 68 seminarians in 1996 to 103 today — at least partly to the benefits that come with adoration.

A new front of Father Rice's efforts are high school and Catholic colleges; St. Pius X and Duchesne high schools have adoration programs, and youth programs such as Life Teen, God's Gang and Christ Power also have made it part of their programs.

“It's almost like we're discovering the Eucharist once again,” said Father Rice.

At Kenrick/Glennon Seminary, seminarians attend adoration in half-hour shifts from 12:40 to 5 every weekday afternoon. For many, the practice is a new one; they've grown up in parishes without such traditions as Benediction or Forty Hours.

“I like the way they do it here; a simple exposition and silent adoration,” said Brother John Paul Joyce, a seminary student and a member of the Intercessors of the Lamb, a religious congregation founded in 1983. “I have too much noise in my life, so I need the quiet time with Jesus.”

Noted Archbishop Rigali, “Even high-schoolers are starting to pray before the Blessed Sacrament on their own. They're responding to a deep-felt need people have for union with God. In the Mass and in eucharistic adoration, we meet the merciful love of God which passes through the heart of Christ.”

David Murray writes from St. Louis.