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


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.

"Jesus is loved, worshiped and adored in the Blessed Sacrament seven days a week, 24 hours a day," said Warkulwiz. "He's available for anyone to come spend time with him."

That's exactly what Elaine Tokar of Wayne, Pa., needed as she and her husband, Leonard, tried to cope with his leukemia. The couple remained faithful to the devotion throughout his illness, rarely missing their Saturday 11 p.m.-to-midnight slot.

'It feels peaceful'

Six years after her husband's death, she's still on the same shift.

"It feels peaceful, like the Lord is with me," Elaine Tokar said. "I don't feel alone."

Because churches typically hold adoration in a chapel apart from the main sanctuary, the installation of safety equipment - extensive lighting, alarm systems, combination locks and telephones - often is necessary.

Area churches have reported some vandalism and burglary of poor boxes, but little else in the way of crime.

At the Church of the Holy Name in Delran, N.J., parishioners initially opposed the devotion because of safety concerns. But new locks and lights allayed their fears, said the Rev. Michael O'Connor.

At St. Joseph the Worker Roman Catholic Church in Fallsington, Bucks County, Pa., the monstrance sits behind iron grating surrounded by alarm sensors that sound when anyone gets too close.

"Why is Jesus in jail?" children sometimes ask their parents, according to the Rev. John J. Foster, the pastor. The congregation decided to install the security system when adoration was begun in 1992; earlier that year, someone had broken into the tabernacle where the host was kept, chewed the host, and spit it on the floor.

Many parishioners who keep the vigil in the wee hours say they are unafraid. Others confess to some apprehension - though not enough to deter them from adoration.

Jeanine Baker, coordinator for the devotion at St. Isaac Jogues, was driving home at 5 a.m. after a prayer shift when she felt a thump against her car. She pulled over to find she had hit a deer and dragged it 100 feet.


Stranded along the dark highway, Baker recalled, she said: "Lord, I need you to protect me."

A high school student who had just driven his mother to work pulled over.

"I asked him, 'Can I trust you?' and he said, 'Yes,'" Baker said. He drove her home safely.

Baker and other coordinators wage a constant battle to keep all the hours covered, recruit new members and sustain commitment.

"Some really have faith and really believe in the real presence," says Adele Volpe, coordinator at St. William. "But other people say, 'Well, how long will we be doing this?' and I say, 'Forever,' and they say, 'What!'"

The Heims have kept their commitment since adoration started at St. Isaac Jogues in the early 1980s. Even then, the couple frequently maintained the vigil during early-morning hours because no one else would.

"Fear is sometimes stronger than faith," Rosemarie Heim said. "But for us, this is a beautiful time."

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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