Saint John Neumann and the Forty Hours Devotion

"Bishop Neumann: Advocate of the Forty Hours Devotion," stained glass; Redemptorist Archives photo; used with permission

With the National Eucharistic revival taking place this year, it would be appropriate to talk about the Forty Hours Devotion. The devotion began in Milan, Italy, in memory of the forty hours that the Sacred Body of Jesus laid in the tomb. Not long after, the practice spread to Rome by way of Saint Philip Neri and was celebrated on the first Sunday of every month. Subsequent popes expanded the practice to all churches in Rome and Saint Ignatius Loyola and the Society of Jesus spread the practice around Europe.

Engraving of Saint Philip Neri Church, Southwark

A little after 300 years since its inception, the idea of the Forty Hours Devotion was presented by Saint John Neumann, C.Ss.R., fourth Bishop of Philadelphia. The devotion was a favorite of Saint Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the Redemptorist Order, saying “Of all devotions, that of adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the greatest after the sacraments, the one dearest to God and the one most helpful to us."  This was done at the Fourth Diocesan Council, held on April 20th and 21st, 1853. The devotion had been held in individual churches in Philadelphia, but never on a diocesan-wide level. It was met with significant opposition: for some, the timing was not right. Nearly a decade earlier in 1844, the Nativist Riots saw the destruction of Catholic businesses and two churches: Saint Michael’s and Saint Augustine’s. Furthermore, the Know-Nothing Party continued the spread of nativist and Anti-Catholic rhetoric. [1]


Despite the opposition, Bishop Neumann went ahead with plans of the implementation of the devotion. In The Church of St. Philip Neri: A History, a story is recounted:

Wax candle from the first Forty Hours Devotion in Philadelphia, May 26, 1853, at Saint Philip Neri Church

One night, while he was working late and fell asleep at his desk, “a candle burned down and charred some papers, but they were still readable. When Bishop Neumann awoke, he knelt to give thanks to God for His protection that a fire had not ignited, and then heard His voice: “As the flames are burning here without consuming or injuring the writing, so shall I pour out my grace in the Blessed Sacrament without prejudice to My honor. Fear no profanation, therefore: no longer to carry out you design for My glory.” [2]

First Diocesan schedule of the Forty Hours Devotion, The Catholic Herald, June 2, 1853

The first celebration of the Forty Hours Devotion took place on May 26, 1853, the Feast of Corpus Christi. The location was Saint Philip Neri Church in Southwark, named after the saint who introduced the devotion three hundred years earlier. Earlier fears of the three-day devotion were extinguished after no public disturbances occurred. The Catholic Herald listed other churches in the Diocese where Forty Hours would be held. Not long after, other dioceses adopted it and in 1866, the Plenary Council of Baltimore approved the Forty Hours Devotion for all dioceses in the United States. To this day, parishes across the United States still practice the devotion.

Forty Hours Devotion at Saint Philip Neri church, 5/28/1963, with Bishop Francis Furey














[1] Connelly, J. F. (1976). The History of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

[2] Dorof, Al. (2006) The Church of St. Philip Neri: A History.


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