Wichita men pray before Eucharist overnight for 33 years

Wichita — It’s peaceful in the chapel at 3 in the morning, with only the sound of a softly ticking clock or the occasional rustling from the two men kneeling, one clasping a rosary.

Two candles flicker at the sides of the Eucharist; the consecrated bread that the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches has become the actual body, blood and soul of Jesus.

The Eucharist is contained in a monstrance, a container that looks like a circle of gold flame.

Steve Freach, one of the two men, remembers the story of a peasant who spent hours in front of the Eucharist. When asked why he did so, the peasant said, “I look at him and he looks at me.”

For 33 years, Freach and Bob Knoff believe they have looked at Jesus and that he has looked back at them as they’ve prayed and meditated at 3 a.m. at Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

They’re not the only people in the Catholic Diocese of Wichita who pray and meditate before the Eucharist at unusual hours.

The Wichita Eagle reports that perpetual Eucharistic adoration means never leaving the exposed sacrament alone. Someone must be scheduled to be in an adoration chapel with the Eucharist at all times, 365 days a year.

Perpetual adoration relates to what Christians celebrate on Easter — Christ’s resurrection — said the Rev. John Jirak, pastor of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

“The spiritual significance is having a real, true known encounter with the Lord,” Jirak said. “There’s different ways God communicates with us. It’s much richer if you’re able to walk with another person, be actually present with them, and since we truly believe that the Lord is present, there is a different sense of when you’re praying there versus praying in your room.”

When he first began the 3 a.m. shift, he “was on fire,” Freach said. It felt right to be there.

“It’s so peaceful,” Freach said. “I’ve gained so many graces from the prayers I’ve said, the stuff I’ve read.”

That’s not to say signing up was his idea — he jokes that he was “hoodwinked.”

Perpetual adoration came to the diocese in 1983, not long after Pope John Paul II started it in the Vatican.

Someone in the parish called Freach and asked whether he knew anything about perpetual adoration, signed him up for the 3-4 a.m. slot once a week and hung up before he could say anything else about it.

Today, he still has the same hour.

For Knoff, getting out of bed and spending an hour at the church is no trial.

He attributes his 62-year marriage, his six children and their families to the hours he has spent in front of the Eucharist in prayer.

Part of the practice is derived from the story of Jesus’ suffering before his death, when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and asked his disciples to keep watch with him “for one hour.” Instead, they fell asleep.

“I don’t want him to someday say, ‘Where were you when I needed you?'” said Pat Dwyer, one of the original volunteers who organized perpetual adoration at the church. “It is peaceful. I look forward to it.”

For 17 years, Dwyer made sure worshippers were scheduled to be in the chapel all 168 hours of the week. If someone didn’t show up, she made sure there was a replacement.

There are only a few pews facing the stone wall and altar that holds the monstrance in the small room. People can come in and pray even if they aren’t scheduled for an hour, and they often do. Freach has seen other people at 3 a.m.

The practice began in the diocese at Blessed Sacrament but has spread. Sixteen of the diocese’s 90 parishes had perpetual adoration in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available.

Another 52 parishes had partial adoration daily, weekly or monthly.

Our Lady of Guadalupe in Hutchinson has had perpetual adoration since 1995.

The Rev. Ned Blick, pastor of the church, said he decided to become a priest while praying in front of the Eucharist. He hears similar stories from other seminarians.

“I kind of consider it like the powerhouse of our parish,” Blick said. “It’s like the engine room where there’s this spiritual, ongoing intercession for our people going on all the time.”

At Our Lady of Guadalupe, an artist from Mexico painted a life-sized picture of Jesus behind the monstrance, which holds the sacrament where Jesus’ heart would be in the painting.

Blick said the priest who founded the church building in 1964 once returned for a visit and said he noticed a different atmosphere, something attributed to perpetual adoration.

“It brings a spiritual aura or spiritual force or protection throughout the whole city,” Blick said. “People who do it over time, it does change them, transform them in a way to be a person of peace.”

And many believe that the effects of praying 24-7, 365 days a year has had an even greater impact.

Dwyer and her husband, Dick, who worked alongside her to coordinate volunteers, said they believe the practice of adoration is why Wichita has strong Catholic schools and why Blessed Sacrament received an international stewardship award in 2015.

They also believe it is why the diocese has so many seminarians, dwarfing the ratio of seminarians from much larger places such as the Archdioceses of Los Angeles or New York.

“The Eucharist is the heart of our religion,” Pat Dwyer said. “When you see the host there, it’s a totally different feel. I’m with him. He’s with me.”