Corpus Christi

May 02, 2023 / Written by: Tonia Long

A Feast for the Soul

Also known as the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, this feast honors Jesus Christ, really, truly, and substantially present under the appearances of bread and wine. This mysterious Presence happens through what the Church calls transubstantiation (“a change of substance, not appearance”) when at the Consecration of the Mass, the priest says the words which Christ Himself pronounced over bread and wine, “This is My Body,” “This is the chalice of My Blood,” “Do this in remembrance of Me.”

On Maundy Thursday, the day before Our Lord suffered and died on the cross for our sins, the Church commemorates the institution of the Holy Eucharist. As the Scribes and Pharisees were plotting to end Our Lord’s life and extinguish His presence in the world, He had already devised a way to be among us everywhere till the end of time. On this day, Our Lord, not wanting to leave us “orphans,” performed the first Mass at the Last Supper with His apostles in the upper room. Such a festival is precluded by the sad and sorrowful memories of the day — the betrayal of Judas, Christ’s agony and arrest, and Saint Peter’s denial — making it impossible to honor the Blessed Sacrament with appropriate solemn and joyful rites on such a sad day as this.

The Last Supper

And so it remained until the Middle Ages until the thirteenth century. It was a humble nun in Belgium, Saint Juliana, Prioress of Mont Cornillon, who first suggested and advocated a special feast in honor of the Blessed Sacrament to be celebrated on a day other than Maundy Thursday.

From the time she was sixteen years old, she had a vision in prayer; it was as if the full moon appeared to her in brilliant light while a part of its disc remained black and lightless. Finally, Christ showed her the meaning of this picture in a vision. The moon represented the ecclesiastical year; the black spot indicated the lack of a festival in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. She was to announce to the authorities of the Church that God wished such a feast to be established.

Black spot on the moon

In 1230 Juliana communicated her secret to a small group of learned theologians. As her message became publicly known, she suffered scorn and ridicule for years. But the bishop of her diocese (Liége) and some of his canons eventually lent a willing ear to her entreaties. In 1246 a diocesan synod decided in her favor and prescribed such a feast for the churches of Liége.

Jacques Pantaléon, Archdeacon of Liége, who later became Pope Urban IV
Jacques Pantaléon, Archdeacon of Liége, who later became Pope Urban IV.

Could it have been a mere coincidence that one of the men supporting her efforts in Belgium later became pope? He was Jacques Pantaléon, Archdeacon of Liége. Upon his election to the papal office, he assumed the name of Urban IV (1261-1265). On September 8, 1264, six years after Juliana’s death, he established that festival in honor of the Holy Eucharist, which the saintly nun had proclaimed to be willed by God for the whole Church. It was celebrated with great solemnity on the Thursday after Pentecost week, and indulgences were granted to all who would receive Holy Communion or attend special devotions in addition to hearing Mass.

Pope Urban IV commissioned the great Dominican scholar Saint Thomas Aquinas to compose the new feast’s Mass and Divine Office texts. The splendor, depth, and devotion of the prayers and hymns that Saint Thomas wrote have enriched the liturgy with one of its most beautiful rituals. They are still used today, inspiring all who should hear them with a deeper devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.

Taking The Blessed Sacrament in procession in the streets

“Nor does anyone light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick. And it gives light to all who are in the house.” (Matt 5:15)

Beginning in the fourteenth century, throughout Christendom, the custom developed of carrying the Blessed Sacrament in a splendid procession through the town after the Mass on Corpus Christi Day. A Corpus Christi wreath of flowers surrounded the monstrance, a sacred vessel whose clear glass permits viewing the Sacred Host.

God dwells in our midst, in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. — Saint Maximilian Kolbe

The Corpus Christi procession became the feast’s most prominent feature. It was a pageant in which princes, magistrates, and guild members participated. The procession began in the fourteenth century and was customarily followed by guild members performing mystery plays. As one can imagine, this was a feast day many Catholics looked forward to and fully participated in with great devotion.

Corpus Christi Procession

In Catholic countries, such processions often went throughout the city. The faithful usually sing and pray, all in honor of our Eucharistic King. This practice has been promoted by popes, councils, and saints as a beautiful way to show the supreme importance of the Eucharist and our love for Our Lord present in flesh and blood.

During the procession, church bells are rung, and the faithful kneel in front of their homes to adore the Eucharistic Lord. Frequently, stops are made at various points called “stations” during the procession, and the Blessed Sacrament is placed on a reverently decorated altar table.

At the same time, a Gospel passage is read, and hymns are sung. One such sacred tribute is the hymn Tantum Ergo, written by Saint Thomas Aquinas:

Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail;
Lo! o’er ancient forms departing,
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail.

Why Corpus Christi?

“Corpus Christi,” in Latin, “the Body of Christ,” is a quintessential element of our Catholic Faith. For over two millennia, It has provided humanity with physical proof that, indeed, “The Word became Flesh and made His dwelling among us.” (John 1:14). For so great a blessing and favor from God Himself, it is only fitting that we should set aside a special feast day in which to express our thanksgiving and adoration.

Pope Pius XII
Pope Pius XII

Thru his 1947 Encyclical “Mediator Dei” (On the Sacred Liturgy), Pope Pius XII began a new stage in the Church’s teaching on the efficacy of prayer to Jesus present in the Sacrament of the altar. Here are some of his quotes on the importance of Eucharistic Adoration in our lives:

131. “When, therefore, the Church bids us adore Christ hidden behind the Eucharistic veils and pray to Him for spiritual and temporal favors, of which we ever stand in need, she manifests living faith in her divine Spouse who is present beneath these veils, she professes her gratitude to Him, and she enjoys the intimacy of His friendship.”

132. “Now, during centuries, the Church has introduced various forms of this worship which are ever increasing in beauty and helpfulness; as, for example, visits of devotion to the tabernacles, even every day; and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament publicly exposed.”

133. “These exercises of piety have brought a wonderful increase in faith and supernatural life to the Church militant upon earth, and they are reechoed to a certain extent by the Church triumphant in heaven which sings continually a hymn of praise to God and to the Lamb “who was slain.” Wherefore, the Church not merely approves these pious practices, which have spread everywhere throughout the world over the centuries, but makes them her own, as it were, and by her authority commends them.”

Corpus Christi Procession - Mount Calvary

"...In this world, I cannot see the Most High Son of God with my own eyes, except for His Most Holy Body and Blood." ~ Saint Francis of Assisi