Corpus Christi Origin and Rites
Corpus Christi processions are an important part of maintaining and publicly professing the Catholic Faith. During the Communist persecution in Poland, for example, the main procession in Krakow would involve up to 250,000 participants each year boldly paying homage to our Eucharistic King. The numbers have waned since then, not only due to the crisis in the Church in the wake of Vatican II, but also because the main city procession has been somewhat eclipsed by suburban processions. However, even today the procession is attended by about ten thousand faithful and is still a powerful profession of Faith in the Blessed Sacrament, as this writer was able to observe during a recent SSPX Pilgrimage.
At the head of the Cracovian procession come the various Confraternities with their embroidered banners, some regiments of the Polish military, followed by the many orders of male and female Religious—in Poland they have kept their traditional habits—then the Priests, the Cathedral Canons in full regalia, and the Bishops, followed by the Processional Canopy under which Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is carried by the Cardinal-Archbishop. Along the sides of the canopy, in addition to the requisite torchbearers, there is an honor guard of the Polish nobility donning their mediaeval, Slavic fur attire. Following the Blessed Sacrament, the crowds of the faithful process devotedly, singing en masse the familiar Latin Eucharistic hymns in addition to some in Polish. Because not all can even glimpse the canopy from such a distance, nearby it a flag-bearer processes with a very tall flag marking its location, the flag bearing images of Christ the King and Our Lady of Czestochowa. The whole scene transcends time, and is reminiscent of the 13th century, which is in fact when the Feast of Corpus Christi began.
Blessed Juliana of Mont Cornillon
The origins of the Feast begin with a vision and a request given by Christ Himself to a humble nun and with a famous Eucharistic miracle. The nun was named Blessed Juliana of Mont Cornillon, from a town in the Prince-Bishopric of Liège, in modern-day Belgium. She is also known as Bl. Juliana of Liège (1193-1258). Having been orphaned at the age of five, she was entrusted to the care of the Augustinian nuns of Mont Cornillon, where she eventually determined to enter the religious life, took the habit and professed vows, later becoming Prioress of the monastic convent.
Bl. Juliana had an intense devotion to the Blessed Sacrament from her earliest youth. In Liège, in fact, there were some groups of pious women who lived in common, with a rich Eucharistic devotional life. Their example prepared the way for the remarkable events to take place in Bl. Juliana’s life. From the age of sixteen, whenever she would pray, she would see a remarkable sign: a splendid full moon with a slight gap across its spherical body. After some time of trying to understand the meaning of such a vision and being troubled by it, Christ Himself revealed to her that the moon was the Church at present, and the gap in the moon symbolized the absence of a solemnity which He still desired His faithful on earth to celebrate. (“Tunc revelavit ei Christus in luna praesentem ecclesiam; in luna autem fractione defectum unius sollemnitatis in ecclesia figurari, quam adhuc volebat in terris a suis fidelibus celebrari.” Vita Julianae II, 6.) Our Lord willed to increase the Faith and growth of His elect by means of a Feast dedicated to the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, above and beyond the solemnities of Maundy Thursday which are so intimately connected with the remembrance of His Passion.
For a span of twenty years, purely out of humility, Bl. Juliana hesitated to reveal this vision and begged Our Lord repeatedly to find a more worthy instrument for the establishing of this great Feast. Having been consoled by Our Lord, she finally described the vision and the request to her ecclesiastical superiors. She patiently suffered many trials and adversity in connection with the divine task she was given, and edified all by her constant humility and charity. She was able to see the Feast begin to take root in Liège already in her own lifetime. Twelve years later, she died in the odor of sanctity in 1258, with a special privilege: on her deathbed, the Blessed Sacrament was enthroned for exposition in her own cell, and she went to her eternal reward gazing upon Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. An authoritative account of her saintly life and revelations, the Vita Julianae, was written shortly after her death, and she would later be beatified by Bl. Pope Pius IX in 1869.
The ecclesiastics to whom Bl. Juliana revealed her mission would each take on very important roles in the history of the establishment of the Feast. They were the Prince-Bishop of Liège, Mgr. Robert de Thorete, the learned Dominican Father Hugh of St-Cher, and the Archdeacon of Liège, Abbé Jacques Pantaleon. Mgr. de Thorete held a diocesan consultation in 1246, and as bishops then had the right of establishing feasts within their own diocese, he established the feast for his diocese of Liège, where it began to be devoutly celebrated. Fr. Hugh of St-Cher, native of Liège, became Cardinal-Legate to the Netherlands, and in 1251 established the Feast of Corpus Christi in all of his subsequent territories throughout central Europe. Abbé Jacques Pantaleon’s role was to be even greater: after becoming Bishop of Verdun and Patriarch of Jerusalem, he was elected to the Apostolic See as Pope Urban IV in 1261.
The Eucharistic Miracles of Bolsena-Orvieto and Lanciano
Pope Urban had already had the grace of assisting at the institution of the Feast of Corpus Christi in Liège and had intimate knowledge of the revelation given to Blessed Juliana. But the Eucharistic miracle of Bolsena-Orvieto in 1263 would be the strongest indication from Heaven that he should establish the Feast for the whole Church. Pope Urban was staying in Orvieto at the time, a hill city north of Rome, as was the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas. While a priest was celebrating Mass in the small town of Bolsena nearby, he noticed that the Sacred Host began to ooze blood onto the corporal, and it was clear to all that a new Eucharistic miracle had taken place, with certain similarities to the famous Eucharistic miracle that had occurred in Lanciano, in northern Italy, already five centuries before.
In Lanciano, while a priest had been celebrating Mass, the Sacred Host and the Precious Blood, already transformed in substance, miraculously took on the visible appearance and qualities (the accidents) of Our Lord’s flesh and blood. The host appeared as a thin cross-section of heart flesh, and the blood congealed into five globules. Over the span of many centuries, they remain as they were, without having decayed. The blood proteins are in the same percentages as in fresh, normal blood. The blood type is AB, corresponding to the blood type on the Shroud of Turin. Modern cardiac surgeons trained in the most advanced techniques relate that the thin section of heart flesh could not have been extracted in such a way, i.e., that it is scientifically inexplicable. The weight of the blood globules on a scientific scale reveals that one globule weighs exactly the same as two or five globules, miraculously showing that Our Lord is present whole and entire in the sacred species no matter what the quantity may be.
With the longstanding history of such an astounding Eucharistic miracle well in mind, surely, the new miracle at Bolsena was quite stirring. Pope Urban, in nearby Orvieto, was immediately informed and was able to inspect the blood-stained corporal himself. The Corporal was carried in procession throughout the city of Orvieto by the whole Papal Court, where thousands of the faithful gathered. Pope Urban had it enshrined in the Cathedral of Orvieto in an enameled reliquary, and subsequently a new and more splendid cathedral was constructed for the sole purpose of housing such an important relic. To this day, the corporal is visible and it is noted that, upon close inspection, the stains of blood show the profile of the Holy Face of Our Lord.
Pope Urban IV and Transiturus
Within a year after this miraculous sign, Pope Urban promulgated the Papal Bull Transiturus de hoc mundo on August 11, 1264, establishing the Feast of Corpus Christi for the whole Church. (The 750th Anniversary of this momentous occasion has just recently occurred.) Pope Urban’s Transiturus contains a beautiful meditation on the great gift of the Holy Eucharist, and explains some motivations for the Feast, much of which is based on the revelation of Christ to Bl. Juliana. Considering the gift Our Lord gives of Himself in the Blessed Sacrament, for example, Pope Urban notes that “when someone’s gift is more frequently gazed upon, the memory of him is more closely retained.” The first reason given for establishing the Feast is to make reparation for the insults given to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament by the “perfidy and insanity of heretics” and to confound them (“Ad confundendam specialiter haereticorum perfidiam et insaniam, memoria solemnior et celebrior habeatur.” Bullarium Romanum, 705 ff). Indeed, perfidious and insane attacks on such a profound dogma of the Faith had already come from the Waldensians and Albigensians, who would serve as the inspiration for the attacks on the Faith by John Wycliffe and Jan Huss, themselves the precursors of Calvin and Luther.
The Pontiff secondly describes that, just as the Church sets aside one solemn day to celebrate the saints all together—All Saints’ Day—to repair for any lack of devotion due to human weakness or negligence through the year, it is even more fitting that, while the Most Holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, glory and crown of all the saints, is venerated in every Mass, there be a special Feast set aside when the faithful can adore the Body of Christ with singular fervor and solemnity. Pope Urban closes by making special mention of the revelation of Bl. Juliana: “We understood, while once constituted in a lesser office, that it was divinely revealed to some Catholics, that a Feast of this type should be celebrated throughout the Church” (“Intelleximus autem olim dum in minori essemus officio constituti, quod fuerat quibusdam catholicis divinitus revelatum, festum huiusmodi generaliter in Ecclesia celebrandum”).
Pope Urban died only a couple of months after the promulgation of the feast, and several subsequent Popes picked up the torch, issuing decrees urging the devout celebration of Corpus Christi everywhere. Clement VI, in his decree, made reference to the Eucharistic miracle of Bolsena-Orvieto, while Gregory XI (1337) even provided a descriptive account of the miracle in his, as have subsequent Popes.
Pope Urban enriched the festal Office and Mass with special indulgences, and later Pontiffs enriched the Processions with indulgences as well. The devout observance of the Feast in later years became so esteemed that Canon Law would forbid bishops to be absent from their cathedrals on Corpus Christi (cf. CJC 1917, c. 338). The Council of Trent would acclaim how the Church had rightly introduced the custom that “each year, on a certain special feast, the august and venerable Sacrament should be honored with singular veneration and solemnity, and that It should be reverently and with every honor carried in processions through the public roads and places” (Session XII, Ch. 5), anathematizing anyone who declared the contrary.
The Liturgy of Corpus Christi
Pope Urban had chosen St. Thomas Aquinas to compose the texts for the Divine Office and the Mass of the Feast. There had been a previous version composed for use in Liège, and one exemplar is preserved in the historic Strahov Monastery in Prague. Dom Gueranger speculates as to whether St. Thomas had the Liège version sous les yeux as he composed his own, although liturgical sources are unclear on this point. Nevertheless, the esteemed abbot concludes that “St. Thomas, the most perfect of the 13th-century Scholastics, thus finds himself as the most sublime of poets” (Institutions Liturgiques, I, 334-5). St. Thomas’s Corpus Christi composition has given the Church the most magnificent Eucharistic hymns, especially the Pange Lingua with its conclusion, Tantum Ergo; O Salutaris Hostia, itself the final two stanzas of the hymn for Lauds, and the unparalleled sequence Lauda Sion Salvatorem.
Eucharistic processions have been held since the 10th century, but with the Sacred Host enclosed or veiled. In the late 13th century, monstrances (ostensoria) with crystal enclosures were introduced. In Rome, the Corpus Christi procession customarily held by the Pope between St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major became an example of how splendid the theophoric processions could become. In longer Eucharistic Processions, a few altars of repose are used, at which the procession can rest, and Benediction is usually given at each. These altars and the streets along the way are decorated with great care, with flower carpets in intricate designs, tapestries, hangings, etc. In Poland, the faithful take home a branch of greenery from the altars of repose as a sacramental. In the USA, an indult of Nov. 25, 1885, stipulated that the External Solemnity of the Feast be celebrated on the following Sunday for the greater participation of the faithful, and it is then that the processions are usually held. The Roman Ritual of 1614, which provides the rubrics for processions, praises reverent participation: “The sacred public processions and solemn rites of petition used in the Catholic Church have their origin in the very ancient institution by our holy forefathers…. For they are the bearers of sublime and godly mysteries and all who devoutly participate in them receive from God the salutary fruits of Christian piety.”