Celebrating Corpus Christi

The fact that the Church celebrates the solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ makes good sense, given the Eucharist’s centrality in the life of the Church, neatly described by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the “sum and summary of our faith” (No. 1327). And there’s the Second Vatican Council’s famous reiteration of this reality in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, calling the Eucharist the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, No. 11). These truths about the Eucharist seem to be at the heart of why the medieval saint Juliana of Liège was moved to guide the Church toward celebrating this yearly solemnity, more commonly known as Corpus Christi.

Historical Background

St. Juliana, a little-known Norbertine canoness from modern-day Belgium, spent much of her life advocating for a feast to honor and celebrate Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist and all the meaning it holds for the Church. St. Juliana was prompted to advocate for the feast in response to not only her own personal devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, but also in response to private revelations.

Interpreted later, in consultation with spiritual guides, the visions of St. Juliana that began when she was 16 years old indicated the necessity of a liturgical feast in honor of the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. Given the culture of the early 13th century, she felt there was nothing she could do about instituting such a feast. However, she had confided in two individuals, other than a few members of her monastery, about the visions — both of whom proved to be helpful in bringing its establishment to fruition.

The young monk who served as St. Juliana’s confessor, John of Lausanne, collaborated with her to compose an office by which to celebrate this divinely inspired liturgical feast. Eventually their diocesan bishop approved the texts and authorized its celebration in his diocese in 1246.

Bl. Eva of Liège, an anchoress attached to the parish attended by St. Juliana and one of her confidantes, was instrumental in bringing the feast beyond its provincial origins after St. Juliana’s death. Bl. Eva had contacted Pope Urban IV with the request to celebrate the feast throughout the universal Church. The future pope originally was a priest of Liège and already had been familiar with St. Juliana’s visions and their meaning. And so, it seemed, the hand of providence was behind the pope’s 1264 declaration of the solemnity of Corpus Christi — the first universal feast to be imposed obligatorily by a pope. He assigned papal theologian St. Thomas Aquinas to compose new liturgical texts for the feast. This promulgation came at a time when scholastics debated the corporeality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, chief among the defenders of which was St. Thomas, who supplied the philosophical backbone of the Church’s Eucharistic doctrine by defining transubstantiation.

Many of the original texts for Corpus Christi composed by St. Thomas Aquinas, including Adoro te Devote, remain an essential part of the Church’s sacred hymnography. The Pange Lingua, for example, is often sung during the Eucharistic procession after the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, to which the last two stanzas are referred separately as Tantum ergo and sung at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

Eucharistic Processions

One of the key liturgical facets of Corpus Christi is its procession. Of course, processions have great biblical, liturgical and popular pietistic importance. In the Old Testament, think of the processions with the Ark of the Covenant, or the innumerable accounts of festal pilgrimage processions to Jerusalem — praising God with music and dance — of which the Psalms speak. Or in the New Testament, think of the procession of Christ through those first Palm Sunday crowds who shouted his praises. Processions of the faithful enable Christians to give public witness to their faith, give glory to God, and they symbolize our earthly pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem.

Eucharistic processions began shortly after the institution of the solemnity of Corpus Christi. Often splendid and regal, the practice was encouraged by the Council of Trent so as to reiterate the Church’s belief in the real presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

The medieval Eucharistic processions on Corpus Christi were grand and stately affairs, involving entire towns and cities. They were particularly glorious in European Catholic monarchies, where sovereigns and nobility, other civic officials and military guards took part. The faithful knelt in place outside their homes as the procession came by. This is still seen today in the few vestiges of Catholic monarchy, such as in the Principality of Monaco, where the prince and members of his family kneel in adoration on the Galerie Hercule of the Prince’s Palais during the Corpus Christi procession led by their archbishop.

The annual papal celebration of Corpus Christi (held on the traditional Thursday date, as it still is in most of Europe) winds its way through the streets of Rome to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, after the Mass at the pope’s cathedral — the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Pope St. John Paul II restored this custom early in his pontificate. As cardinal archbishop of Kraków the future pope was known to clash with Communist leaders as he sought to restore the full Corpus Christi processions known in Poland in his youth.

St. John Paul said of Eucharistic processions: “Our faith in the God who took flesh in order to become our companion along the way needs to be everywhere proclaimed, especially in our streets and homes, as an expression of our grateful love and as an inexhaustible source of blessings” (Mane Nobiscum Domine, No. 18). And, Pope Benedict XVI said, Corpus Christi processions allow us to “immerse [Christ], so to speak, in the daily routine of our lives, so that he may walk where we walk and live where we live.”

Parish Celebrations Today

The practice of Eucharistic processions are encouraged today. They provide us with, as Pope Benedict said, “a renewal of the mystery of Holy Thursday, as it were, in obedience to Jesus’ invitation to proclaim from ‘the housetops’ what he told us in secret (see Mt 10:27).” Many parishes continue this venerable tradition in a variety of different ways. When parish churches are in a residential area, perhaps altars are set up, adorned with flowers and candles in front of homes, for the faithful to stop and adore the Eucharistic Lord along the procession route. In cities, the processions may stretch blocks, or in some cases even a mile or more — likely concluding at a different church.

While the Roman Missal gives little information about the Corpus Christi procession, the Ceremonial of Bishops sheds more light as it aims to provide bishops and their clergy with a model for its organization, etc.

The Ceremonial provides information about the organization of the procession, including the order of the ministers. The directives leave room for creativity and expression of the local community’s culture and customs. Many parishes choose to include particular groups and associations of the faithful in their processions, which is especially illustrative of many parts of and gifts found in the mystical Body of Christ. Groups often included are the choir, fraternal organizations such as the Knights of Columbus or, perhaps, those who recently received their first holy Communion. It’s typical for liturgical accoutrement, such as a canopy, to be held over the sacred minister as he carries the monstrance, or there could be lit torches alongside of him to accompany the Blessed Sacrament. Bells may be used or flowers may be spread along the path the Lord travels. While a procession can be anywhere between simple and elaborate, it is key to remember that properly trained volunteers and organization are needed.

During the procession, hymns of praise and thanksgiving or a simple chant are typical, although litanies and other prayers like the Rosary may be integrated. The Ceremonial of Bishops envisions the procession to be most fitting when going from one church to another, and, while that might not always be possible or practical, the procession should properly end with Benediction before reposing the Blessed Sacrament.

The solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ and its Eucharistic procession give us, as Pope Francis notes, “the joy not only of celebrating” the glorious mystery of the Eucharist, “but also of praising him and singing in the streets of our city.” They allow us to “express our gratitude for … nourishing us with his love through the Sacrament of his Body and the Blood.”

MICHAEL R. HEINLEIN is editor of OSV’s The Catholic Answer magazine. Email him at mheinlein@osv.com. Follow him on Twitter@HeinleinMichael.