Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Mystic, the Doubter, the Pope and the Dumb Ox: The Fascinating Origins of Corpus Christi

Modern day Corpus Christi procession.

Today, many throughout the Catholic Church celebrate a uniquely Catholic feast day: the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, better known by the Latin title "Corpus Christi." Though originally and traditionally celebrated on "the Thursday following Trinity Sunday," in parts of the Church where it is not kept as a Holy Day of Obligation (like here in the U.S.), the feast is transferred to the following Sunday. But in many parts of the world, Corpus Christi is celebrated today. In fact, in many European nations, today is a public holiday. 

Pope Benedict giving Benediction.
Tonight, Pope Benedict will preside over the Corpus Christi Mass at the ancient Basilica of St. John Lateran (which is actually the cathedral of Rome, for those of you who care – you do remember that the pope is the bishop of Rome, right?). After the conclusion of Mass, he will lead a Corpus Christi procession through the streets of Rome, ending at the Basilica of St. Mary Major. 

What is Corpus Christi?

Some of you might be a little rusty on your Catholic phraseology. Corpus Christi (Latin for “Body of Christ”) is a feast day that is uniquely and traditionally Catholic. It is a festive day that is set aside solely to honor our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. (What could be more Catholic than that?) What many may not realize is that the story of the origins of the Feast of Corpus Christi date back many centuries and it includes some unlikely characters: a mystic, a doubter, a pope and a big “Dumb Ox.” 


The mystic: Juliana of Lièrge

In many ways, the origins of the Feast of Corpus Christ can be credited to St. Juliana of Liège. She was a nun and a mystic (a person purported to receive visions or “personal revelations”) who lived in present-day Belgium. From a young age, Juliana had a special devotion to our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and she longed for a special day on the Church calendar devoted solely to honoring the Holy Eucharist. 

St. Juliana of Lièrge (d. 1252)
How did the feast day come about? Well, here’s how it went down: As we already mentioned, St. Juliana was said to be the recipient of mystical visions. She would only confide these visions to her confessor (in other words, she wasn’t blabbing about them and seeking fame or notoriety – the true sign of a fake in these sorts of matters). 

Anyway, according to traditional accounts, the visions that Juliana was receiving increased her long-standing desire for the Church to institute a special feast day honoring the Eucharist. One of the visions in particular really sealed the deal: In it, Juliana saw the Church appearing as a radiant full moon, marred by only one small dark spot. This spot, or imperfection, Juliana understood to be the lack of a commemoration day on the Church’s calendar dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament. 

Juliana, as usual, relayed this vision to her confessor who then, in turn, relayed it to the Archdeacon of the diocese, Jacques Pantaléon. He was so taken with the novel idea that he passed it along to the local bishop, Robert of Thourotte. The archdeacon and the bishop supported Juliana’s sentiments and soon, the very first “Feast of Corpus Christi” was established within (and only within) the Diocese of Liège. The year was 1246. 


The doubter: Peter of Prague 

Miracle of Bolsena on an ancient tapestry.
A few years after Juliana’s visions, an extraordinary event happened in a small, nondescript church in Italy. In the year 1263, tradition records that a German priest named Peter was on his way to Rome, on pilgrimage. The priest had lately been struggling with a crisis of faith and he had real doubts about Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist. In the small town of Bolsena, about 70 miles north of Rome, the priest stopped to celebrate his daily Mass, in the midst of his personal doubt, in the local Church of St. Christina. As Peter raised the Host and consecrated it during the Mass, the Host began to bleed. As in blood - blood that flowed from the Host, over Fr. Peter’s hands and onto the corporal on the altar, staining it. 

Needless to say, Fr. Peter was shocked. But he soon began to realize that the event was nothing less than a spectacular and miraculous sign from God of Christ’s Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. The bloodstained corporal was preserved and taken to the nearby city of Orvieto where the pope was overseeing construction of a new papal palace. The pope, Urban IV, upon hearing Fr. Peter’s story and seeing the bloodstained corporal, ordered that the corporal be taken to the city’s cathedral, where it is still preserved and enshrined to this day. 


The pope: Urban IV

Pope Urban had been pope only two years when the German priest approached him in Orvieto. Before his election to the papacy, he had served as the archdeacon in a small diocese in present-day Belgium. His name was Jacques Pantaléon, and he was none other than the former Archdeacon for the Diocese of Liège who, less than 20 years earlier, had taken note of the visions of the late nun Juliana and had been instrumental in establishing the Feast of Corpus Christi in that diocese.

The next year, in 1264, Pope Urban IV promulgated a papal bull that instituted Corpus Christi as a feast for the entire Latin Church. The feast moved from being a little-known celebration on the calendar of only one diocese, to being one of the universal Church’s most important feasts – celebrated in every diocese in the world. This was the first time in Church history that a pope placed a newly created feast day on the universal Church calendar. 


The Dumb Ox

St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274)
But Pope Urban wasn’t done yet. When he instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi, the pope realized that he needed beautiful, yet theologically precise words to accompany the prayers and Masses for the new feast day. He needed someone to compose the prayers and hymns, someone who appreciated timeless beauty as well as lofty theological ideas. In short, he needed one of the most brilliant minds to every expend his efforts in the service of the Church. He got the “Dumb Ox.”

Thomas Aquinas is now recognized as one of the Church’s wisest theologians. We now revere him, the author of the Summa Theologica, as a brilliant theologian and a saint, and honor him as a “Doctor of the Church.” But as a young professor of theology, after failing his first disputation, his superior labeled Thomas “the dumb ox.” But he went on, recognizing the special gifts of intellect that Thomas had: “We call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world.” 

At the time he received the call from Pope Urban IV to write the liturgy for the new Feast of Corpus Christ, St. Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican brother, living in Orvieto and serving as “conventual lector,” or teacher, for the Dominican brothers who were unable to attend one of Europe’s prestigious universities (you know the university is a creation of the Church, right?... but I digress). Thomas’ stay in Orvieto was only temporary so perhaps it was providential that he happened to be there at the very moment when the pope needed just the right man to create the liturgical documents, prayers and hymns for this new feast day. 

The liturgy that Aquinas composed for the Feast of Corpus Christi is still a treasured part of the Church’s liturgical heritage. It speaks volumes just to realize that his poetic words praising Christ in the Eucharist have survived the liturgical earthquake of the past fifty years and, though not used to the extent originally intended, they remain, at least in part, a part of the modern Mass. The sequence Lauda Sion Salvatorem, to be sung just before the Alleluia during the Mass, happens to be one of the most beautiful hymns in the Catholic liturgy. (Many of our readers might also know that it is also one of the longest though, some will happily note, its use in the newer Roman Missal is optional.)

Medieval Corpus Christi procession with a bishop. 

Why Corpus Christi? What about Holy Thursday?

In many cities, Corpus Christi (whether celebrated today, or this coming Sunday) is commemorated with a public procession of the Blessed Sacrament. During the procession, which usually follows the principal Mass of the day, the priest places the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance and carries it held aloft while the faithful follow, singing hymns. As a sign of honor, the Blessed Sacrament is covered with a canopy, preceded by incense-bearers and accompanied by torchbearers. In some places, this procession is one of the best-known devotional acts in the local community and it is easy to see how it is an important public display of Catholic faith. The procession usually ends with Eucharistic Benediction. 

Some of you might even wonder why all the fuss – why this special day set apart for the Blessed Sacrament? After all, what about Holy Thursday? Well, it’s an excellent question and one that was discussed many times in the centuries prior to the 13th. The Church has long honored Holy Thursday as the day on which Christ instituted the Eucharist. But that day is not set aside solely for honoring the Blessed Sacrament. Think about it: Holy Thursday falls during the Church's most solemn week, which means that it is often overshadowed by the other events of Holy Week and the Eucharist shares the devotional focus on that day with Christ’s mandatum (the “new commandment” given by Christ to his disciples in Jn 13:34 and symbolized by the washing of the feet during the Holy Thursday liturgy) and with the institution of the priesthood. So, St. Juliana’s suggestion that the Church institute a special feast day specifically for the Eucharist was an excellent one. 

So, the history and reasoning behind Corpus Christi is really fascinating. Thanks to St. Juliana, Fr. Peter, Pope Urban IV and St. Thomas Aquinas, we have inherited one of the most unique and beautiful liturgical expressions of our Catholic faith. We rest on their efforts to continue to worthily honor our Lord truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. That Sacrament which is Christ’s very Body and Blood, and which the Church, in modern times, has succinctly described as “the source and summit of the Christian life.” 


'To hell' With Symbols

Flannery O'Connor (d. 1964)
But, being the feisty Southerner that I am, I am particularly fond of another Southern Catholic’s description of the Blessed Sacrament. We’ll end today’s entry with words written by one of the most well-known Southern-fried Catholics ever: the unassuming Georgia firebrand, Flannery O’Connor. Here, O'Connor relates the story of being caught as the only Catholic at a Southern dinner party when the talk of religion arises (it’s not an enviable position to be in, I can assure you). But O’Connor’s defense of the Blessed Sacrament, as she tells it, is as honest and lucid a position as one can take. The last sentence is especially poignant (and true):

I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, A Charmed Life.) She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn't opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say.... Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.
Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, "Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it."
That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.

Gotta love Flannery O’Connor. Whether you celebrate Corpus Christi today or on Sunday, SFC wishes you a happy and a blessed one!