PROCESSING WITH THE EUCHARISTIC BODY OF CHRIST
A fresco in the cathedral of Orvieto (central Italy) depicts a magnificent scene. In 1263, Pope Urban IV (reigned 1261–1264), who was residing in the city, went to meet a procession that was coming from nearby Bolsena. The pope was awaiting the arrival of a consecrated host that had oozed blood, together with a corporal (linen cloth) in which it had been wrapped.
The priest who celebrated the Mass in which the marvel occurred, Peter of Prague, had been harboring doubts about the eucharistic presence of Christ and, when the incident took place, reported it to the pope. After investigating the matter, Urban became convinced that the phenomenon was miraculous. He was now enshrining the relics in the Orvieto cathedral, where they are kept to this day.
That procession in 1263 may have been the first one associated with Corpus Christi, the feast day commemorating the Eucharist that typically falls in June. (Corpus Christi is the Latin expression for “Body of Christ.”)
The commemoration originated in Liège (present-day Belgium). There, the local bishop, Robert Thourette, acceded to the request of St. Juliana of Cornillon (ca. 1192–1258), an Augustinian nun, to institute a feast dedicated to the Eucharist (1246).
Some 40 years earlier, Juliana, who had always been fervently devoted to the Blessed Sacrament, had a vision of a full moon with a dark stripe running through it (ca. 1208). She interpreted the vision to mean that the Church lacked a feast centered on the Eucharist, and that she must advocate for it.
Pope Urban was familiar with Juliana’s call for a feast in honor of the Eucharist, and had himself taken part in such a feast when, as Jacques Pantaléon, he was archdeacon of Liège (1243–1249). Later, just before the end of his pontificate and death, he extended the feast of Corpus Christi to the whole Church (Transiturus de hoc mundo, 1264).
Urban explained that a special feast day was necessary for appreciating the greatness of the Eucharist:
“Although this holy sacrament is celebrated every day in the solemn rite of Mass, nevertheless, we believe it is useful and fitting that a more solemn feast be celebrated at least once a year… Since on Holy Thursday, the day when Christ instituted it [the Eucharist], the universal Church, occupied with hearing the confessions of the faithful, blessing chrism [holy oil], fulfilling the command of the washing of feet, and with many other sacred ceremonies, cannot fully attend to the celebration of this great sacrament.”
According to tradition, Urban personally celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi in the cathedral in Orvieto. He had commissioned his friend, St. Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1224–1274), to compose the prayers and hymns for the feast (1261–1263). For the occasion, Thomas wrote, among other pieces, “Pange, lingua.” This hymn includes the verses “Tantum ergo Sacramentum,” which are typically sung when the Eucharist is exposed for adoration.
Urban’s death resulted in an extended loss of momentum for the spread of Corpus Christi. His successors Clement V (1312) and John XXII (1317) propelled the wider adoption of the feast. Around 1300 the custom arose of carrying the Eucharist in procession on the feast day. The Council of Trent defended and encouraged this practice in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation (Decree on the Sacrament of the Eucharist, 1555, ch. 5, can. 6).
As part of the liturgical reform inaugurated by Vatican Council II, Corpus Christi, which was officially called “The Most Holy Body of Christ,” absorbed the feast of the Precious Blood (July 1). The name of the combined feast became “The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ,” although it is still generally referred to as Corpus Christi (“Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and Calendar,” 1969, no. 7). The Roman Missal recommends that a eucharistic procession be carried out on this day.
Urban IV had decreed that Corpus Christi be observed on the second Thursday after Pentecost (as was the practice in Liège). Thursday was undoubtedly chosen because Christ instituted the Eucharist on that day (Holy Thursday). In the United States, Corpus Christi was eventually transferred from the second Thursday after Pentecost to the following Sunday (1984).