We all love the feast of Corpus Christi, or of the Body and Blood of Christ, with its processions, Eucharistic adoration and the emphasis on the Real Presence of Christ in this truly Blessed Sacrament. But few know the background of the feast. I post here two of my columns on the subject, from my books Question Time 1 and Question Time 2.
150. The feast of Corpus Christi
In the celebration of the Year of the Eucharist much emphasis was placed on the feast of Corpus Christi. I don’t have any problem with that because I am among those attend Eucharistic Adoration whenever I can. I was just wondering why the Church has a second feast, in addition to Holy Thursday, in honour of the Holy Eucharist.
As you say, the first feast of the Holy Eucharist is Holy Thursday, when we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood in the Last Supper. But because that feast is celebrated in Holy Week, in the Easter Triduum, the principal focus is the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ rather than the Eucharist itself. In part for this reason, we have another feast wholly dedicated to the Eucharist, this time emphasising the Real Presence: the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, more commonly known as Corpus Christi.
This feast owes its origin to the development of devotion to the Eucharist in the thirteenth century, and was first established in Liege, Belgium, in 1246, by Bishop Robert of Turotte. A call for the feast had been made by St Juliana of Cornillon, who in 1208 reported a vision in which she understood Jesus to be lamenting the absence of a particular feast in the Church’s calendar focused on his sacramental presence on the altar.
A key figure in the establishment of the feast for the whole Church was the archdeacon of Liege, Jacques Pantaleon. In 1261 he became Pope Urban IV and three years later he instituted the feast. The procession associated with the feast became popular in the fourteenth century and is now a traditional aspect of the celebration.
The feast owes much to the Eucharistic miracle that took place in Bolsena, Italy, in 1263. In that year a German priest, Peter of Prague, stopped at Bolsena while on a pilgrimage to Rome. He is described as being a pious priest, but one who found it difficult to believe that Christ was actually present in the consecrated host. While celebrating Mass over the tomb of St Christina in the church named for this martyr, he had barely spoken the words of consecration when blood started to seep from the consecrated host and trickle over his hands onto the altar and the corporal.
The priest was immediately filled with consternation. At first he attempted to hide the blood, but then he interrupted the Mass and asked to be taken to the neighbouring city of Orvieto, where Pope Urban IV was then residing.
The Pope listened to the priest’s account and absolved him. He then sent emissaries to conduct an investigation. When all the facts had been determined, he ordered the bishop of the diocese to bring the host and the linen cloth with the stains of blood to Orvieto. The Pope met the procession and, amid great pomp, had the relics placed in the cathedral. The linen corporal bearing the spots of blood is still on display in the cathedral of Orvieto.
It is said that Pope Urban IV was prompted by this miracle to commission St Thomas Aquinas to compose the Proper for a Mass and an Office honouring the Holy Eucharist as the Body of Christ. In any case, one year after the miracle, in August of 1264, Pope Urban IV instituted the feast of Corpus Christi. It is St Thomas’ texts that are used today for the Mass and the Divine Office.
In August of 1964, on the 700th anniversary of the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi, Pope Paul VI celebrated Holy Mass at the altar where the holy corporal is kept in its golden shrine in the cathedral of Orvieto.
271. St Juliana and the feast of Corpus Christi
In your book Question Time you mention briefly that Juliana of Cornillon had something to do with the feast of Corpus Christi. Do we know anything more about her and her role in the feast?
As you say, when I wrote about Juliana in my book Question Time I ( q. 150), I mentioned that she had had a vision in which Jesus lamented the lack of a feast dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament. But there is much more, and the story of her life and her role in the institution of the feast is fascinating.
St Juliana of Liège, also known as St Juliana of Mt Cornillon, was born near Liège in Belgium in 1193. From her early childhood she had great devotion to the Blessed Eucharist. At the age of five, she and her sister Agnes were orphaned and entrusted to the care of the Augustinian nuns of the convent of Mont Cornillon, just outside Liège. There they worked for many years in the leprosarium run by the nuns.
When she was thirteen Juliana entered the Augustinians and went on to become the Superior of the convent. At the age of sixteen she had a vision of the Church under the full moon with a dark spot on it. She was given to understand that the spot signified the absence of a special feast in honour of the Blessed Sacrament. In a later vision Our Lord explained that he desired a separate feast in honour of the Eucharist, since at that time the only celebration was on Holy Thursday, when the Church considered especially his sufferings. He told her that he wanted the feast for three reasons: to confirm people’s faith in the Real Presence, to strengthen them in virtue by their love and adoration for the Eucharist, and to make reparation for the lack of respect shown to the Blessed Sacrament.
Jesus entrusted Juliana with the mission of promoting the new feast. Naturally, she felt frightened at the thought and kept the whole matter secret for many years, wanting to ensure that this was truly the will of God and not just her own imagination. The vision was repeated over the next twenty years and finally in 1230, when Juliana was elected Mother Superior, she confided the secret to her confessor, Canon John of Lausanne. He was Canon of St Martin’s basilica and had a great love for the Eucharist himself. He explained the idea to numerous theologians and bishops, many of whom received it warmly. Among them was Jacques Pantaleon, the Archdeacon of Liège, who later became Bishop of Verdun, then Patriarch of Jerusalem and finally in 1261 Pope, taking the name of Urban IV.
It was the Dominican Bishop of Liège, Robert Turotte, who, after some hesitation, accepted the proposal of St Juliana and in 1246 instituted the feast of the Blessed Sacrament in his diocese. It was to be celebrated on the Thursday after the feast of the Blessed Trinity. Other bishops later did the same in their own dioceses. When St Juliana died in 1258, the feast was not yet extended throughout the world, but a good friend of hers, St Eve, a nun at St Martin’s, took it upon herself to carry on where St Juliana left off. She persuaded the new Bishop of Liège to write to the Holy Father, Pope Urban IV, asking him to extend the feast to the whole Church. A few more years passed until the great Eucharistic miracle of Bolsena took place in 1263. The miracle was reported to Pope Urban who was residing in nearby Orvieto, and the following year he instituted the feast of Corpus Christi for the whole Church.
In his address on St Juliana on 17 November 2010, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the importance of Eucharistic devotion: “Joyfully I wish to affirm that there is a ‘Eucharistic springtime’ in the Church today. How many people remain in silence before the Tabernacle sustaining a dialogue of love with Jesus! It is consoling to know that many groups of young people have rediscovered the beauty of prayer and adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. I pray that this ‘Eucharistic springtime’ may become increasingly widespread in parishes, and especially in Belgium, homeland of St Juliana”.