The medieval period was an era of rich and accelerating reflection about the Eucharist. One of the benchmarks of this increasing devotion to the Eucharist was the establishment of the Feast of Corpus Christ by Urban IV in the last year of his life, 1264, especially for the Roman Curia and then its extension to the whole Church in the 1300’s. Even then it took a while longer for the feast to catch on, through, for example, the famous Eucharistic Miracle of Bolsena, whereby in the hands of a priest with doubts a Host bled upon the linen corporal upon the altar. This miracle, mentioned for the first time in the 1320s, came to be so strongly associated with Corpus Christi that the two were conflated, as in the telling of the origin of the feast.
The story runs that Urban IV, at the time at Orvieto, close to Bolsena, was so moved on seeing the corporal that he asked St. Thomas Aquinas to compose the texts for a new feast in honor of the Body of the Lord, Corpus Domini. However, Urban IV had started out as a cleric of Liège where St. Juliana (+1252) had revelations that led to the founding of solemn local feast of the Body of Christ in 1246. When Urban ascended to the papacy in 1261, he was already deeply imbued with the rising Eucharistic piety of the time. Hence, he founded a feast precisely to honor the institution of the Eucharist. Urban knew what St John Paul II would centuries later open with in his 2003 encyclical: “The Church draws her life from the Eucharist” and “From it the Church draws her life. From this living bread she draws her nourishment. How could I not feel the need to urge everyone to experience it ever anew? (no. 7)”
Common to the Mass formularies for Corpus Christi in the Vetus Ordo and the Novus, at least in Novus Year C, is a reading from St. Paul’s 1 Cor 11 which includes the only account in the New Testament letters of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. The Novus Ordo reading is shorter by three – three important – verses. Once Paul described the Lord’s actions and the interrelation of this new Passover meal with the upcoming Sacrifice of Calvary (“as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” v. 26 – RSV), the Apostle to the Gentiles then, in stark terms, describes the consequences of partaking of the “supper” unworthily.
The context of Paul’s description of the Last Supper and the institution by Christ of the “Eucharistic meal” is that there were factions in the community, divisions, and some were selfishly eating in such a way that others could not partake, some were getting drunk. And, indeed, this whole section of 1 Cor 11 is in a larger context of Paul prompting the people to maintain the traditions that he had brought to them, including head coverings for women in the praying assembly (vv. 1-15).
Disrupt holy traditions, change the way your rites are carried out, and bad things usually result.
Hence, in the Vetus Ordo celebration of Corpus Christi, the Catholic faithful in the Eucharistic assembly hear, year in and year out, the stark words of 1 Cor 11:27-29.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. (RSV)
These verses are read in the Novus Ordo only on Holy Thursday, which not so many people attend.
As a matter of fact, that reading also should include v. 30: “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” Paul says that unworthy reception of the Eucharist can produce illness and even death. As Bl. Idelfonso Schuster says:
From this special character of the Eucharist, and from the link which exists between it and the sanctifying action of the Paraclete, it is easy to understand what a deadly sin he commits who approaches it sacrilegiously, or in any other way profanes this Holy of Holies. Further, Jesus desires to give us in Holy Communion a pledge of eternal life as an anticipation of our beatific vision of him in heaven. What a grief is it, then, for his Sacred Heart when, by treachery like that of Judas and his followers, the Bread of Life sometimes becomes a cause of condemnation and death.
The optimistic St. Pius X (+1914) promoted more frequent reception of Communion and at a younger age. The saintly pontiff could hardly have imagined what would result in the closing years of the 20th and opening of the 21st centuries regarding sacrilege by intention and by neglect.
In times past, people who were deeply devout before the Blessed Sacrament would dare Communion only a few times a year. In fact, Lateran IV (1215) called by Innocent III laid down that Easter Communion was the sufficient minimum. Now, heretical notions ported in from the Protestant revolt about the Eucharist and the priesthood have filtered through seminaries and other pipes into class rooms and pulpits. The texts and the rubrics, the very structure of Mass was changed in the 60’s. That changed belief over time. The abandonment of Eucharistic devotions! I remember how in seminary, when some men wanted adoration, the snarl of a female “prof” imposed on us: “Jesus said ‘Take and eat, not sit and look’!”. Devotions are now happily coming back. All these things weakened discernment about the Body and Blood of the Lord.
I trust that our loving God will treat with mercy those who objectively commit frequent sacrilegious Communions because they don’t know any better, they have been so poorly catechized. Alas, we have arrived at a point where perhaps a third of church-going Catholics believe the Church’s teaching about the Eucharist and yet the lines for Communion include virtually every person who shows up.
Go to confession.
I’m afraid that, for many – even for many priests and even bishops – Communion is now the moment we get the white thing in our hands and then we sing the song.
The “white thing” is a sign that people like me here. Hence, if I can’t have the “white thing” before we sing the song, I don’t feel good about myself in this setting… and that’s bad. The “white thing” in the hand is the token that this is a “safe space”. It’s not judgmental.
One of the most important aspect of Paul’s account of the Last Supper in 1 Cor 11 is that he stresses tradition: Paul is handing on what was handed on to him. In the heart of Last Supper account is the lesson that, when it comes to this most sacred rite, we don’t make things up on our own. We do as we have always done. Only very slow, organically consistent adjustments, change the manner of our sacred doings. These changes develop out of a deeper understanding of the mysteries in which, with which, by which we are engaged.
As we believe, thus do we pray. As we pray, thus do we come to believe. There is a dynamic of simultaneous influence, each on the other, prayer and belief. This is embodied in the Latin shorthand phrase, lex orandi lex credendi, “the manner of our prayer is the rule of our belief”. As Holy Church reflected and prayed with and before the Eucharist, so she came to understand more about both the Eucharist and prayer, which in turn provided the loving impetus to deepen and perfect the rites surrounding the Eucharist, whether they be for Exposition and Benediction, Processions, or the ultimate rite, Holy Mass.
This is what we need for a large scale revival of the life of the Church especially in wealthier counties, now Post-Christian – now Post-Reason: the unapologetic and lavish renewal of our Eucharistic and other devotions, the wholesale embrace without fear of what has been handed down by our forebears.
Pray for the raising up of saints who will with special graces turn people’s minds and hearts to the Lord in the Eucharist. And it is time to pray for Eucharistic miracles.
Lest I rattle along for a few thousand more words, tipping my biretta to NLM I’ll conclude with something from St. John Henry Newman’s Sermon Notes written in 1856 for his personal use back when Corpus Christi had its own Octave:
There is no feast, no season in the whole year which is so intimately connected with our religious life, or shows more wonderfully what Christianity is, as that which we are now celebrating [viz., Corpus Christi]…. The world is in wickedness. Satan is god of the world; unbelief rules. Now this opposition to us has a tendency to weigh us down, to dispirit us, to dull our apprehensions.… Now observe, How almighty love and wisdom has met this. He has met this by living among us with a continual presence. He is not past, He is present now. And though He is not seen, He is here. The same God who walked the water, who did miracles, etc., is in the Tabernacle. We come before Him, we speak to Him just as He was spoken to 1800 years ago, etc. Nay, further, He [does] not [merely] present Himself before us as the object of worship, but God actually gives Himself to us to be received into our breasts. Wonderful communion. This [is] how He counteracts time and the world. It [the Blessed Sacrament] is not past, it is not away. It is this that makes devotion in lives. It is the life of our religion. We are brought into the unseen world.
Convert from Lutheranism, ordained to the priesthood in 1991 by St. John Paul II in Rome for the Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri-Segni. Classics at University of Minnesota. Licence and Doctoral studies in Patristic Theology at the Augustinianum in Rome. Formerly a collaborator of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” moderator of the Catholic Online Forum, columnist for The Wanderer and the UK’s Catholic Herald, Fox News contributor. Speaker. Blogist. fatherzonline.com @fatherz