The Feast of Corpus Christi — of the Eucharistic Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ — finds its origins in the 13th century. It came about almost entirely through the persistence of St. Juliana, a nun from the town of Liège in Belgium. Orphaned at the age of five, she was placed with the convent of Mont-Cornillon, where she quickly progressed through her religious studies, and her devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. At the age of 16 she took the veil, and her work was principally devoted to the sick in the hospital which was run by the convent.
History of the Feast
St. Juliana was said to have received a vision of the Church as symbolized by a full moon, blemished by a single dark spot. This spot, she was given to understand, represented the absence of a feast day in honor of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Though she advocated from her youth for the feast, she was plagued by a number of difficulties in her religious life, not least of which came at the hands of a vicious superior who drove her from the convent — of which she had, at that time, been elected superior — out of contempt for her virtue and her reproaches of his own scandalous behavior. Though she was restored to the convent for a time by her bishop, her superior again took hold of the power to cast her out, and she eventually died in exile from the place of her vocation.
But all was not lost.
St. Juliana’s devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and desire for the feast made an impact on her bishop, Robert de Thorete. At that time in the Church’s history, local bishops had the power to designate feasts for their own diocese, so in 1246, Bishop de Thorete called a synod and ordered the observation of the feast for the first time in the following year. Though the bishop would die before the first Feast of Corpus Christi, St. Eve of Liège. a recluse with whom St. Juliana had spent time during her first exile from Mont-Cornillon, persuaded his successor to petition Pope Urban IV to make it a universal feast of the Church.
The pope agreed, and with the publication of the Papal Bull Transiturus on September 8th, 1264, the feast was established in the Universal Church to be celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Pope Urban requested an office for the Mass from St. Thomas Aquinas, which would become one of the most beautiful and famous in Church history, and gave us the Pange Lingua. After the death of Pope Urban IV slowed the spread of this devotion, Pope Clement V took up the banner of Corpus Christi, continuing the work to establish it as a feast for the whole Church at the General Council of Vienne in 1311.
Though it was never a part of the original decrees pertaining to the feast, the Eucharistic procession which accompanied its celebration began almost from the beginning, and indulgences were attached to this practice by two later popes (Martin V and Eugene IV).
Corpus Christi Today
Until the latter half of the 20th century, Corpus Christi Eucharistic processions were commonplace throughout the Catholic world. The following video shows just such a procession in Cologne, Germany, in 1947 — just two years after the end of the Second World War. As the people processed through the streets with Christ in the Eucharist, the ruble and ruin of the city are plain to see around them.
Through a devastated landscape, the Faith marches on.
In today’s world, the material state of our environment is perfectly in tact. But the faith — which Dietrich von Hildebrand had come in his latter years to refer to as “the Devastated Vineyard” — is in tatters. Though still celebrated throughout the Universal Church, Corpus Christi has suffered diminished significance, no doubt in tandem with the diminution of belief in the Real Presence. As a moveable feast, it is most often observed not on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday, but the Sunday thereafter.
Whatever day the feast is observed upon, there is no time like the present to re-establish the priority of its place in the Church and the mystery it celebrates, along with the practice of processing through the streets with our Eucharistic Lord, reminding the world of the mysteries we celebrate and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity whom we worship within them.
Some parishes still continue the Eucharistic procession. The Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem, an institute of consecrated life dedicated to the Church’s venerable traditions in liturgy, sacraments, and devotions, do so each and every year. At their priory in Charles Town, West Virginia, this is the scene each year on the magnificent Eucharistic feast:
And again, last year:
This year, in Leesburg, Virginia, the parish of St. John the Baptist will hold a Eucharistic procession through the town, crossing directly in front of the municipal courthouse. The Church of the Holy Innocents in Manhattan will bring their Eucharistic procession through the heart of Times Square. And in Rome, Pope Francis will lead a Eucharistic procession a full mile through the city, beginning at St. John Lateran and ending at St. Mary Major.
As Catholics, we believe in things that a world without faith cannot hope to understand. But if we live this faith, if we act in a way that shows our beliefs, it is a witness much stronger than words.
Whether the people of this world respect our beliefs or revile them, they are not immune to their supernatural reality. The world needs the Catholic faith and her sacraments for salvation. The Eucharist that might be an object of scorn or ridicule to the passerby seeing a procession this Sunday is the very same of which Our Lord Himself said,
Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. – John 6:54
Believing in the Body and Blood of Christ is not optional; it is essential. Let us give witness to the world from each and every parish, bringing Christ into the streets of our towns and cities, and showing them that he is truly, “Jesus my Lord, my God, my all…”
If your parish doesn’t do a procession this year, ask if you can help them to establish one next year. If you’re going to have a procession this year, share it in the comments so that others in your area can join you for it. If you get some good pictures of your Corpus Christi celebration this year, send them to us at 1P5@Lensmob.com. We’ll make a gallery out of them and share them with our readers.
Let’s show the world the beauty of our Catholic faith.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.