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Forgotten Customs of Corpus Christi

Above: Corpus Christi 2021 at St. Mary’s Conshohocken, FSSP. Photo by Allison Girone.

Editor’s note: this octave, consider joining the crusade of Eucharistic reparation.

A great solemnity has this day risen upon our earth: a feast both to God and to men: for it is the feast of Christ the Mediator, who is present in the sacred Host, that God may be given to man, and man to God. Divine union—such is the dignity to which man is permitted to aspire; and to this aspiration God has responded, even here below, by an invention which is all of heaven. It is to-day that man celebrates this marvel of God’s goodness (Dom Guéranger).

The History of Corpus Christi & Its Forgotten Octave

The Feast of Corpus Christi was instituted in the 13th Century to commemorate the Institution of the Eucharist. Around the early 1200s, Saint Juliana of Mont Cornillon (1192 – 1258) received a vision concerning this feast at a young age. St. Juliana always had a strong devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. In her vision, she saw the Church under the appearance of the full moon. One large, dark spot was in the moon – symbolic of the absence of a solemnity to honor the Holy Eucharist. St. Juliana became an Augustinian nun in Liége, France in 1206. Corpus Christi became a feast for the Diocese of Liege in 1246, and later in 1264, after having seen the Eucharistic Miracle in Orvieto, Pope Urban IV issued “Transiturus de hoc mundo” establishing it as a feast for the Universal Church with an Octave. Pope Clement V renewed the decree in his own bull in 1314 and the feast of Corpus Christi then spread rapidly. It remained a day of great importance of centuries and had an Octave attached to it until the elimination of all but three Octaves by Pope Pius XII in 1954.

The Mass Propers for the Octave Day of Corpus Christi in the Roman Rite is the same as the Feastday itself. As the New Liturgical Movement notes,

Some of the oldest Roman octaves, such as those of Ss Peter and Paul and St Lawrence, have a Mass on the octave day itself which is different or partly different from that of the main feast; Peter and Paul also have another Mass for the days within the octave. However, by the time the feast of Corpus Christi was promulgated in the mid-13th century, this custom was no longer being developed for new celebrations, and the Mass of the feast was simply repeated though the octave.

What is unique about the Octave of Corpus Christi is that our Lord Himself referred to it. As many Catholics know, the Institution for the Feast of the Sacred Heart was a result of the appearances of our Lord to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in 1675. St. Margaret Mary suffered contempt from many people who refused to believe the authenticity of the visions. Our Lord said to her, “I ask thee that the first Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi be set apart as a special feast to honor My Heart.”

In 1970 the name was changed from Corpus Christi to the “Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ” when Corpus Christi and the Feast of the Precious Blood (July 1) were joined. The feast of the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord was suppressed in the Novus Ordo when the new calendar was promulgated in 1969. The reason for its suppression was the alleged promotion of the understanding of Corpus Christi in terms of both Sacred Species. However, this is highly unfortunate because the feast of the Precious Blood (still observed at all Masses said according to the Liturgical Books of 1962 or previously) was not, strictly speaking, eucharistic in nature, but theological and devotional. It referred more to the Sacred Wounds of Our Lord and the hypostatic union of Our Lord’s divine and human natures. The Feast of Corpus Christi has always honored the fullness of Christ – a Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – in the Eucharist. This is just another reminder why we should stay clear of the Novus Ordo and remain attached to the Church’s Traditional Calendar.

Corpus Christi As A Forgotten Holy Day of Obligation

Corpus Christi is a Holy Day of Obligation in many countries. When the United States were founded, Corpus Christi was a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics. The United States received permission to transfer the celebration of the Mass to the Sunday after Corpus Christi in 1885 by Pope Leo XIII, in a concession to the modern world. This permission remains; however, those who pray the Divine Office will keep the Divine Office on Thursday.

In the largest change to Holy Days in centuries, Pope St. Pius X in Supremi disciplinæ in 1911 drastically reduced the number of Holy Days of Obligation in the Universal Church to only 8: Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Ascension, Immaculate Conception, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, Ss. Peter and Paul, and All Saints.

In only 269 years, the number of Holy Days on the Universal Calendar had been reduced from 36 under Urban VIII to 8 under Pius X. Shortly thereafter in 1917, Corpus Christi and St. Joseph were added back, bringing the total to 10. The 10 currently observed on the Universal Calendar are the same as from 1917.

As for the Holy Days observed in the United States, the Catholic Encyclopedia in referencing Supremi disciplinæ noted, “Where, however, any of the above feasts has been abolished or transferred, the new legislation is not effective. In the United States consequently the Epiphany and the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul are not days of precept.” On a similar note, Corpus Christi when added back as a Holy Day in the Universal Church in 1917 remained transferred to the following Sunday in the United States as a result of Pope Leo XIII’s indult from 1885.

Eucharistic Processions

One of the characteristic features of Corpus Christi is the beautiful outdoor processions that serve as a visible testimony to others of our belief in the Real Presence of God in the Eucharist. This custom originated early in the 14th century as noted by Father Weiser in his “Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs.” These processions are endowed with indulgences dating back to both Pope Martin V and Pope Eugene IV. And the Council of Trent approved and recommended these processions as a public profession of the Catholic Faith’s belief in the Real Presence. These processions have grown in popularity again around the world, as a public manifestation of our worship of the Most Holy Eucharist. Such processions often feature beautiful hymns like the “Ave Verum Corpus,” which is ascribed to Pope Innocent VI (1362).

In some European nations, the custom developed of plays that were performed after the procession. While they were common throughout England, Germany, and Spain, the most famous were the “Plays of the Sacrament” written by Father Pedro Calderon de la Barca (1681) in Spain. Father Weiser adds the following account on how even children were very engaged in Corpus Christi Processions:

Especially favored was the attendance of children dressed as angels. Already in 1496, at the great children’s procession in Florence, Savonarola had all of them appear in white or garbed as angels. This custom quickly spread all over Europe in the following centuries. At the Corpus Christi procession in Mainz in 1613 hundreds of children, impersonating the nine choirs of angels, marched before the Blessed Sacrament while many other “angels” strewed flowers in front of the Eucharistic Lord. These manifestations of baroque piety were gradually restricted and most of them suppressed during the second half of the eighteenth century, not without some resistance and much complaining on the part of the population. In some cities even Lutherans protested against the suppression because, not having processions of their own, they had enjoyed watching these features of the Catholic pageant.

Day of Wreaths

In one custom foreign to many in the United States, Corpus Christi is known in central Europe and some areas of France as the “Day of Wreaths.” Father Weiser again explains:

Wreaths and bouquets of exquisite flowers in various colors are attached to flags and banners, to houses, and to the arches of green boughs that span the streets. The clergy and altar boys wear little wreaths on their left arms in the procession; girls carry wreaths on their heads. Even the monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament is adorned with a wreath of choice flowers on Corpus Christi Day. In Poland these wreaths are blessed by the priest on the eve of the feast day. After the solemnities people decorate their homes with them. Some are suspended on the walls of the houses or affixed to doors and windows. Others are put up in gardens, fields, and pastures, with a prayer for protection and blessing upon the growing harvest.

Having a wreath blessed by your parish priest and adorning it with flowers and images of the Holy Eucharist would be a wonderful way to incorporate this tradition into your life. And in so doing, it can be an effective evangelization tool for those who will walk past and see on the wreath clear representations of the Catholic Faith.

Indulgences for Corpus Christi

The Church has enriched the celebration of Corpus Christi – as well as devotions to the Blessed Sacrament at other times – with a number of indulgences. For instance, the Raccolta, listing the traditional indulgences in place before the changes after Vatican II, stated for the Feast of Corpus Christi and its Octave:

Pope Urban IV… being desirous that all the faithful should give God due thanks for this inestimable benefit and be excited to meet their Lord’s love in this most holy Sacrament with grateful hearts, granted in the said Constitution several Indulgences to the faithful, which were again augmented by Pope Martin V in his Constitution Ineffabile, of May 26, 1429. Afterwards Pope Eugenius IV, in his Constitution Excellentissimum, of May 20, 1433, confirmed the Indulgences of Martin V, and added others, as follows:

  1. An indulgence of 200 days, on the vigil of the Feast of Corpus Christi to all who, being truly contrite and having confessed, shall fast, or do some other good work enjoined them by their confessor.
  2. An indulgence of 400 days, on the feast itself, to all who, being contrite and having Confessed, shall devoutly assist at or be present at any of the following functions: First or Second Vespers, Matins, and Mass. An indulgence of 160 days for each of the Little hours, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and Compline.
  • An indulgence of 200 days, during the octave, for each Vespers, Matins, and Mass. An indulgence of 80 days for each of the Little Hours.
  1. An indulgence of 200 days for accompanying the procession of the Blessed Sacrament, which takes place on the Feast or during the Octave, to every priest who has said Mass, and to every layman who has gone to Communion on any one of these days, and who shall pray for the Holy Church.
  2. An indulgence of 200 days for accompanying the procession made by the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament on the third Sunday of the month, and on Holy Thursday.

Such practices such as a voluntary fast on the day before Corpus Christi is virtually forgotten by all. This practice is however still kept by some traditional Carmelites. We would do well to engage in some voluntary fasting and abstinence on the day before Corpus Christi in the spirit of and for the intention of making reparation to the Blessed Sacrament.

Indulgences Year Round on Thursdays

A truly fitting prayer for Corpus Christi – and for any Thursday of the year – is the Respice, Domine which was composed by St. Cajetan. The prayer’s English translation is as follows:

Look down, O Lord, from Thy sanctuary, and from Heaven Thy dwelling-place on high, and behold this sacred Victim which our great High-Priest, Thy holy Child, Our Lord Jesus, offers up to Thee for the sins of This brethren; and be appeased for the multitude of our transgressions. Behold the voice of the Blood of Jesus, our Brother, cries to Thee from the Cross. Give ear, O Lord! be appeased, O Lord! hearken, and do not tarry for Thine own sake, O my God, for Thy Name is invoked upon this city and upon Thy people; and deal with us according to Thy mercy. Amen.

The Raccolta listed the following indulgences for this prayer:

  1. A plenary indulgence to all the faithful who, being contrite, and having confessed and gone to Communion on THE first Thursday in the month, shall on that day visit the Blessed Sacrament, either at Exposition time or when enclosed in the Tabernacle, and say there the following prayer, Respice, Domine.
  2. An indulgence of seven years and seven quarantines every Thursday in the year, to all who, after Confession and Communion, shall say the above prayer, on their knees, before the Blessed Sacrament.
  • An indulgence of 100 days for saying it, with contrite heart, before the Blessed Sacrament, on any day whatever.

Can we make it a practice to stop into a church each Thursday of the year – even for five minutes – to pray before the tabernacle this prayer? Such a small sacrifice is blessed by the Church, and in so doing, we can help make reparation to our Eucharistic Lord.

Conclusion

On Corpus Christi, we remember and again celebrate a true and lasting miracle. Think about it, we can receive the flesh and blood of Our God! We can truly receive our Creator in a way so that we might have life within us. The Institution of the Eucharist changed the world. We must contemplate this miracle before receiving Our Lord at every single Mass.  How can we not share the sentiments of Archbishop Sheen who said, “The greatest love story of all time is contained in a tiny, white Host”?

May our observance of some of these customs bring honor to Almighty God and consolation to His Most Sacred Heart.

Editor’s note: this and the other forgotten customs articles by Mr. Plese have been collected in a book published by Our Lady of Victory Press:

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