Corpus Christi: Instituting the feast


It is always exhilarating to read about solemn celebrations of the important Feast of Corpus Christi – now liturgically identified as the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. Celebrations, such as the one at Corpus Christi Parish in Lexington with Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone, pays the mystery of the Eucharist great honor. The papal celebration through the streets of Rome is majestic. The exhuberant celebration in Orvieto, Italy, where the eucharistic miracle was acknowledged by the Pope in 1264, is unforgettable. I had the privilege of being present there as well as at the Polish celebration in Krakow. That procession, with thousands following the Blessed Sacrament through colorfully decorated streets, began at 9:30 a.m. and ended in the enormous medieval town square with a Mass at 1:30 p.m. Surprisingly none of us felt tired even though all knelt on sidewalks and streets.

The institution of the Feast of Corpus Christi has an interesting history, beginning at Leige, Belgium, in the early 1200s and concluding in Orvieto, Italy, in 1264. The Lexington article reports the concluding part, when Pope Urban IV promulgated the feast universally, influenced by the Eucharistic miracle at Bolsena. At that time the miraculous host and blood-stained corporal were presented to the pope residing in the neighboring city of Orvieto. But much preceded that to prepare the pope to make his momentous contribution.

The story begins when our Lord made his desire for a special feast in honor of the Blessed Sacrament known to St. Juliana, a nun in Liege. She had visions of a full moon with a dark spot on it. She understood that the moon signified the Church and the dark spot signified the lack of a feast of the Eucharist. In 1225, she informed her confessor of these visions. He consulted their bishop, Theoret, their archdeacon, Pantaleon, and numerous theologians who found it appropriate to have such a celebration. The bishop then instituted a diocesan Feast of Corpus Christi. Eventually the archdeacon was chosen for high positions in the Church until he was elected pope, taking the name of Urban IV.

Since he was familiar with the celebration in Diocese of Liege, friends of St. Juliana asked him to make that local feast into a universal one. The opportunity came when the eucharistic miracle took place in Bolsena, near Orvieto. It happened while a priest doubted transubstantiation during Mass. The host bled onto the corporal. It was immediately presented to Pope Urban a few miles away. Recalling St. Juliana, whom he knew, he extended the Feast of Corpus Christi to the entire Church in 1264. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote the liturgy with its brilliant hymns which are still sung during Benediction. Thus we see two parts to the institution of Corpus Christi.

The spirituality of Corpus Christi permeated the entire Diocese of Liege with eminent theologians, exemplary priests and groups devoted to eucharistic worship and charity. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI referred to it as a veritable “Eucharistic Upper Room” and presented it as a eucharistic model for all dioceses.

We see here how Divine Providence arranged that the archdeacon of Leige, knowledgeable in the eucharistic revelations to St. Juliana, be elected pope, and then supplied the miracle to emphasize the feast’s importance.

Something similar happened in our times. In 1934, our Lord made known his desire for a Feast of Divine Mercy on the Sunday after Easter to a Polish nun in the Archdiocese of Krakow. Providentially a future cardinal of that archdiocese, knowledgeable in those revelations, became Pope John Paul II. He instituted the Feast of Divine Mercy on the day of that nun’s (St. Faustina) canonization in 2000.

Father Stanley Smolenski, spm