The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

It was a humble nun in Liege, Belgium, Saint Juliana (1258), Prioress of Mont Cornillon, who first suggested and advocated a special feast in honor of the Blessed Sacrament to be celebrated on a day other than Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday, the day on which the Church commemorates the institution of the Holy Eucharist).

From her sixteenth year Sister Juliana had often, in her prayers, beheld a strange sight: the full moon appeared in brilliant light, while a part of its disc remained in darkness. Finally, in another mystical experience, the meaning of this vision was revealed. The moon represented the liturgical year; the black spot indicated the lack of a festival to honor Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament.  Juliana was to announce to the authorities of the Church that God wished such a feast to be established.

In 1230 Sr. Juliana conveyed her vision and its meaning to a small group of friends. As the vison and its message became publicly known, she suffered scorn and ridicule. But the bishop of her diocese (Liége) and some of his canons eventually lent a willing ear to her appeals. A diocesan synod in 1246 decided in her favor and prescribed such a feast for the churches of Liége. The celebration remained local to this diocese.

In 1263 a German priest, Fr. Peter of Prague, embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome. On his way, he stopped in Bolsena, Italy, to celebrate Mass in the Church of Santa Christina. At the time he was having doubts about Jesus being truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. When next he celebrated Mass, at the moment of consecration, as the host was elevated, it began to bleed.  Many witnessed this miracle.  Fr. Peter wrapped the bleeding Host in a corporal and brought the Host and corporal to the Bishop residing in the nearby town of Orvieto.  The Bishop then consulted with Pope Urban IV (formerly, Archdeacon Jacques Panteleon, to whom St. Juliana had confided her vision).  Was it mere coincidence that one of the men who had supported Sr. Julian’s efforts in Belgium later became pope?

The miracle was affirmed, and the Host and corporal remain in Orvieto for veneration to this day.  In September 8, 1264, six years after Julianna’s death, Pope Urban IV issued a Papal Bull establishing the feast of Corpus Christi for the universal Church, to honor the Holy Eucharist which the saintly nun had proclaimed to be willed by God.  It was to be celebrated with great solemnity.

Inspired by the miracle in Bolsena, Pope Urban IV also commissioned a Dominican friar, (St.) Thomas Aquinas, to compose texts for Mass, and the Divine Office, for this new feast of Corpus Christi.  Aquinas’ hymns in honor of the Holy Eucharist, Pange LinguaTantum ErgoPanis Angelicus, and O Salutaris Hostia, among others, remain beloved hymns the Church sings on the feast of Corpus Christi as well as throughout the year during Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

The Bull of Urban IV had no immediate effect because he died soon after its publication, and the succeeding popes did not urge the matter.  Finally, however, Pope Clement V, in 1314, renewed the decrees in a Bull of his own, and the feast spread quickly throughout the Latin Church. Later it was also observed by some of the Oriental Church (Syrians, Armenians, Copts, and Melchites). 

Very early in the fourteenth century the custom developed of carrying the Blessed Sacrament in a splendid procession through the town after Mass on the feast of Corpus Christi.  This practice was encouraged by the popes of the time. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) solemnly approved and recommended a procession on Corpus Christi as a Catholic pubic profession of faith in the continuing real presence of Jesus in the Holy Sacrament.

During the later Middle ages these processions developed into splendid pageants of devotion and honor to the Blessed Sacrament.  A special part of the ritual procession is an adaptation of the ancient Roman usage of “Stations.”  Stops are made at various points along the route, the Blessed Sacrament is placed on an “altar” table, and a passage from the Gospel is proclaimed, followed by a hymn and a prayer for God’s blessing.   A Eucharistic Benediction concludes each Station.  This ritual, approved by Pope Martin V (1431), is still observed in Europe and other countries.

“By his word the Word almighty, makes of bread his flesh indeed; wine becomes his very life-blood; faith God’s living Word must heed!  Faith alone may safely guide us where the senses cannot lead!”

“Come adore this wondrous presence; bow to Christ, the source of grace!  Here is kept the ancient promise of God’s earthly dwelling place.  Sight is blind before God’s glory, faith alone may see his face!”

                                Excerpt from Pange Lingua; tr. James Quinn SJ (1919-2010)

posted by Adult Formation Ministry