The Triumph of the Risen Christ.
The moving of the day celebrating the solemnity of Corpus Christi from Thursday to Sunday brought about changes, perhaps unforeseen. This applies particularly to the procession historically associated with Corpus Christi. In the past every school child was familiar with this great feast which meant not alone a free day, but very different things were happening involving the entire town or village.
The Catholic Church is renowned for processions. There is a long history attached to them and pilgrims to shrines like those of the Blessed Virgin are familiar with day and evening processions with torch-light and candles.
Corpus Christi is something else. No matter how solemn or reverent a procession is, nothing can compare with the reality of Our Blessed Lord walking with his people through the streets of their own town. This is the triumph of the risen Christ who is present in the Blessed Eucharist and who on his ascension into heaven, told us that he would be with us until the end of time.
Since the changes that followed the Second Vatican Council, there has been a subtle shift in the understanding of some with regard to the Blessed Sacrament. The Church Universal honours this august feast as always, but this is not invariably the practice throughout the Catholic world. It is as if the feast of Corpus Christi has been relegated to the level of a pious devotion instead of being celebrated as the great liturgical ceremonial it was in the past. It is too simplistic to claim that this is just another manifestation of the decline in faith throughout Europe. Deeper reasons have had an insidious effect and are due in part to our new accommodation of the ecumenical effort. The word “triumphalism” was coined and what can only be seen as a sense of embarrassment in relation to openly parading our Catholicism, has prevailed at least in some places. That is one means of understanding a certain lessening of honour shown to the Blessed Sacrament. There is also a view though not in line with Church teaching, that the liturgy of the Mass is sufficient in itself and that the forming of processions is a throwback to medieval times and has some connection with superstition.
The solemnity of Corpus Christi did not originate in the Middle Ages. It goes much further back. One of the astounding methods frequently employed by the Lord is to make his will in certain matters known to those the world would consider insignificant. This has been the case with Bernadette of Lourdes and the little Portuguese children. Many times religious sisters such as Catherine Laboure, Margaret Mary Alocoque and Faustina Kowalska were given missions for the entire world. These brought about the institution of feast days and particular devotions that the entire Church honours.
When we look into the origin of the Corpus Christi procession and indeed into the institution of the feast itself, we find astounding parallels with our own time. This promulgation came at a time when scholastics debated the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, chief among the defenders of which was St. Thomas, who supplied the philosophical backbone of the Church’s Eucharistic doctrine and defined transubstantiation.
Visions of Sister Juliana.
In the thirteenth century an obscure Norbertine cannoness in Belgium, Sister Juliana, experienced a series of visions which she was at a loss to comprehend. These began when she was only sixteen years old and continued for many years. It seemed to her that she continually saw the moon with a piece missing. Eventually Jesus communicated to her that the honour given to his presence in the Eucharist was incomplete until a special feast was instituted in the name of his Body and Blood. Many years passed before this happened. Juliana was a deeply reluctant emissary and begged the Lord to release her from this obligation. Nevertheless, the Lord’s will prevailed and due to the assistance of others, including her confessor John of Lausanne the diocesan bishop authorised the celebration of the divinely inspired liturgical feast of Corpus Christi in his diocese in the year 1246.
In 1263, the Eucharistic miracle of Bolsena, which is preserved in Orvieto in Italy, occurred. Soon after Juliana’s death, Pope Urban instituted Corpus Christi for the Universal Church and celebrated it for the first time in Orvieto in 1264, a year after the Eucharistic Miracle in Bolsena. Juliana was known to the Holy Father as he had originally been a priest in her own parish. In the year 1264 Pope Urban IV made the declaration of the solemnity of Corpus Christi. This was the first time a pope imposed an obligatory feast.
Thomas Aquinas, the papal theologian, was assigned the task of composing the new texts of the Mass. Many of the original texts for Corpus Christi composed by Thomas Aquinas, including Adoro te Devote, remain an essential part of the Church’s sacred music. The Pange Lingua, for example, is often sung during the Eucharistic procession after the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday and the verses Tantum Ergo at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament are familiar to all the faithful.
Many popes have testified to the great value of this feast with its customary procession. St. John Paul said of Eucharistic processions: “Our faith in the God who took flesh in order to become our companion along the way needs to be everywhere proclaimed, especially in our streets and homes, as an expression of our grateful love and as an inexhaustible source of blessings” (Mane Nobiscum Domine, No. 18). And, Pope Benedict XVI said, Corpus Christi processions allow us to “immerse [Christ], so to speak, in the daily routine of our lives, so that he may walk where we walk and live where we live.
Christus Vincit, Christus Regnat, Christus Imperat.
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