by  Fancis  Weiser (1952)

Feast of Corpus



Origin • 

On Maundy Thursday, the day on which the Church commemorates the institution of the Holy Eucharist, it is impossible to honor the Blessed Sacrament with appropriate solemn and joyful rites. Such a festival is precluded by the sad and sorrowful memories of the day—the betrayal of Judas, Christ's agony and arrest, Peter's denial—and by the fact that other prescribed ceremonies are already occupying the time of clergy and faithful on Holy Thursday.1

It was a humble nun in 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.2 From her sixteenth year she had often in her prayers beheld a strange sight: it was as if the full moon appeared to her in brilliant light, while a part of its disc remained black and lightless. Finally, in a vision, Christ showed her the meaning of this picture. The moon represented the ecclesiastical year; the black spot indicated the lack of a festival in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. She was to announce to the authorities of the Church that God wished such a feast to be established.

In 1230 Juliana communicated her secret to a small group of learned theologians. As her message became publicly known, she had to suffer scorn and ridicule for some years. But the bishop of her diocese (Liege) 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 Liege.3

Was it mere coincidence that one of the men who had supported her efforts in Belgium later became pope? He was Jacques Pantaleon, Archdeacon of Liege. Upon his election to the papal office he assumed the name of Urban IV (1261-1265). On September 8, 1264, six years after Juliana's death, he established for the whole Church that festival in honor of the Holy Eucharist which the saintly nun had proclaimed to be willed by God. It was to be celebrated with great solemnity on the Thursday after Pentecost week, and indulgences were granted to all who would receive Holy Communion or attend special devotions in addition to hearing Mass.4

Urban IV commissioned the great Dominican scholar Saint Thomas Aquinas to compose the texts of Mass and Divine Office for the new feast. The splendor, depth, and devotion of the prayers and hymns that Saint Thomas wrote have enriched the Eturgy with one of its most beautiful rituals. They are still in use today, admired and appreciated by people of all faiths.5

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 then the feast spread quickly throughout the Latin Church.6 Later it was also accepted by some parts of the Oriental Church (Syrians, Armenians, Copts, and Melchites).7 The churches of the Greeks, "Ukrainians, and Russians (of the Greek Catholic Bite) do not celebrate this feast.8

Corpus Christi is a holyday of obligation. In the United States, however, the faithful are exempt from the obligation by a special dispensation of the Holy See.9

Names • 

The official title of the feast is, in the Latin Church, Festurn Sanctissimi Corporis Christi (Feast of the Most Holy Body of Christ). In Greek it is called Tou Somatos Ton Kyriou Heorte (Feast of the Body of the Lord). From these ecclesiastical terms many Christian nations have adopted popular names for the feast, like the English and Spanish Corpus Christi, the German Fronleichnam (Body of the Lord), the Slavic Boze Telo (Body of God), the Syriac pagre d maran (Body of the Lord), and the Arabic 'id el-jesed el-ilahi (Feast of the Body of God). Other names are Fete Dieu (Feast of God) in French, TJrnapja (Day of the Lord) in Hungarian, Brasancevo (Sacred Bread) among the southern Slavs.10

Procession • 

Very early (in the fourteenth century) the custom developed of carrying the Blessed Sacrament in a splendid procession through the town after the Mass on Corpus Christi Day. This was encouraged by the popes, some of whom granted special indulgences to all participants.11 The Council of Trent (1545-1563) solemnly approved and recommended the procession on Corpus Christi as a public profession of the Catholic faith in the real presence of Christ in the Holy Sacrament.12

During the later Middle Ages these processions developed into splendid pageants of devotion and honor to the Blessed Sacrament. They are still publicly held, and often with the ancient splendor, in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, in the Catholic sections of Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Canada, Hungary, and in the Slavic countries and South America. Sovereigns and princes, presidents and ministers of the state, magistrates, members of trade and craft guilds, and honor guards of the armed forces accompany the liturgical procession while the church bells peal, bands play sacred hymns, and the faithful kneel in front of their homes to adore the Eucharistic Lord. The houses along the route of the procession are decorated with little birch trees and green boughs.13 Candles and pictures adorn the windows; and in many places, especially in Latin countries, the streets are covered with carpets of grass and flowers, often wrought in beautiful designs.14

A special and appealing ritual in the procession is an adaptation of the ancient Roman usage of "Stations." Stops are made at various points along the route, the Blessed Sacrament is put on an altar table, and a passage of the Gospel is sung, followed by a hymn and a liturgical prayer for God's blessing upon the town, the people, and the harvest A Eucharistic benediction concludes each Station. This ritual, approved by Pope Martin V (1431),15 is still observed everywhere in the Catholic sections of central Europe and in some Latin countries.16

Hymns • 

The solemnity of the Corpus Christi festival is enhanced by the additional use of Alleluia in the prayers of the liturgy (as at Easter time). Saint Thomas Aquinas has magnificently expressed the jubilant character of the day in his famous hymns, especially in Sacris Solemniis, which is recited during the matins of the feast and sung at the procession:

Sacris solemniis juncta sint gaudia, Et ex praecordiis sonent praeconia; Recedant vetera, nova sint omnia, Corda, voces et opera.17

Great is the festive day, joyful and jubilant, Let us with loving hearts offer the song of -praise; Freed from the sinful past, may we renew in grace All our thoughts and words and deeds.

The fifth stanza of Sacris Solemniis has been used for centuries as a separate hymn in honor of the Blessed Sacrament As Panis Angelicas (Bread of the Angels) it is known and cherished widely among Christians of many denominations. The best musical settings are those of Cesar Franck (1890), of the French Jesuit Louis Lambilotte (1855), and the powerful four-part setting usually ascribed to C. Casiolini which, however, should be more correctly credited to Jacopo Tomadini (1883).

Another hymn by Saint Thomas, Pangue Lingua Gloriosi Corporis Mysterium (Praise, o tongue, the mystery of the glorious Body), contains the two stanzas which are sung all over the world at every Eucharistic service, Tantum Ergo and Genitori.18 The best known, and perhaps most beautiful, of any musical settings has remained the Gregorian chant tune (Mode III).

For the Lauds of Corpus Christi, Aquinas wrote the hymn Verbum Supermini Prodiens (The Divine Word coming forth).19 Again the last stanza preceding the customary conclusion in praise of the Trinity has become a favorite song and prayer in itself:

O salutaris hostia,

Quae caeli pandis ostium,

Bella praemunt hostflia:

Da robur, f er auxilium.

O saving host, o bread of life, Thou goal of rest from pain and strife, Embattled are we, poor and weak: Grant us the strength and help we seek.

Finally, there is the sequence of the Mass, Lauda Sion Salva-torem (Sion, praise thy Lord and Saviour).20 Saint Thomas enumerates in unmistakable words the main truths of Christ's revelation and the Church's teaching about the Holy Eucharist. In many countries a translation of this sequence into the vernacular is sung by the people as a popular church hymn in honor of the Blessed Sacrament.

The most famous nonliturgical hymn in honor of the Blessed Sacrament is the ancient prayer poem Ave Verum Corpus (Hail, true Body). It appeared first in manuscripts at the end of the fourteenth century and is ascribed to Pope Innocent VI (1362).21 Its original purpose was to serve as a private prayer for the faithful to be said at the elevation of the sacred Host during Mass (In elevatione Corporis Christi). This jewel of sacred poetry soon spread through most Catholic countries of Europe. It became famous also among other Christians through the musical setting of exquisite beauty written by Mozart (1791). Other familiar musical arrangements are those of Gounod (1893)  and Saint-Saens (1921).


Pageants • 

In most European countries mystery plays used to be performed after the procession in public squares or in churches. The Corpus Christi pageants were highly popular, especially in England, Germany, and Spain. Perhaps the most famous of them are the Autos Sacramentales (Plays of the Sacrament) by the Spanish priest and poet Pedro Calderon de la Barca (1681). They are still performed today on special occasions, such as centenary celebrations, Euchaxistic congresses, and ecclesiastical jubilees.22

By the seventeenth century, the Corpus Christi processions had developed unusual features which appealed to the mood of baroque piety and were highly favored in all European countries where processions could be held. Saint George and his dragon (in many places Saint Margaret, too), the main characters of the famous mystery pageant of medieval days, now appeared in the procession itself.23 In Bavaria, impersonations of demons ran along, expressing in vivid pantomime their fright and fear of the Blessed Sacrament.24 In Belgium and France boys and girls dressed as ancient gods and goddesses, sitting on figures of wild animals, rode in the procession to symbolize the fact that even the pagan past had to rise again and pay tribute to the Eucharistic Lord.25

All kinds of symbolic pictures and representations were carried (or walked) in the Corpus Christi processions of western and southern Germany: Moses with the brazen serpent; David and Goliath; the synagogue, symbolized by a withered tree from which hung a broken scepter; the Easter lamb, blood running from its open wound; the figure of Christ wrapped in burial linen and carried by angels dressed in black; the Sorrowful Virgin, followed by thirty mourning women and forty men who walked with outstretched arms, and others.26

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.27

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.28

In Spain many figures of gigantic size and other figures with immense masks (Gigantes y Gabezudos), representing famous persons of the Old Testament, took part, and still do, in the procession.29 They perform traditional dances in the street, accompanied by the quaint strains of an ancient melody. In the churches of Spain groups of choirboys danced before the altar in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. The most famous of these Eucharistic dances, still practiced today, is performed on Corpus Christi and some other feast days in the Cathedral of Seville.30

Day of Wreaths • 

In central Europe, and also in France, Corpus Christi Day is the "Day of Wreaths" (Kranzeltag) and of huge bouquets of flowers borne on the top of wooden poles (Prangs tag).31 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.32 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.33

American Place Names * 

In the New World the Feast of Corpus Christi was celebrated during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the usual solemn observance, by the missionaries and their native converts in Florida, California, Texas, New Mexico, and in the missions of New France (Canada and the Great Lakes region). In honor of the festival the Franciscans named a bay of the Gulf of Mexico "Corpus Christi Bay." Later a town, founded on the shore of that bay, was given the same title-Corpus Christi, Texas. In a similar way the capital of California was named Sacramento after the river on which it is situated, which had been named by the missionaries in honor of the Holy Eucharist.34