The Solemnity of Corpus Christi is celebrated in the Latin Church on the Thursday after Holy Trinity Sunday. It is transferred to the subsequent Sunday in some dioceses. Celebrating the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, this feast (all solemnities are feasts) honours Jesus as our Eucharistic Lord and proclaims the truth that Jesus is truly, really, substantially, and indeed present in the outward forms of bread and wine that has been transubstantiated to contain the reality of Jesus.
In the unity of the Holy Spirit, this feast recalls and augments the celebration of Maundy Thursday which is mentioned in the calendar of Polemius (AD. 448) as Natalis Calicis (Birth of the Chalice). On Maundy Thursday, the Eucharist was instituted by Jesus. However that day is a day of solemn and sombre reflection, as the Faithful are reminded to keep their focus on the Passion of the Lord. A new feast was eventually proclaimed on the 8th of September 1264 in the papal Bull – Transiturus. Why it is called a Bull is because a bulla is a circular plate, usually of metal. It eventually was used to refer to the leaden seals that papal and royal documents were verified and authenticated by in the Middle Ages. Before the 13th century, the term “Bull” was used to describe all papal documents. It was only after the 15th century that a better definition of the term “Bull” to denote certain papal documents came into being (Thurston, 1908).
The person who kickstarted the process for the institution of the Solemnity of Corpus Christi is St. Juliana of Mont Cornillon of Belgium. She was an orphan who eventually became an Augustinian nun. From her youth, she had a deep and profound adoration for the Blessed Sacrament, and it was her hope that the Church would one day have a special feast to honour the Blessed Sacrament. One day, she had a vision of the Church under the light of the moon, but the moon had a dark spot on it, signifying the lack of a titular feast that would honour the Body and Blood of Christ. This vision was to be repeated several times, signifying that it was indeed what God desired. She later had providential conversations with Robert de Thorete then Bishop of Liège, then with the Domincan, Hugh who became Cardinal Legate in the Netherlands, the then Archdeacon of Liège Jacques Pantaléon, who would later become Pope on 29 August 1261, following afterwards, she shared her thoughts with the Bishop of Verdun, Patriarch of Jerusalem. Bishop Robert would call for a synod in 1246 to discuss this, but he died on 16 October 1246, that same year. Nonetheless, the Feast was celebrated for the first time the following year by the canons of St. Martin at Liège. Jacques Pantaléon, who took on the name Pope Urban IV published the Papal Bull Transiturus and called for the Catholic world to celebrate the Feast annually. The office in the Roman Breviary for this Solemnity is composed by St. Thomas Aquinas (Mershman, 1908).
Interestingly, despite the papal Bull Transiturus, through a series of unfolding events in the History of the world, the celebration of Corpus Christi rose and was forgotten, but this feast still continued to spread across Europe via the grassroots level, and was celebrated in individual parishes, German dioceses, the city of Venice, and in the Cistercian and Dominican orders. It would take 13 popes before the Faithful would be called to celebrate the feast on a global level. The Feast Day was proclaimed once again in the papal letter Si dominum and was later incorporated into a new collection of canon law called the Clementines. But Clement V, the Avignon Pope who had suppressed the Order of Knights Templar, died in 1314 before the official approval of the collection was complete. His successor, John XXII, revised and published the Clementines in 1317. In the providential time of God, after many crossroads, start-stops, and re-directions, the Feast of Corpus Christi was finally installed in the universal calendar of the Church in the 14th century (Miesal, 2022).
Why this feast matters, is because the Eucharist is considered the greatest sacrament of the seven sacraments. In partaking of Holy Communion – the Faithful partake of Jesus himself, who through the words of consecration by a priest, is found in the external appearances of bread and wine, but which have been completely and sacramentally transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus. Even though our finite and human senses detect only the appearances or properties of bread and wine, the substance of these external forms, is Christ – who is completely present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in each element and in any parts of them (EWTN, n.d.).
To a layperson, this feast matters because the Feast invites us to dwell on the visible presence of God, in a world, where the only thing visible is pain, suffering, bleakness, and where there is a palpable absence of joy, hope, and love. God is not apart from the suffering and the pain, but He is right here with us, amongst our midst, walking with us, fighting for us, and sharing that same pain and suffering. On the Feast of Corpus Christi, Christ is also brought joyfully into the streets via the Eucharistic Processions. This is a reminder that Christ and the Good News that He brings, is not merely confined to the Church, but is meant to be shared with the world. Jesus has come into the world to redeem all of the world (Meuser, 2020).
A Solemnity is a celebration of a higher tiered Feast Day. However, we have today lost the eyes of faith to see our Eucharistic Lord and to celebrate the Eucharist with reverence. We have forgotten the significance of this solemnity and this celebration has become to us pedestrian and mundane. Perhaps, the invitation for us today as Catholics, is to pray the prayer that the blind man prayed as Jesus passed by him – “Lord, please let me see.” (Luke 18:41) As Jesus passes us by, in the Eucharistic Procession on Corpus Christi, let us call out to Him, as the blind man did, despite the taunts, insults, and obstacles put forth by the crowd. Let us cry all the more: “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” (Luke 18: 38)
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
EWTN. (n.d.). What does the Solemnity of Corpus Christi Celebrate? EWTN. Retrieved June 9, 2023 from https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/seasons-and-feast-days/corpus-christi-14356
Thurston, H. (1908, Jun 9). Bulls and Briefs. The Catholic Encyclopedia, 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved June 9, 2023 from 2023 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03052b.htm
Mershman, F. (1908). Feast of Corpus Christi. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved June 9, 2023 from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04390b.htm
Meuser, B. (2020, June 6). Corpus Christi – all for show? Youcat. Retrieved June 9, 2023 from https://www.youcat.org/credopedia/feast-of-corpus-christi/
Miesal, S. (2022, June 16). How the Feast of Corpus Christi Developed. Catholic World Report. Retrieved June 9, 2023 from https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2022/06/16/how-the-feast-of-corpus-christi-developed/