The history of Corpus Christi
A Pillar explainer
Catholics this Sunday will celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ — also known as Corpus Christi. Some parishes will have extended periods of Eucharistic adoration, or Eucharistic processions, and these words from Thomas Aquinas will be proclaimed in most Masses:
Laudis thema specialis,
Panis vivus et vitalis,
Special theme for glad thanksgiving
Is the quick’ning and the living
Bread today before you set.
Corpus Christi this year is also the kickoff of the National Eucharistic Revival.
And while the feast itself is well recognized, relatively little is known about its origins and history, including its connections to a thirteenth century mystic.
The Pillar explains:
A forgotten saint
The origins of the feast of Corpus Christi begin over 800 years ago around the city of Liège - in present-day Belgium - with a young woman known as Juliana of Mont-Cornillon, who would be officially recognized as a saint by Pope Pius IX in 1869. The details of her life are transmitted in a vita written not long after her death in 1258.
Although there is some confusion about her religious identity, it seems that St. Julianna was trying to live as a regular canoness, a religious woman who followed the Rule of Augustine rather than a monastic rule, at the abbey of Mont-Cornillon, where she had been brought as a child after the death of her parents.
However, due to persecutions inflicted by a simoniacal prior, the aspiring canoness ended up also living in her friend’s recluse cell, the house of a canon, four female Cistercian monasteries, a house of beguines, a house commissioned for her and her companions by an archdeacon of Liège, and her own recluse cell.
Through all her ambiguity, St. Juliana is representative of a movement of female piety that swept through the Low Countries around the 13th century and was often associated with Eucharistic devotion.
Although hagiographical writing is known for its often over-the-top adulatory nature, St. Juliana’s vita communicates her profound devotion to the Eucharist.
The anonymous author of her vita relates that, from a young age, St. Juliana had the same repeated vision while praying—a full moon with a small gap in it. After trying to stop this recurrence to no avail, she thought she might instead see whether the vision had any greater significance.
In a mystical encounter, Christ is reported to have told her that the moon represented the Church while the gap signified the lack of a feast day that he desired. He commissioned St. Juliana with the task of effecting the institution of a feast of his body and blood, a focus of Holy Thursday that was overshadowed by the washing of the feet and the remembrance of the Lord’s Passion.
In the apparitions, Christ wished that the Eucharist, in addition to its daily celebration, would receive special focus with its own feast, as the honor due to it could regularly be tepid or even absent. St. Juliana did not esteem herself worthy for such a feat, but after 20 years of begging to be released from it and repeatedly receiving the response that she was in fact the woman for the job, she finally accepted her mission.
A feast is born
As St. Juliana shared the content of her mystical experiences, her message gained support from ecclesiastical figures including the archdeacon of Liège, the bishop of the neighboring diocese of Cambrai, the prior provincial of the Order of Preachers of France, and the chancellor of the University of Paris.
But Juliana also met with resistance from a fair share of clergy, who primarily objected to the new feast on the grounds that the Eucharist was already honored each day at Mass.
“Juliana the dreamer,” as her opponents derisively called her, set out on a pilgrimage to the shrines of various saints, asking for their intercession that the feast with which Christ had entrusted her be made a liturgical reality.
Her prayers were soon answered, as the idea of the new feast was set before Bishop Robert de Torote of Liège, who warmly welcomed it and sent a letter to all the clergy of his diocese ordering that the feast be celebrated annually with its proper office on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday.
The bishop planned to go a step further by solemnly proclaiming the decree at his next diocesan synod, but he died before that could happen.
Without Bishop de Torote there to ensure its celebration, the feast needed a new champion, which it found in the aforementioned Prior Provincial of the French Dominicans, Hugh of Saint-Cher, who had become a cardinal and papal legate.
While on a mission to Germany, he passed through Liège and was moved to promote the feast. He celebrated the Corpus Christi Mass there and sent out a letter ordering that the feast be celebrated annually with its proper office in his jurisdiction.
At this point, the feast was spreading, but it was still a local affair when St. Juliana died in 1258.
It was several years after the saint’s death that the feast which she championed gained universal recognition.
In 1261, Jacques Pantaleon, who had supported Juliana of Mont-Cornillon’s message when he was Archdeacon of Liège, became Pope Urban IV.
In 1264, Urban IV issued the papal bull Transiturus de hoc mundo, which instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi for the entire Latin Church on the Thursday following the Octave of Pentecost.
He explained the introduction of the feast with the same reasoning offered by Bishop Robert de Torote and Hugh of Saint-Cher before him—as a way to counter a lack of faith and the scourge of heresy and to honor the Eucharist more intentionally than it is honored on other days.
While the feast itself was spurred by St. Juliana’s reports of a mystical vision, it arose in the midst of a vibrant period of Eucharistic development in theology and canon law.
The 12th and 13th centuries saw the first appearances of the word “transubstantiation” to explain the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, as well as the insertion of the elevation of the host - the practice of raising the consecrated host immediately following the moment of transubstantiation - into canon law.
Hymns of Aquinas
With a new feast day arose the need for the composition of new texts for the canonical hours, as well as for the propers of the Mass, the parts of the liturgy that change depending on the day.
Shortly before Pope Urban issued his 1264 bull, St. Thomas Aquinas had undertaken and completed the task of composing both the office and the Mass for the feast.
While there had been earlier compositions, including one commissioned by St. Juliana, those of Aquinas were incorporated into the Roman liturgy, the official propers of Corpus Christi, when Urban universally instituted the feast.
Almost all of Aquinas’ original office and Mass remained the official liturgy for the following seven centuries, until the post-Vatican II reforms of the Breviary and the Latin Rite.
In some parts of the liturgy, Aquinas’ work remains; in others, it has been replaced. And in still other cases, there is quite literally no longer a place for it, as parts of the older liturgy were excised.
Notably intact and repelling all change are three out of the four hymns that Aquinas wrote for the feast.
Pange lingua, intended as the hymn for First Vespers on Corpus Christi, is well known to this day as the hymn sung during the procession to the altar of repose on Holy Thursday.
Its last two stanzas, beginning with Tantum ergo, are well known for being sung during Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
Verbum supernum, originally the hymn for Lauds, is now sung during the Office of Readings, but its two better-known final verses, beginning with O salutaris hostia, are often sung at Eucharistic Exposition.
Lauda Sion remains the sequence, the proper liturgical hymn of the Mass sung before the Gospel - one of only three sequences that has survived throughout the centuries.
While most of the text related to the feast is celebratory, two verses of this hymn offer a stark warning to those who receive the Eucharist without proper preparation:
Sumunt boni, sumunt mali
Sorte tamen inaequali,
Vitae vel interitus.
Mors est malis, vita bonis:
Vide paris sumptionis
Quam sit dispar exitus.
Bad and good the feast are sharing,
Of what divers dooms preparing,
Endless death, or endless life.
Life to these, to those damnation,
See how like participation
Is with unlike issues rife.
Another hymn of Aquinas no longer holds a fixed place in the liturgy, but remains well known in part thanks to its penultimate stanza, which begins with the words Panis angelicus. Part of Sacris solemniis, the hymn written for matins, the verse has taken on a life of its own as a separate hymn, performed over the years by famous musicians including Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli.
A feast is born…take two
Although Urban IV had technically instituted the feast for the whole Church in the 13th century, it was not until the 14th century that it was celebrated universally.
At the Council of Vienne (1311–12), Pope Clement V’s decree Si Dominum proclaimed the universal feast once again. This decree entered the Constitutiones Clementinae, the new collection of canon law promulgated by Pope John XXII in 1317.
Once part of the law, the feast truly became universal. Corpus Christi processions quickly popped up and became inextricably linked with the celebration of the new feast.
These processions for Corpus Christi originated in Germany around 1275. By 1350, as the feast had become a universal practice, so too had the processions, during which a cleric carries a consecrated host in a Eucharistic vessel, often covered by a canopy, with the faithful following.
In the Middle Ages, these processions were regarded with great importance both in the Church and in wider society. Corpus Christi processions remain a common practice today.
Celebrate! It’s the law
As the centuries went on, the feast day and its celebration continued to flourish. The fifteenth-century popes Martin V and Eugene IV both issued letters concerning Corpus Christi. In the sixteenth century, the feast and its procession even made it into an anathema sit statement—canon 6 of the 13th session of the Council of Trent:
“If anyone says that in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist, Christ, the only begotten Son of God, is not to be adored with the worship of latria, also outwardly manifested, and is consequently neither to be venerated with a special festive solemnity, nor to be solemnly borne about in procession according to the laudable and universal rite and custom of holy Church, or is not to be set publicly before the people to be adored and that the adorers thereof are idolaters, let him be anathema.”
This statement came in response to the Protestant reformers who considered the celebration to be idolatrous. Centuries later, the 1917 Code of Canon Law mentioned the feast at least four times. The importance of Corpus Christi in the Church can be seen in canon 338.3, which required bishops to be present in their cathedral churches, except for grave and urgent cause, during Advent and Lent, as well as on Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and Corpus Christi.
The 1983 Code makes reference to the feast twice, and underlines its significance even further, as canon 395.3 slightly amends the older canon, requiring diocesan bishops to be present in their dioceses, except for grave and urgent cause, for fewer occasions. Corpus Christi, however, continues to make the cut, along with Christmas, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost.
Thursday or Sunday? Feast or solemnity?
Astute readers may have noticed that there seem to be some discrepancies related to the celebration of the feast.
First, when is it?
From its inception, Corpus Christi took place on a Thursday.
Following Vatican II, in 1969, the Sacred Congregation of Rites - which would be divided into the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints that same year - published the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar to take effect January 1, 1970.
Among many changes to the General Roman Calendar is a norm allowing the feasts of Epiphany, Ascension, and Corpus Christi to be transferred to a Sunday.
Corpus Christi in particular could be moved from Thursday to the Sunday after the feast of the Trinity.
While this allowance only became universal in 1970, the United States had already been given permission for a Sunday celebration of the feast almost a century earlier.
At the request of the Council Fathers of The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, Pope Leo XIII granted the U.S. an indult that allowed for this accommodation in 1885.
This way, American Catholics, who were living in an effectively Protestant country in which holy days were not public holidays, could be sure to attend Mass and refrain from servile work.
Unlike the 1970 accommodation, however, the 1885 indult did not actually change the calendar. The feast would still fall on Thursday, but it could also be celebrated on Sunday.
Today, there are churches in the U.S. in which the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is celebrated, meaning that the 1962 calendar is still in use. Since this calendar places the Feast of Corpus Christi on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday, it is to be celebrated on this day.
However, the 1962 Roman Missal provides the option of “external solemnities” by which the Mass for a feast can be celebrated on another day in addition to its original day. Thus, Corpus Christi could be celebrated on both Thursday and Sunday.
Another change with the General Norms was the categorization of holy days.
Whereas there had been feasts of different “classes” previously, now the scheme of solemnities, feasts, and memorials was introduced.
What had been the Festum Sanctissimi Corporis Christi became the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.
The removal of the octave attached to the feast had already occurred earlier in Pope Pius XII’s 1955 reform of the calendar.
Another nuance - is this a celebration of only the body or the body and blood of Christ?
Although the original Latin title only contained the word for “body,” the feast, as St. Juliana had advocated, was a commemoration of both the body and blood in the Eucharist. This can be seen in the bull of Urban IV, as well as the hymns, prayers, and readings of the office and Mass.
In 1849, however, Pope Pius IX instituted the Feast of the Most Precious Blood as an additional celebration.
This feast was removed in the 1969 revision of the General Roman Calendar with the Consilium for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy citing the already existing commemoration of the Precious Blood within the feast of Corpus Christi. The new calendar emphasized this twofold focus in the name of the solemnity.