Each year before returning to Sundays of Ordinary Time, the Church celebrates one final big Sunday feast day: the Feast of Corpus Christi. But did you know this feast was instituted after a request from Our Lord Himself?
The story of the feast begins with a young woman named Juliana, who lived in Liege during the beginning of the thirteenth century. Juliana had a great devotion to the Eucharist. When she was only sixteen, she began seeing a vision of a full moon with a dark spot on it. After having this vision repeatedly, she heard from Christ in prayer that this moon represented the life of the Church, with the dark spot revealing the missing feast on the Church calendar: a feast to honor the Eucharist.
While we remember and celebrate the institution of the Eucharist on the great feast of Holy Thursday, that feast falls during the Triduum, which is a more somber time in the Church calendar. This was to be a feast particularly to celebrate the Eucharist with all the pomp and festivity and thankfulness we can muster. Its aim was to strengthen belief in the Real Presence, it encourage people to draw close to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and it to make reparation for sacrilege committed against the Eucharist.
Juliana entered the convent and continued to have the vision, although she felt powerless to do anything about the request. Twenty years later, after becoming superior of her order, she mentioned the vision to Robert de Thorete, the Bishop of Liège. They discussed it with a Dominican theologian and Jacques Pantaleon of Troyes, Archdeacon of Liège.
The feast was eventually celebrated on the local level by the Bishop of Liege in 1246, but it would take another extraordinary event to bring it to the universal Church. Isn’t our Lord patient with us?
In 1263, Father Peter of Prague was on pilgrimage to Rome, hoping to strengthen his own belief in the Real Presence. He stopped in the Italian city of Bolsena to celebrate Mass. During the consecration, the host began to bleed. It bled on the stone floor of the church and on the corporal.
At the time, the Pope was living in the nearby town of Orvieto, so Peter went there to tell Pope Urban IV about the miracle. The Holy Father had the corporal brought to the Cathedral in Orvieto, with a big procession with Church dignitaries and Cardinals. St. Thomas Aquinas was also residing in Orvieto at the time, and he wrote the prayers of the liturgy and Office to honor the Eucharist for the feast day. This is where we get our familiar Eucharistic hymns including the Pange Lingua (and the Tantum Ergo), Panis Angelicus, and O Salutaris Hostia.
Remember St. Juliana and her vision? Remember her confiding in the Bishop of Liege and Jacques Pantaleon? Fast forward to 1263, and Jacques Pantaleon had become Pope Urban IV. A year after the miracle of Bolsena, Pope Urban IV instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi for the universal Church, to be celebrated the Thursday after the Feast of the Holy Trinity.
Whereas the feast has been moved in most places to the Sunday following the Feast of the Holy Trinity, the Vatican continues to celebrate the feast on Thursday. In 1982, John Paul II brought back the tradition of processing through the streets of Rome with the Blessed Sacrament, a tradition continued by Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis. After celebrating Mass at his Cathedral of St. John Lateran, the Holy Father and thousands of bishops, priests, religious, dignitaries, and lay people process with the Blessed Sacrament down to the basilica of St. Mary Major.
In addition, the towns of Orvieto and Bolsena also celebrate the feast in grand style. There is a High Mass on Sunday morning, followed by a large Eucharistic procession, with much of the town in medieval dress. The corporal of the miracle is carried in the procession as well. If you ever find yourself in Rome around the feast, you must travel to the beautiful medieval town of Orvieto for the feast. It is truly unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Imagine the opening scene to Disney’s Sleeping Beauty—except that the celebration is for Jesus, not Princess Aurora! The different neighborhoods and families carry their flags and coats of arms, the guilds march proudly, and large tapestries are carried which depict the story of the miracle and the institution of the feast. Songs and prayers are piped through the streets, as the procession winds through the cobblestone alleys. At the very end, the Eucharist is brought back to the cathedral steps, a cathedral so beautiful that Pope John XXIII said angels would take it up to Heaven at the end of the world. There, the town kneels for Benediction, and the procession—with all its medieval finery and pomp—finds its meaning. It is all for Him.
This feast day is in direct response to a request from Christ Himself. Forever patient with us, he asks, waits, and rewards. May this feast of Corpus Christi and every Mass be a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the God who loves us to the end.