History of the Feast of Corpus Christi
Since the beginning of the Church, the Eucharist has been central to Christian life and practice.
In some of the earliest texts we have outside the New Testament, we see clear belief in the Eucharist as the very body and blood of Jesus:
“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again.”
(St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110], emphasis mine).
“For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
(St. Justin Martyr, First Apology, 66, emphasis mine)
The belief of Christians that the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Jesus was virtually unanimous in the first millennium of Christianity. Starting at the turn of the 11th century, certain theologians like Berengarius of France started throwing into question belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Over the centuries that followed, some doubts began to take hold with regard to Eucharistic faith.
The feast of Corpus Christi that we celebrate today is really the convergence of two separate events in the 13th century.
The first is a Eucharistic miracle that can still be visited today in Orvieto, Italy. In 1263, a German priest, Fr. Peter of Prague, stopped in Italy to celebrate Mass on a pilgrimage to Rome. He was having some doubts regarding the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. During the consecration, blood started seeping from the host and onto the altar and the altar linens. This miracle was reported to Pope Urban IV, who was in the nearby town of Orvieto. The pope sent delegates to investigate the incident and to bring the blood-stained host and linens to him in Orvieto, where they are still displayed to this day in the Cathedral of Orvieto.
The second contemporaneous event was a series of visions reported by St. Juliana of Mont Cornillon in Belgium. It
had been revealed to her to establish a liturgical feast for the Eucharist. After many failed attempts, she convinced the bishop, who later became Pope Urban IV, to create the feast of Corpus Christi to honor the gift of the Eucharist. Shortly after her death in 1258, the pope instituted Corpus Christi as a universal feast day, and celebrated it for the first time in 1264 in Orvieto, a year after the miracle in the nearby town of Bolsena.
It is fitting that we turn our attention on our patronal feast of Corpus Christi to the tapestry figure of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Pope Urban IV asked Aquinas, who was a noted theologian of the time, to compose the songs for the first celebration of the feast. These beloved chants have stood the test of time and are still in use today: Pange Lingua, Tantum Ergo, Panis Angelicus, and O Salutaris Hostia. When I set the schedule for the tapestry series, I simply went in sequence without considering Sunday readings or feast days. So we could call it luck or providence that inspired this convergence of our patronal feast with one of the central figures in its history.
As we receive Corpus Christi today, may we become Corpus Christi to others. Happy Feast Day! I’m honored to serve as your pastor,