Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Institution of the Feast of Corpus Christi

From the life of St. Juliana of Mont-Cornillon, sometimes called Juliana of Liège, according to the 1791 Breviary of Liège.

The Most High God, who chooses the weak things of this world, wondrously deigned to elect (this) humble virgin, endowed with a singular grace, to obtain a special feast of His Body. For as she lay prostrate daily before the most august Sacrament of the Eucharist, she learned by divine revelations that a special solemnity of the Body of Christ was to be instituted. When she declared these revelations to certain holy and learned men, the matter was examined in due time, and they judged that such a solemnity would be useful to further the glory of God and the devotion of Christ’s faithful towards the most holy and august Sacrament of the Eucharist; and so they and she induced the bishop to institute the feast. The first to do so was Bishop Robert of Liège in the year 1246, who commanded that it be celebrated throughout his diocese; at the behest of the Blessed Eve, the companion of Juliana, Urban IV afterwards gave his approval, and extended the feast to the universal church.

St. Juliana died in the year 1252, nine years before the former archdeacon of her native city, Jacques Pantaléon, was elected to the papacy with the name Urban IV; he is one of the “learned men” referred to above who were consulted on the propriety of adding a feast to the Temporal Cycle of the liturgical year. The vision to which Juliana’s legend refers was one of a full moon with a dark spot on it, which appeared to her both day and night over many years; the meaning of it was imparted to her by the Lord Himself, namely, that something was missing from the liturgical year, since there was no special feast to honor the Blessed Sacrament.

The Vision of St. Juliana, by Philippe de Champaigne, ca. 1650.

In his homily for the office of Corpus Christi, written at the request of Urban IV, St. Thomas Aquinas notes that:

(a)lthough on the day of the (Lord’s) Supper, when we know the Sacrament to have been instituted, a special mention is made of this fact in the solemn Mass, nevertheless, all the rest of the day’s services pertains to Christ’s Passion, which the Church is concerned to venerate at that time. In order that the faithful may once again honor the institution of so great a Sacrament with its own service, the Roman Pontiff Urban IV, moved by his devotion to It, piously decreed that the memory of this institution should be celebrated by all the faithful on the first Thursday after the Octave of Pentecost, so that we who make use of this Sacrament throughout the year unto our salvation, may specially honor Its institution at that time when the Holy Spirit taught the hearts of the disciples to know the mysteries thereof; for at the same time did the Sacrament begin to be frequented by the faithful.

The bull “Transiturus” by which Pope Urban established the feast in 1264, the last year of his short pontificate, was in some places read in the Divine Office for the lessons of Matins during the octave of Corpus Christi; this was the custom in the medieval use of Prague, and in the post-Tridentine uses of Liège and of the Carthusian Order.

Bishop Urban, servant of the servants of God, to his venerable brethren the archbishops and their suffragans, greetings and apostolic blessing. When Our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, was about to pass from this world to the Father, as the time of His Passion drew nigh, having taken supper, He instituted unto the memory of His death the most exalted and magnificent Sacrament of His Body and Blood, giving His Body to eat and His Blood to drink. For however so often we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the death of the Lord. In the institution of this saving Sacrament, He said to the Apostles, “Do this in memory of Me”, so that this august and venerable Sacrament might be the special and particular memorial of the exceptional love with which He loved us: this memorial, I say, wondrous and astounding, full of delight, sweet, most secure, and precious above all things, in which signs are renewed and wonders changed, in which is contained every delight and the enjoyment of every savor, and the very sweetness of the Lord is tasted, by which we do indeed obtain the support of our life and salvation. This is the memorial most sweet, most sacred, most holy, profitable unto salvation, by which we recall the grace of our redemption; by which we are drawn away from evil and strengthened in good, and advance to the increase of virtues and graces, by the bodily presence of the Savior.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: