Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Anniversary of the Feast of Corpus Christi: Guest Article by Dr Donald Prudlo

We are very grateful to Dr Donald Prudlo, William K. Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, for sharing with us this article to mark the anniversary of the Bull Transiturus, which promulgated the feast of Corpus Christi. He is the author of several books on medieval religious history, most recently Thomas Aquinas: A Historical, Theological, and Environmental Portrait.

On 11 August 1264 Pope Urban IV promulgated the Bull Transiturus, which published the Mass formulary and hymns for the Office of a new feast meant for the whole church, that of Corpus Domini -- the Body of the Lord. It was the culmination of an intensification of Eucharistic piety that had been percolating over the previous 100 years. During that time, the concept of Transubstantiation obtained substantial theological precision, until it was dogmatically defined at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Accompanying this was a rise in Eucharistic devotion, particularly among the laity. It was they who pioneered the postures of kneeling and genuflection before the Blessed Sacrament, for until then the common clerical gesture had been the profound bow. In addition, the ceremony of elevation came to be widely practiced, with occasional reports of pious laity shouting out “lift it higher!” during Mass. The use of “warning bells” also increased, which let the congregation know when the sacred moment was about to arrive. In the rood screens of the period one can see numbers of “peep holes” that allowed the laity to gaze in at this most central of ritual moments. Some of this was in response to a profoundly anti-incarnational heresy known as Catharism, whose rejection of Saints and sacraments was spurned by the orthodox laity.

The Blessing of the Wheat in Artois, by Jules Breton, 1857
Yet it is clear that this rising tide of devotion did not accompany an increase in the reception of communion. Lateran IV laid down a single Easter communion as a sufficient minimum for a good Christian, while other local legislation specified just three times a year. Even the extraordinarily devout St Louis IX, King of France, communicated only six times a year. In fact, this was probably a by-product of increasing meditation on the magnitude of the gift of Christ Himself on the altar. The gift of God Himself ought not to be approached lightly, lest one “eat and drink judgment to himself.” (1 Cor. 11, 29) Even among the monastic orders, the community Mass was only a small part of the daily horarium and most Masses were celebrated without common communion. The heart of the spirituality of the religious life at that time was not Mass but the Divine Office, especially since most of the inhabitants of monastic houses were unordained. Indeed it appears that even among the laity who sought a deeper spirituality in the Middle Ages, the tendency was to attend more canonical hours, rather than to increase one’s reception of Communion.

Attitudes towards Mass began to change in the eleventh century. As a deepening sense of its sacrificial nature came to the fore, there was an increased desire to offered it for the living and the dead. This led to an increase in daily Masses and a proliferation of private Masses, producing the first “side altars” and beginning a transition to what became known as “low Mass.” Until the 1100s, all Masses were sung Masses, usually solemn. With the increased demand, the external ceremonial of the Mass became simplified, and the singing was reduced first to a sort of subdued chant, and then to a simple spoken rite. Solemn High Mass remained normative, but low Masses began to multiply. In addition, religious orders began to model their liturgical actions on the simplified ceremony of the itinerant Roman Curia, rather than on the complex local forms of Mass in the various territories of Christendom. Indeed, once worldwide orders appeared on the scene, the difficulty of celebrating complex local liturgies was compounded. Orders like the Franciscans and Dominicans needed a simple, direct rite that could be celebrated anywhere, and which was common throughout their brotherhoods.

It was the Dominicans especially who prepared the way for a spirituality that made Corpus Christi possible. They were the first order that was essentially priestly in nature from the very beginning, meant to be made up of ordained clerics who could preach. This meant that their priests, at least while at home in their convents, would attend not only the community high Mass, but also celebrate private Masses every day. The order was also incredibly innovative in creating the flexibility necessary to achieve its end: the salvation of souls. Nothing was to get in the way of study, which was a preparation for preaching and evangelization. This included the Divine Office. Dominic ordered his brothers (who were still bound to the Canonical Hours) to sing them “breviter et succincte.” It is not too far a stretch to translate “make it short and sweet.” Further, priors had authority to dispense the brethren from anything which impeded study. This included not only things like common meals, but also nearly all community celebration of the Office and attendance at the common Mass.

One of the first friars who benefitted from this system was St Thomas Aquinas. By the 1250s he had likely been dispensed from all forms of community devotion. The records only mention his attendance at Compline (a short and characteristically Dominican hour) and an occasional appearance at Matins. He ate in his room, and was rarely found anywhere but his study and in his classroom. All of the provisions of the order were directed to aiding his academic work, for the good of souls and of the Church. Any Catholic today can see how successful such provisions were.

All this meant that the main source of Thomas’ spirituality came from the devout celebration of his private, low Mass. Every morning before work he unfailingly celebrated not only his own Mass, but then acted as acolyte for the Mass of his secretary, Friar Reginald. It is humbling indeed to think of the brilliant doctor kneeling and making the simple replies of an altar server. In Thomas, we have one of the first examples in Church history of someone whose spiritual life revolved completely around not only the celebration of low Mass, but who was also a daily communicant. For the first time in history, we are privileged to witness a Saint who is wholly focused on the Sacrament of the Altar.

St Thomas Presents the Office of Corpus Christi to Pope Urban IV; by Taddeo di Bartolo, 1403
It was likely this Eucharistic piety that drove Urban IV to request that Thomas draw up the liturgy for Corpus Christi. There is no evidence that St. Bonaventure composed a rival liturgy and then destroyed his own upon hearing Thomas’. Bonaventure was nowhere near Orvieto during the period in question, nor do any contemporary sources aver to this episode. Urban, together with the Dominican Cardinal Hugh of St. Cher, Thomas’ confrère, had themselves witnessed the efflorescence of Eucharistic devotion in the Low Countries in the 1240s, where the feast was first celebrated. They wanted to communicate that devotion to the Universal Church.

In the past historians have questioned Thomas’ authorship of the liturgy aggressively, and for good reason. It is breathtakingly beautiful poetry, yet whoever reads any of Thomas’ other works knows that literary style is the furthest thing from his mind. Indeed such scholastic Latin was to the mind of the Renaissance simply barbaric. How could the author of the Summa have produced the Sacris solemniis? While careful historical research has now concluded with near certainty that Thomas was actually the author, we are still left with the issue of “how?” I propose that only an individual of stunning theological depth who was at the same time centered on daily Mass and Communion could have produced such a work. Only beginning at that particular moment in Church history could such an intersection have occurred.

Even so, Urban and Thomas were perhaps a bit avant garde. While the feast was celebrated twice in Orvieto in 1264, with the Pope’s death it fell into abeyance. It would not be until the 1310s that the Popes again proposed its universal celebration, a fact that points both to intense liturgical localism and the limited ability of the Popes to enforce liturgical conformity before the early modern period. Even the Dominican Order itself did not prescribe the feast until 1322. One should remember that Thomas wrote the office for the Roman Curia and not for the order, which had its own proper rite. As Thomas would be canonized in 1323 it made sense to add his beautiful liturgy to the Friars’ missal. It also does not appear that there is a connection between the “sacred corporal” of Bolsena and the institution of the feast. Neither Thomas’ liturgy nor Urban’s bull makes any mention of it. Indeed, it may be likely that the miracle is from a later date, as the first references to it are in the 1320s. It is possible that the miracle of Bolsena helped to encourage the re-introduction of the feast in the 14th century. It is also likely that it was St. Antoninus of Florence in the 1430s who first conflated the miracle with Thomas’ authorship of the liturgy.

The church of St Dominic in Orvieto, where St Thomas was living as the lector (the principal teacher of the house) when he composed the Mass and Office of Corpus Christi. It was during his sojourn here that he also started the Catena Aurea, did some of the work on the Summa contra Gentiles, and wrote several of his commentaries on the works of Aristotle. In 1932, the nave of the church was demolished to make way for the school building seen at the left; what remains today is only the nave of the original church. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Livioandronico2013, CC BY-SA 3.0) In the 13th century, the Popes often lived in Orvieto, a small and very pleasant hill-top town about 78 miles to the NNW of Rome.
In any case, Thomas’ compositions were masterworks. It is likely that even today most Catholics know St. Thomas from portions of his songs such as “Tantum ergo” and “O Salutaris Hostia” than for his theological and philosophical works. He presaged a period of Church history where the Mass would come to predominate in the lives of Christians, and in which devotion to the Eucharist would come to be more and more at the center of the Church’s life.

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