An Augustinian prioress, a hermitess and an archdeacon, all living at Liege in the thirteenth century, are the people mainly responsible for the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi.
Although the institution of the Holy Eucharist has been commemorated on Maundy Thursday since Apostolic times, the Church is concerned at this period with the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ which overshadows remembrance of the events of the Last Supper.
The first petition
Some of the faithful felt that a further day to honour the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar should be established. Notable among these was the prioress of a nunnery in Liege, Blessed Julienne de Retrinnes. She believed she had seen a vision encouraging her to petition the ecclesiastical authorities for such a feast. In 1230 she consulted a number of persons of influence concerning this, among them Jacques Pantalon of Troyes, who was the Archdeacon of Liege, and the Dominican cardinal and Papal Legate, Hugues de Saint Cher.
An office for the feast was composed and Robert, Bishop of Liege, ordered that the feast of Corpus Christi be celebrated throughout his diocese. Fourteen years later on 29 August 1261, Archdeacon Jacques Pantalon was elected Pope, taking the name Urban IV.
Because of the political situation at the time, Urban was never able to establish himself at Rome and lived first at Viterbo and then at Orvieto. It was not a period when the papacy excelled itself.
The feast extended
Following the death of Blessed Julienne, a holy recluse named Eve, one of her confidantes, persuaded the then Bishop of Liege, Henri, to petition the Holy See for the feast to be extended to the Universal Church.
Urban IV is said at first to have been uncertain whether to institute the feast, but eventually he agreed. He may have been influenced by the reputed miracle of Bolsena. While his court was at Orvieto in 1264, it was reported that a priest in the nearby city of Bolsena had spilt a drop of the Precious Blood while he was saying Mass. He tried to hide the accident by covering the spot where the Precious Blood had fallen with the corporal.
Suddenly, it is said, the corporal, which is still preserved at Bolsena, was covered with red spots in the shape of a host. Some versions of the story suggest the priest had had doubts about the Real Presence.
Although there is no certainty that this was the reason for the institution of the feast, some say that hearing of this incident, the Pope delayed no longer. The Bull of erection, however, makes no mention of it.
Something else which may have influenced Urban was a desire to counteract the teachings of Berengarius, a writer from about a century earlier who, as Archdeacon of Angers, had attacked the teaching on the Eucharist; he denied transubstantiation and held that Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament was only spiritually conceived.
On 8 September 1264 Urban published a Bull commanding the celebration of the feast on the Thursday after the First Sunday of Pentecost. Thursday has always been consecrated to remembrance of the Holy Eucharist because that was the day of the week on which it was instituted.
St Thomas Aquinas
Urban asked both the Dominican, St Thomas Aquinas and the Franciscan, St Bonadventure to write an office for the new feast. Both did so, but when Bonadventure read Aquinas’s composition, he withdrew his own as being not comparable with that of the Dominican.
Although the Papal court celebrated the feast, there is some doubt as to whether the Bull was actually executed elsewhere. Soon after the institution of the feast, the Pope died on 2 October in the same year.
At the Council of Vienne which opened on 16 October 1311, Clement V, the Pope who established the Papal court at Avignon, confirmed Urban’s Bull and made the feast of obligation throughout the Church. His successor John XXII, who became Pope in 1316, promoted the feast as did two later Popes, Martin V and Eugenius IV, who both granted indulgences for it.
Although the feast had an octave from the beginning, it was not celebrated with a vigil; vigils in their original sense having already passed into desuetude. The Papal decree which produced the 1962 Missal abolished the octave of the feast of Corpus Christi along with most other octaves.
The feast in England
It seems to have taken some time for the feast to be adopted generally, but Corpus Christi was finally observed in England from 1318. The feast quickly became popular here and numerous guilds were established to honour the Blessed Sacrament as it was carried in procession. The custom of carrying the Most Holy Sacrament in procession had been recognised as a part of the ceremonies of the feast from the beginning.
It was the Corpus Christi guilds rather than the clergy which arranged the processions and the miracle play cycles which, in many places, also became a part of the celebration of the feast. The Corpus Christi procession became a major civic event in many medieval towns. Houses along the processional route were decorated with hangings, flowers and lights. Such decoration is still prescribed by the Caeremoniale Episcoporum.
The Council of Trent praised the feast as a triumph over heresy.
Father Adrian Fortescue in his directory of ceremonial, The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, explains that the outdoor procession on this feast should be a general one for the whole town, that is to say that every church, whether of seculars or regulars, in each town should join together for the procession.
He has a footnote to the effect that the Caeremoniale Episcoporum has most elaborate directions to prevent quarrelling among the clergy as to precedence in the procession. ‘The Bishop is to settle it, and if anyone is not satisfied he shall be excommunicated.’ Not much doubt about that! Merati (an Italian writer on the liturgy), Fortescue says, ‘writes columns on the same subject. Martinucci (another liturgist) also is very much concerned about this matter.’ The note ends by saying, ‘Fortunately, such foolishness is unlikely to occur in England’!
[Taken from the Latin Mass Society's February 2004 Newsletter.]