How did the procession on the feast of Corpus Christi originate?
By Shawna Hanson
A providential connection between a holy nun in Belgium, an archdeacon destined to become pope and the disbelief of a small town priest in Italy has given us the great feast of Corpus Christi. The story begins in the town of Liege, Belgium, home to St. Juliana of Cornillon in the 1200s. From an early age, Juliana had a great devotion to Jesus present in the Eucharist and longed for a special feast in its honor. Her devotion was deepened when she experienced a vision of a full moon with a darkened spot upon it. Christ showed her that the moon represented the church year and the black spot indicated the lack of a festival honoring the Blessed Sacrament. She shared both her desire and the vision with the Archdeacon of Liege, Jacques Panteleon. He supported and encouraged her desire and in 1246, the feast of Corpus Christi was prescribed for the churches of Leige.
In 1261, Archdeacon Jacques Panteleon was elected pope and took the name Urban IV. Two years later, the Bishop of Orvieto, Italy came to him seeking advice and counsel over a strange occurrence in his diocese. A priest, who doubted the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, was celebrating Mass in a town near Orvieto. At the moment of consecration, as the host was elevated, it began to bleed. The priest wrapped the bleeding host in corporals and brought them to the Bishop at Orvieto. After investigation by the church, the miracle was affirmed, and the host and corporals remain in Orvieto and can be seen there today. Seeing this miracle as confirmation of St. Juliana’s vision and desire, Pope Urban issued a papal bull in 1264 making the feast of Corpus Christi universal in the church to be celebrated on the Thursday after Pentecost.
He then commissioned the great Dominican scholar, St. Thomas Aquinas to compose the texts of the Mass and Divine Office for the new feast. In doing so, he gave the church the great hymn, “Pange Lingua,” which is often still sung in its entirety on Holy Thursday. The final two verses of this song are known today as the familiar hymn “Tantum Ergo,” that is sung during benediction.
The decree of Pope Urban was renewed in 1314 by Pope Clement V and the feast spread quickly throughout the Catholic Church. By the 14th century, the practice of processing the Blessed Sacrament on the feast of Corpus Christi had been adopted throughout Europe, sometimes in the streets, sometimes through the fields, and often stopping at altars set up along the route. The proclamation of the Gospel, prayers and petitions and benediction with the Blessed Sacrament were done at these temporary altars.
The church continues to encourage the carrying of the Eucharist in procession on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. Msgr. William J. King, said, “Theologically, processions remind us that we are pilgrims journeying through this earthly existence following Jesus on “the Way.” In Eucharistic Processions, we publicly proclaim this truth, following the Lord physically even as we pledge anew to do so spiritually. We also give public witness to our acceptance of the Lord’s words: “The bread that I will give is flesh for the life of the world (Jn 6:51).”