(A guest post from Don the Kiwi on the backstory regarding the institution of the feast of Corpus Cristi.)
Last Sunday we celebrated the feast of Corpus Cristi, which literally means the body of Christ, in solemn commemoration of the Holy Eucharist. As with many of the great feasts of the Church there is a fascinating history associated with the establishment of this holy day, which involves a saint and a miracle.
God’s instrument on this occasion was a woman known to history as Saint Juliana of Liege, or Julian of Mount Comillon where she was educated as a girl by the Augustinian nuns at the convent there, after the death of her parents when she was only five. She was accepted into the order, made her religious profession, and became the mother superior of the convent.
Juliana had an ardent love of Our Lady, and also cultivated an extraordinary devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. As she grew in her vocation, she increasingly longed for a special feast in honor of the Sacrament. She had a vision of the Church as a full moon with one dark spot, symbolizing the lack of such a feast. Juliana expressed her to desire to the Bishop of Liege and the Archdeacon of Liege, who received her request favorably. In 1246 the Bishop at a synod of bishops from lands now in the country of Belgium, successfully proposed that a feast in honor of the Blessed Eucharist be instituted in the dioceses respresented at the Synod. The Archdeacon of Liege, Jacques Pantaleon, in time became the Bishop of Verdun, then Patriarch of Jerusalem, and, on August 29, 1261, was elected Pope under the name of Urban IV.
Shortly after this, in an example of that synchronicity that often reveals the Hand of God in history, one of the great Eucharistic miracles of the Church occurred. In 1263 Peter of Prague, a German priest, stopped at a town called Bolsena while on pilgrimage to Rome. He was a pious priest but had difficulty in believing that Christ was truly present in the consecrated host. While celebrating Mass in the Church of Saint Cristina, he finished saying the words of consecration, when blood started to seep from the consecrated host and trickled over his hands and onto the altar cloth and corporal
Totally bewildered, he at first attempted to hide the blood, but then interrupted the Mass and asked to be taken to the neighboring city of Ovieto where Pope Urban IV was residing. The Pope listened to the priest’s account and absolved him of the sin of doubt. He then ordered that the Host and the linen cloths bearing the blood stains be taken to the Cathedral of Ovieto. The assembled Bishops, Cardinals and other dignitaries formed a procession and with pomp and dignity the Host and altar cloth were installed in the Cathedral, where the linen corporal is on display to this day.
Pope Urban IV was prompted by this miracle to commission Saint Thomas Aquinas to compose a Proper for a Mass and an Office honoring the Holy Eucharist as the Body of Christ. One year after the miracle, in August 1264, Pope Urban IV introduced the saint’s composition, and instituted, by papal bull, the feast of Corpus Cristi.
After visiting the cathedral of Ovieto, many pilgrims and tourists journey to Saint Christina’s Church in Bolsena to see for themselves the place where the miracle occurred. From the north aisle of the church pilgrims enter the Chapel of the Miracle, where the stains on the paved floor are said to have been made by the blood from the bleeding Host. The altar of the miracle, surmounted by a 9th century canopy, is now situated in the grotto of Saint Christina. A reclining statue of the saint is nearby. In Aust of 1964, on the 700th anniversary of the institution of the feast of Corpus Cristi, Pope Paul VI celebrated Holy Mass at the altar where the holy corporal is kept in its golden shrine in the Cathedral of Ovieto.
Twelve years later, the same pontiff visited Bolsena and spoke from there via television to the 41st International Eucharistic Congress, then concluding in Philadelphia. During his address the Pope spoke of the Eucharist as being “a mystery great and inexhaustible’.