What is Corpus Christi?

Traditions of the Holy Eucharist and the Body of Christ

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The Feast of Corpus Christi (also known as the Feast of the Body of Christ) is celebrated on the eighth Thursday after Easter. The celebration commemorates the ritual of the Eucharist and is a reflection of the Maundy Thursday observance during Holy Week. Corpus Christi is unique in several ways. The feast was not instituted within the Church until the 14th century AD, and its advocates for inclusion in the Church roster of holy days were two women.

The Founders of the Feast
The principal founder of the Feast of the Body was an Augustinian nun, Saint Juliana of Mont Cornillion, in Belgium. Saint Juliana looked upon the Holy Eucharist with great reverence, and desired to have a feast within the Church devoted specifically to its honor. From the earliest days within the Church, the custom for the celebration of the Eucharist fell specifically on Maundy Thursday.

However, Holy Week was often seen as a time of great sorrow and repentance, and Juliana felt that the celebration of the Eucharist should be a time of rejoicing. After receiving a vision concerning the Church and its lack of devotion to the Eucharist, she petitioned Robert de Thorete, the Bishop of Liège. Bishop Robert convened a synod in 1246, where he directed that an office be written for the observance, thereby decreeing that the celebration should take place the following year. Although Bishop Robert died in October of 1246, the Feast of Corpus Christi was observed the following year at Saint Martin in Liège.

Juliana, who longed to see the feast extend to the entire Church, passed away in April of 1258. However, a friend and long-time companion named Eve took up her cause and made a request of Henry of Guelders, the new Bishop of Liège, to petition Pope Urban IV to make the feast universal. In 1264, Pope Urban IV issued the bull transiturus, a declaration ordering the Feast of Corpus Christi extended throughout the entire Church. The date was set for the celebration to be held on the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, at the request of the Pope, wrote the Office for the feast. Pope Urban IV died later that year, and the feast was set aside for other pressing matters, until Pope Clement V ordered its adoption at the General Council of Vienne in 1311. By 1325, the feast had been adopted throughout all of Europe and England.

Customs of Corpus Christi
There are a number of unique customs associated with the Feast of Corpus Christi. Among them are pageants and processions that originated during the Middle Ages. During the Baroque Period of the 17th century many of the processions throughout Europe introduced colorful characters and themes from both legend and the Bible, including the tales of David and Goliath and Saint George and the dragon. However, by the end of the 18thcentury, many of these colorful displays were no longer popular with the Church, resulting in their removal.

In France and other portions of Central Europe, the Feast of Corpus Christi is also known as the Day of Wreaths. Large bouquets of flowers are carried in processions on the tops of long wooden poles and wreaths of colorful flowers are placed on houses, gardens, and fields. Cities and towns are adorned with wreaths of delicate flowers and green boughs as processions of both clergy and laity honor the Eucharist.

Perhaps the most obscure custom of the Feast is the naming of bodies of water and places in its honor. Franciscan missionaries originally named the Gulf of Mexico the "Bay of Corpus Christi," and gave the mission there the same name. While in California, the mission at Sacramento and its corresponding river were named in honor of the Eucharist.

While Corpus Christi is, generally speaking, a minor feast of the Church, for many Catholics, particular those in Europe, it is an annual celebration. For the Church on the whole, the Feast of the Body of Christ symbolizes the Eucharist and Communion, identifying the belief in the death of Christ and His resurrection.

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Written by: David Katski

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