After various sects called into question the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist during the 13th century, Blessed Juliana de Mont Corillon received a series of visions from God. She understood from these private revelations that God wanted a feast established to especially honor the Blessed Sacrament.
Juliana was born in the year 1193 near the city of Liege, in Belgium. Orphaned at an early age, she was educated by the Augustinian nuns of Mount Cornillon. Here she made her religious profession and later became the Mother Superior.
Juliana, from her early childhood, had a great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and always longed for a special feast in its honor. This desire was amplified by the divine vision she had of the Church under her appearance of the full moon having one dark spot. The spot was supposed to represent the absence of such a Eucharistic feast, and she quickly made her vision known to the local bishop.
Cardinal Hugh of St. Cher, the Pope’s representative in Belgium, first promoted this feast locally and later in 1264, Pope Urban IV, who was himself from Belgium, formally established the Feast of Corpus Christi, to be observed by the whole Church on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. In some countries, including the United States, the feast was transferred to the Sunday following Trinity Sunday in 1969.
Although Corpus Christi literally means “the Body of Christ,” the feast is in honor of the Body and Blood of Our Lord. The Mass of the great feast was composed at the Pope’s request by St. Thomas Aquinas. Known as the “Angelic Doctor,” Aquinas is one of the greatest theologians of the Church. He is the author of the well known Eucharist hymns Tanutm Ergo, Sacramentum O Salutaris, and Lauda Sion, which are all a part of the Corpus Christi Mass.
After the institution of the new feast, processions and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament became common. Since the 14th century, the celebration of this feast has been characterized by these splendid outdoor processions in which guilds, merchants, magistrates, nobility, and clergy participated. After the procession, mystery and miracle plays were performed in the public square by members of the guild.
In some places the procession takes place in or around the church, but more commonly the procession would consist of carrying the exposed Sacrament in a beautiful monstrance through the streets of the city or village. Often these streets were carpeted with flowers and the buildings along the route would be decorated for the feast. Along the way. three or four separate altars would be set up to provide Benediction (a solemn blessing) of the Blessed Sacrament.
Of course, the Church still encourages these processions because they are such a great public demonstration of faith and a powerful devotion that strengthens our belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
The Forty Hours Exposition, one church following another throughout the city, was introduced in Rome in the 16th century as a prayer against the dangers posed by the Turks. There’s a significance in the period of 40 hours in that this was about the length of time that the Body of Christ remained in the tomb – a period of watching, suspense, and ardent prayer on the part of all his disciples.
About the same time Benediction began to be given with the Blessed Sacrament; it grew out of the practice of evening devotions to the Virgin Mary with a short exposition of the Blessed Sacrament added to give greater solemnity. The O Salutaris and Tantum Ergo sung at Benediction are taken from Aquinas’s hymns composed for the Feast of Corpus Christi.
Another popular Eucharistic devotion is the Holy Hour. Once every week or month, the faithful meet in the church for prayer and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, exposed in a monstrance on or above the altar of sacrifice. Usually prayers are recited and hymns sung together. These Eucharistic devotions are most encouraged by the pope, and each is still observed at many parishes throughout the world.
Tantum ergo sacramentum
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui:
Praestet fides supplementum
Laus et iubilatio,
Salus, honor virtus quoque
Sit et benedictio:
Procedenti ab utroque
Compar sit laudatio.
O salutaris Hostia,
Quae caeli pandis ostium:
Bella premunt hostilia,
Da robur, fer auxilium.
Uni trinoque Domino
Sit sempiterna gloria,
Qui vitam sine termino
Nobis donet in patria.