19 June is the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi)
The Feast of Corpus Christi celebrates Christ’s gift of the Eucharist. It focuses on his presence under the form of bread and wine. This focus was shaped by disputes within the Church in the Medieval period when the Feast began. In Europe at the time, the religious beliefs of some groups called for deliverance from material things into the world of spirit. They dismissed Catholic sacraments in which God was seen to work through material things like water, bread, wine and oil. These groups were focused in local areas and were seen as a threat both to the rulers of Europe and to the Church. Crusades were launched against them with great savagery. For Catholics, the presence of Christ in the transformation of bread and wine became a central emblem of true faith and a rallying call. They found support in miracles where the Eucharist was seen to be turned into Christ’s human flesh and human blood.
The Feast itself was first celebrated in the thirteenth century, inspired originally by the mission of Julien of Liege, a Religious Sister. The great theologian Thomas Aquinas, whose hymns on the Eucharist are still sung, lent support to the campaign. The feast began locally, and the Pope of the time made it available for the whole Church. It encouraged reverence in church where the consecrated host was preserved in a prominent place for worship and for ceremonies like Benediction where it was the focus of attention. It also became a proud statement of Catholic identity. Processions of the Blessed Sacraments took place in towns where Catholics were a majority, and more recently huge public celebrations during the Eucharistic Festivals have showcased the universality of the Church.
For many Catholics, such devotions deeply nourish their faith and they continue to have an important place in the Church. As in other aspects of Catholic life, however, different periods call for different emphases. Over the last century, and particularly in the Second Vatican Council, the Church has emphasised more strongly the presence of Christ within the community, which Paul called the Body of Christ. In this vision, all Catholics are active as well as receptive in the celebration of the Eucharist. It has also given strong weight to Christ’s action in the Eucharist. Christ is present, not simply in the consecrated bread and wine, but as the one who forgives, speaks, feeds, gathers together and makes present his offering on the Cross. In this fuller understanding of the Eucharist, Christ is present in the bread and wine because he is active in the Church. In the Eucharist, he calls us to prayer and reverence. He also calls us to follow his way in feeding the poor and giving spirit to the excluded and in taking up our own cross.
The Feast of Corpus Christi is a feast of its time. It is also a Feast for every time that encourages us to pray, to wonder at Christ’s continuing gift to us through his presence and his continuing activity, and to follow him in giving ourselves to those in need.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.