First Published in 1868.
TAN Books and Publishers
The Most Holy Festival of Corpus Christi and its Origin
MANY a century had passed over the Church of Christ before there was any distinct feast of the Blessed Sacrament, and when in the thirteenth century Our Lord chose that it should be instituted, He had recourse to a holy nun in a vision to be the instrument of this devotion in His Church. St. Thomas was living then and so was St. Louis, but God chose neither the learning of the one nor the royal power of the other to be the means of executing His desire.
From the age of sixteen, for many years, a vision perpetually haunted a young Belgian nun, Juliana of Retinne, whenever she knelt in prayer. A brilliant moon continually appeared before her with one small portion obscured and invisible. She tried in vain to chase the vision away; at last Our Lord Himself came to explain it to her. He said it was to show that the ritual year of the Church would remain incomplete until the Blessed Sacrament had a feast of its own, and He wished it to be instituted for the following reasons: First, in order that the Catholic doctrine might receive aid from the institution of this festival at a time when the faith of the world was growing cold and heresies were rife.
Secondly, that the faithful who love and seek truth and piety may be enabled to draw from this source of life new strength and vigor to walk continually in the way of virtue.
Thirdly, that irreverence and sacrilegious behavior towards the Divine Majesty in this adorable Sacrament may, by sincere and profound adoration, be extirpated and repaired.
Lastly, He bade her announce to the Christian world His will that this feast should be observed.
Tremblingly the maiden received the command, and heartily did she pray to be released from the charge. Our Lord answered her that the solemn devotion which He ordered to be observed was to be begun by her and to be propagated by the poor and lowly. Twenty long years had passed away and the secret still lay hidden in Juliana's breast; she dared not reveal it to anyone, and yet an interior impulse urged her on. So terrible was her repugnance that she shed tears of blood over it! At length she imparted it to her confessor, and with her leave he consulted others, especially James de Threzis, Archdeacon at the Cathedral of Liege. This priest was afterwards, for his piety and learning, elected Bishop of Verdun, then Patriarch of Jerusalem and at last Pope of Rome, being called Urban IV. From that time it became a public question, and sorely were men divided upon it. Canons and monks protested against the new devotion and urged that the Daily Sacrifice was sufficient to commemorate the love of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament-----without a special day being particularly assigned for that purpose. But the faithful nun prayed on; civil discord raged around her; the city where she lived was lost and won, sacked by a lawless army, and retaken; three successive convents were either burned or otherwise destroyed over her head, yet no earthly troubles could make her forget the task which her Lord had assigned her.
She died before it was accomplished, yet she had done enough in her lifetime to provide for its execution. In her wanderings, she had met with a few men with devotion to feel and learning to defend the feast of the Blessed Sacrament. When she was in her grave, the Sovereign Pontiff, Urban IV, wrote to inform one of her companions that he himself had celebrated the feast with the Cardinals in the Holy City. The triumph of the Blessed Sacrament was complete; St. Thomas Aquinas composed its office; the devotion spread throughout the length and breadth of Europe. From that time to this, every church in a Catholic country, from the cathedral of a royal city to the village chapel, keeps the festival. The procession issues into the I streets followed by the authorities of the realm; it is the public recognition by the Catholic world of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
The prophetic eye of Our Lord saw in the futurity this very doctrine attacked and the Faith in sore danger. In the full career of the victory of His Church, in the zenith of its medieval splendor, He foresaw our times. Surely no omen was ever better fulfilled than that which promised the Church good service by the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi! In France it has survived every revolution; its restablishment has ever been the measure of the Church's power and the proof of her return. It is the dove with the olive branch which proclaims the passing away of the mighty deluge.
The memory of the procession in which, when a child, he scattered flowers before the Blessed Sacrament as it passed through the streets, is a hold on the very libertine and the pledge of his final conversion. The civil and military pomp displayed is a proof that the country is still Catholic, and the very infidel compelled to pass the Blessed Sacrament head uncovered or to remain within his house bears witness to the fact that public opinion is Christian and to the triumph of the Blessed Sacrament. (John Bern Dalgairns, priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri).
I believe, Dear Reader, that for your edification and instruction concerning the Most Holy Feast of our Divine Redeemer's Sacred Body, I can place nothing better before you than the Brief of Urban IV, which runs thus:
"URBAN, BISHOP, Servant of the Servants of God, to our Venerable Brethren, the Patriarchs, Archbishops, and other Prelates of the Church:
"When Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, ere He left the world and returned to His Father, ate on the eve of His passion the Last Supper with His disciples, He instituted the Most Holy and precious Sacrament of His Body and Blood, in which He gave us the former for our food and the latter for our drink; 'for as often as we eat of this bread and drink of this chalice, we show the death of our Lord.' At the institution of this mystery, He said to His Apostles: 'Do this in commemoration of Me'-----giving them to understand that the great and adorable Sacrament, which He then instituted, was the greatest and most excellent remembrance of His infinite love towards us-----an admirable, agreeable, sweet, secure, and supremely excellent remembrance-----in which all the benefits of God are renewed, above all comprehension, in which we can find every pleasure, every sweetness and the most secure pledge of eternal life.
"It is the sweetest, holiest and most salutary remembrance, which recalls to our mind the great grace of our Redemption, which keeps us from evil and strengthens us in good, which promotes our advancement in virtue and grace, our Divine Saviour" producing in us all these effects by His Real Presence.
"The other mysteries which the Church reveres we adore in spirit and in truth, but in none of them do we enjoy the real presence thereof. It is only in the commemoration of the Last Supper that Jesus Christ is truly present and truly with us. When He ascended into Heaven, He said to His apostles and disciples: 'Behold I will be with you until the end of the world: He said this in order to console them for His absence and to assure them that He would always remain, even corporally, in their midst. O Worthy and Ever Adorable Remembrance, which reminds us that death has lost its sting and that we are saved from ruin, since the living Body of the Lord, which was raised upon the wood of the Cross, has restored life to us! It is a most glorious remembrance, which fills the faithful with salutary joy and causes them, in the effusion of their joy, to weep tears of thanksgiving. We exult at the remembrance of our Redemption, and because it reminds us of the death of Jesus who purchased us, we cannot restrain our tears.
"Over this mystery, which prepares joy for us and elicits our tears, we rejoice weepingly and weep joyfully because our hearts are entranced with joy at the remembrance of so great a benefit, and in the sense of the most just gratitude which we owe it, we cannot refrain from tears. O infinite, Divine love! O exceedingly great condescension of our God! O astounding miracle of His liberality! Not enough to make us masters of the goods of this world, He even places all creatures at our command. This was not even enough for His goodness to us. He raised man to so great a dignity as to give him Angels to guard him and celestial spirits to serve him and to guide the elect to the possession of the inheritance which is prepared for them in Heaven. After so many brilliant proofs of His munificence, He has given us a still greater pledge of His unspeakable charity by bestowing Himself on us. Exceeding the very fullness of His gifts and the very measure of His love, He offers Himself for our food and drink.
"O sublime and admirable liberality, in which the Giver is the Gift, and the Gift is the very One Who gives! O unexampled liberality by which He gives Himself! Our God has given Himself to be our food because man, condemned to death as he is, can be restored to life by this means only. By eating the forbidden fruit he incurred death, and by partaking of the tree of life, he has been redeemed. In the former was the sting of death; in the latter the food of life. By eating the former he inflicted a wound upon himself; by eating of the latter he recovered health. Thus the partaking of the one food wounded him; the partaking of the other healed him. Wound and cure proceed from the same source, and what entailed death upon us, has restored us to life. Of the former it is said: 'On the day on which you shall eat thereof, you shall die the death'; and of the latter, 'He that eats of this bread shall live for ever.'
"O Substantial Food which perfectly satisfies and truly nourishes, not the body, but the heart; not the flesh, but the soul! Our compassionate Redeemer, who knew that man needed spiritual nourishment, has in this institution of charity and mercy prepared for his soul the most precious and most nourishing food that His wisdom could devise. Neither could any work have been better befitting the Divine liberality and charity than that the Eternal Word of God, who is the real food and the real repast of the reasonable creature, should, after He was made flesh, give Himself to flesh and blood, that is to say, to man, for his nourishment.
"Man has eaten the bread of Angels, and therefore Our Lord said: 'My flesh is meat indeed!' This Divine Bread is eaten, but it is not changed, because it assumes no other form in him who eats it. It transforms the worthy receiver into Him whom it contains. O most excellent, most adorable and most venerable Sacrament, to which we can never give adequate praise, honor and glory and whose benefits we can never justly extol! O Sacrament, which is worthy of being revered from the bottom of the heart, loved with the most tender and fervent affection and of being deeply engraved upon our memory in indelible characters! O most precious remembrance, which ought to be made known and exalted in all places, which all Christians ought ever to remember with feelings of the deepest gratitude, which can never sufficiently meditate upon or ever sufficIently worship. We are therefore bound to cherish a perpetual remembrance of it, so that we may constantly have Him before our eyes who offers this inestimable benefit to us. For the more we consider the Gift, the more we prize Him who bestows it.
"Although we daily commemorate this benefit in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, yet we think it just that, in order to confound the infidelity and madness of heretics, we should at least once in the year solemnize and celebrate a feast in Its honor with the greatest pomp and magnificence possible. On the day on which Jesus Christ instituted this Sacrament, the Church is occupied with the reconciliation of sinners, the blessing of the holy oils, the washing of the feet and other mysteries. Wherefore, sufficient time is not left to honor this most sublime Sacrament, and thus it becomes necessary to appoint another day for this end.
"Finally, it is the custom of the Church to devote particular days for the veneration of her saints, although she daily honors them by prayers, litanies, in the Mass, etc., as also on other occasions. But since on these days Christians often do not comply with their duties towards the Saints, either through negligence or press of domestic affairs, or from human weakness, our Mother the Holy Church has appointed a certain day for the general commemoration of all the Saints, so that by this solemnity, the omissions which may, perchance, have occurred may be repaired.
"Now, if this has already been introduced into the Church, how much more are we not bound to do the same with regard to the life-giving Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, who is the glory and the crown of all the Saints. We shall then be enabled to repair and make up for our want of devotion and other defects which we may have had in hearing Mass and ask Our Lord's pardon for the same. And indeed, at the time when our dignity was not so elevated as it now is, we learned how the Lord revealed to some few Catholics that the feast of Corpus Christi was to be celebrated throughout the whole Church. Therefore, in order to strengthen and exalt the True Faith, we have thought it just and reasonable to ordain that, besides the commemoration which the Church daily makes of this Holy Sacrament, a particular festival shall be celebrated every year on a certain day, namely, on the fifth day of the week after the octave of Pentecost, on which day pious people will vie with each other to hasten in great crowds to our churches, where the clergy and laity will send forth their holy hymns of joy and praise. On this memorable day, faith shall triumph, hope be enhanced, charity shall shine, piety shall exult, our temples shall re-echo with hymns of exultation and pure souls shall tremble with holy joy.
"On this day of devotion, all the faithful shall hasten to our churches with joyful hearts to discharge their obligations with unlimited obedience and thus, in a worthy manner, celebrate this great feast. May the Lord vouchsafe to inflame them with so holy a zeal that, by the exercise of their piety towards Him who has redeemed them, they may increase in merit and that He may also give Himself to them in this life for their food. May this God likewise be their reward in the other world.
"We therefore inform and exhort you in the name of the Lord, and through these apostolic letters we command you in virtue of holy obedience, and enjoin upon you, to have every year on the above-named fifth day of the week this so glorious and praiseworthy feast celebrated in all the churches and places of your diocese. Moreover, we command you to exhort, yourself and through others, those under your charge so to prepare themselves the Sunday before by a perfect and sincere confession, by alms, prayers and other good works, which are suitable to this day of the Most Blessed Sacrament, that they may reverently partake of the same and by this means receive an increase of grace. And as We also desire to stimulate by spiritual gifts the faithful to the celebration and veneration of this feast, We grant to him or her who, truly penitent: confessing his or her sins, attends the morning service or Vespers of the day, one hundred days' Indulgence, and to him or her who is present at Prime, Tierce, Sext, None and Compline, forty days for each of these hours.
"Finally, relying upon the merciful omnipotence of God and trusting in the authority of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, We remit to him or her who, during this octave, shall be present at the morning service, Vespers and Mass, one hundred days of penance imposed upon them."