Corpus Christi: a Norbertine feast

Today we enter into the month of June: the month of the Holy Eucharist. The medieval Church might not have gotten everything right, but one thing they excelled at beyond all human measure was devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. To read any secular historian’s account of how the feast of Corpus Christi came into existence, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was all centered around a quaint belief system not seen for hundreds of years. And yet, despite the passage of time, nothing has changed. The Catholic Church, whether in the 13th or the 21st century, has consistently taught that, at the words of a validly ordained priest, mere bread and wine are transformed into the incarnate God: Jesus, not symbolically, but truly present in our midst to be worshiped and consumed.

At the height of the Middle Ages in the west, adoration of the Eucharistic Lord–not the reception of Communion–was the climax of the liturgy for the average layperson. The faithful, called to attention by the ringing of the Sanctus bells, would jostle each other for a glimpse of the Host raised up by the priest over his head at the elevations. As told by Eamon Duffy in The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, zealous parishioners might not leave until they had satisfactorily gazed upon the Lord, shouting across the nave, “raise it higher, sir priest! Raise it higher!”

No one did more to foster a devotion to Christ’s real presence in these crucial centuries than Saint Norbert of Xanten: founder of the Praemonstratensian Order. Four hundred years before the Protestant Reformation, a wandering preacher known as Tanchelm had caused many people in the city of Antwerp to deny the saving power of the Eucharist and the authority of the bishop. St Norbert was invited by Bishop Burchard of Cambrai to take a few trusted disciples with him into the city and bring it back to the orthodox faith: a feat he accomplished with both gentleness of heart and zeal in preaching. He said to the people,

“Brothers, do not be surprised and do not be afraid. Unwittingly you have pursued falsehood thinking it to be the truth. If you had been taught the truth first you would have been found effortlessly tending toward salvation, just as you now effortlessly lean toward perdition.”

Focusing on Christ’s discourse on the “bread of life” in John 6, Norbert reconciled the city to the Church and was thereafter known as the Apostle of Antwerp. For teaching clergy and laity alike to reverently care for the altar cloths and handling of the Sacred Species wherever he went, even bringing the Blessed Sacrament away from the church to the battlefield, making Christ the instrument of peace between warring clans, Norbert became known as the Apostle of the Eucharist.

A young woman soon picked up where Norbert left off to take the medieval Church’s Eucharistic devotion to its apex. Saint Juliana of Liège, a Norbertine canoness, reported having a vision of a full moon, shining brightly but marred by a dark line across its surface. She understood the moon to represent the Church on earth, reflecting the light of Christ’s glory. The dark line was a void in the Church’s myriad cycle of celebrations: a lack of a day dedicated to the Lord’s real presence in the Eucharist. Until then, Maundy Thursday was the only day to commemorate the institution of the Eucharist (at the Last Supper), but it was inevitably shadowed by the gloom of Good Friday. St Juliana petitioned her bishop to declare a feast for the Body and Blood of Christ within the diocese–which he did, though he died before he could act on it.

St Juliana died in 1258, before the feast of Corpus Christi could take root outside her city. Shortly thereafter, though, the former archdeacon of Liège was elected Pope Urban IV. Juliana’s surviving friend petitioned the Pope to institute a feast according to Juliana’s plan. This he did, well beyond what St Juliana could have ever dreamed: on the 11th of August, 1264, Urban IV issued the bull Transiturus, proclaiming a feast in honor of the Body and Blood of Christ throughout the entire Latin Church, which we now call Corpus Christi:

“although this memorial Sacrament is frequented in the daily solemnities of the Mass, we nevertheless think suitable and worthy that, at least once a year – especially to confound the lack of faith and the infamy of heretics – a more solemn and honourable memory of this Sacrament be held. This is so because on Holy Thursday, the day on which the Lord himself instituted this Sacrament, the universal Church, occupied with the reconciliation of penitents, blessing the chrism, fulfilling the Commandments about the washing of the feet and many other such things, is not sufficiently free to celebrate so great a Sacrament.”

The feast would be marked with Eucharistic processions (still novel at that time) through every city in Christendom on the Thursday after Trinity: Thursday to link the celebration with the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. The Angelic Doctor himself, Saint Thomas Aquinas, was commissioned to write an office and several now-famous hymns for the feast. The sight of the Lord enthroned in a monstrance, paraded through the central square with all the magistrates of the city in attendance, naturally captivated the medieval imagination with a fervor we may never see again, giving birth to thousands of local traditions and guilds.

The Protestant Reformation challenged belief in the Real Presence (Luther once preached of Corpus Christi, “at no festival are God and his Christ more blasphemed“), yet for many Catholics in Europe, the sight of Jesus in the Eucharist, borne in procession through the city, was enough to bolster their faith against every threat of war or schism in those turbulent times. At last, in 1582, centuries after his death, Norbert of Xanten was canonized a saint–thanks, I’m sure, in no small part to his defense of the Eucharist.

Today we stand at another fork in the road: will the Church, after losing her prominent place in civic life, retreat behind closed doors to celebrate the sacraments away from unbelieving eyes? Or will she dare to take to the streets once again, holding the Lord for all to adore, even at the risk of jeers, blaring horns, or the eyerolls of apathy?

Wherever you may find yourself this feast of Corpus Christi, dear reader, may we find the same fervor of the Body and Blood of Christ that moved simple peasants to fall to their knees in the mud when the Blessed Sacrament passed them by. May we find the true meaning of the words of Aquinas’ hymn, Pange lingua gloriosi, when we sing:

“Sing, my tongue, the Saviour’s glory,
Of His Flesh, the mystery sing;
Of the Blood, all price exceeding,
Shed by our Immortal King,
Destined, for the world’s redemption,
From a noble Womb to spring.”