Origins of the feast of Corpus Christi

| Father Tom Margevicius | June 20, 2019 | 0 Comments

St. Juliana of Cornillon was born in Liège (modern-day Belgium) around 1192 and was left an orphan at age 5 when her parents died. She was raised in a house of religious Norbertines and quickly distinguished herself. She had an extraordinary memory, being able to recite the entire Psalter by heart, and she was a gifted musician.

Juliana especially loved to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. When she was age 18, she had a vision: In the night sky she saw the Church underneath a full moon, except the moon was not full: It had a piece missing, like someone had taken a slice out of the pie. She asked the Lord what this meant, and was told that the circle of the moon was the Church’s liturgical year, and it was missing a piece because there was no feast of Corpus Christi. She asked what she should do about it, and the Lord told her to compose liturgical texts for the feast and promote it in the Church.

Though she was one of the Beguines (influential women in Liège), women were not considered suitable for composing liturgical texts. So she kept the vision to herself, other than telling a couple Norbertine sisters. Five years later, the Fourth Council of the Lateran issued the first Church document to use the word “transubstantiation,” but it’s not clear whether Juliana had any awareness of this.

At age 38, she became prioress of her community and shared her vision with the local priest, who knew many Dominican theologians at a nearby school. He told Julianna he would present anonymously to them Juliana’s liturgical texts. They found them beautiful, and soon the Dominicans were celebrating the feast in their religious house. In 1246, when Juliana was 54, the local bishop promoted the feast for his diocese, but Juliana was not finished yet: The Lord wanted the entire Church to celebrate Corpus Christi. In 1259, the Dominicans asked their most brilliant theologian, Thomas Aquinas, to compose another set of liturgical texts for the feast. Right around that time, Juliana died at the age of 65, without seeing her vision come to fruition.

But by then, Church leaders had been won over, and they eventually petitioned Pope Urban IV to establish the feast. In 1263, a famous eucharistic miracle occurred at Orvieto, and the following year, on Aug. 11, 1264, he published the papal bull “Transiturus” promoting the feast. Unfortunately, he also died soon thereafter, and Corpus Christi was not celebrated by the entire Church until 1317, 110 years after Juliana’s first vision.

St. Thomas’ liturgical texts are some of the most theologically rich and poetically beautiful ever composed about the Eucharist, and they are still used today, including ‘Verbum supernum” (“O Salutaris Hostia”), “Pange Lingua Gloriosi” (“Tantum Ergo Sacramentum”) and “Lauda Sion Salvatorem.” Yet we would not have these texts, nor this feast, were it not for the brilliance, determination and holiness of an 18-year-old visionary woman.

Father Margevicius is director of worship for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.


Sunday, June 23
Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

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Category: Sunday Scriptures