A gift of unparalleled love - Corpus Christi 2016

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Home > Archbishop > Homilies > A gift of unparalleled love - Corpus Christi 2016


This feast today, the feast of the most holy Body and Blood of Christ, traditionally known as Corpus Christi, has its source in Sacred Scripture, its expression captured in every Mass, and an historical origin in the 13th century.

Its scriptural sources are many. Among them the sublime teaching of the Lord found in the sixth chapter of St John’s Gospel: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him”. And, of course, the words of institution at the Last Supper: “This is my body given for you”.

Every Mass which faithfully repeats what the Lord did at the Last Supper is the moment when bread and wine brought to the altar, under the power of the Holy Spirit invoked in the epiclesis prayer, becomes the body and blood of Christ. We approach the altar to receive the living presence of the Lord in Holy Communion. The tabernacles in our Catholic churches are a continual reminder that the Lord dwells among us fulfilling his promise to be with us until the end of time.

Historically the feast we commemorate today can be traced back to revelations given to a young woman, Juliana of Liège. Born in 1193, from the age of 16 received a vision repeatedly. Every time she prayed she witnessed the same image: a brilliant moon with one small portion obscured. The image would not go away. She appealed to the Lord for its meaning and she was told that the liturgical year of the Church would remain incomplete until the Blessed Sacrament had a feast of its own. She was told that she was the chosen instrument to promote the establishing of this feast.

She repeatedly begged not to have to assume this mission and for twenty years told no one of her experience. Finally, burdened by the call she revealed her experience to her confessor, and with her permission he consulted others, especially Fr. James de Threzis, Archdeacon at the Cathedral of Liège. This priest was afterwards chosen as Bishop of Verdun, then Patriarch of Jerusalem and, finally, Pope, taking the name Urban IV.

Once the story was out there was much controversy. Juliana had become a canoness and superior of a convent of consecrated women. The city itself was captured and recaptured by rival political powers. She was forced to flee the city seeking refuge in other convents. Forced to travel to other locations her message spread among clerics and the people. It slowly gained traction.

It was Pope Urban aware of her experience and particularly moved by the extraordinary Eucharistic miracle at Ovieto who authorised the feast for the universal church in the year 1264. Juliana had already died two years before.

The Eucharistic miracle at Ovieto occurred in 1263 when a German priest on route to Rome stopped at the town of Bolsena. At the time he was going through a crisis of faith, doubting that Christ was actually present in the consecrated Host. While celebrating Mass above the tomb of St. Christina in the church named after this martyr, he had barely spoken the words of Consecration when blood started to seep from the consecrated Host and trickle over his hands onto the altar and the corporal.

At first the priest attempted to hide the blood, but then he interrupted the Mass and asked to be taken to the neighbouring city of Orvieto, where Pope Urban IV was then residing. The Pope listened to the priest's account. He sent emissaries for an immediate investigation. When all the facts were ascertained, he ordered the Bishop of the Diocese to bring the Host and the linen cloth bearing the stains of blood to Orvieto.

With Archbishops, Cardinals and other Church dignitaries in attendance, the Pope met the procession and, amid great pomp, had the relics placed in the Cathedral. The linen corporal bearing the spots of blood is still reverently enshrined and exhibited in the Cathedral of Orvieto.

This was enough for the Pope. He commissioned a prominent theologian of the day, St. Thomas Aquinas, to compose the Proper for a Mass and an Office for the feast day. One year later, in August of 1264, Urban IV, by means of the papal Bull Transiturus, instituted the feast of Corpus Christi for the universal Church. At the same time he granted many indulgences to the faithful for attendance at Mass and the Office. Some of the great Eucharistic hymns which we still sing today were composed by St Thomas Aquinas, for example, the Tantum Ergo – Down in Adoration falling - sung at Benediction, linking us with the establishing of the feast.

Thus this feast is enshrined in the liturgical calendar. It was originally celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, but has now been transferred to the Sunday after Trinity Sunday.

The feast was celebrated not only in the Mass and Office, but bishops anxious to promote the devotion organised processions through the streets of towns. Our procession today continues this tradition, while in Rome Pope Francis will lead a procession from St John Lateran. Indeed Canon Law (Can. 944 §1) states, "Wherever in the judgment of the diocesan Bishop it can be done, a procession through the streets is to be held, especially on the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, as a public witness of veneration of the Blessed Eucharist."

Christ’s gift of himself to us through the Mass is a gift beyond comprehension. That the Lord of Glory would deign to enter our sinful and frail bodies is beyond our human understanding. It can only be grasped when viewed as an act of unparalleled love. Love is the only meaning we can appropriately link to this most extraordinary gift of the Lord’s Body and Blood given for us.

Today we gratefully acknowledge this love.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Saturday, 28 May 2016