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The Historical Origin of the Feast of
CORPUS CHRISTI

This Feast of the Sacred Body of Our Divine Lord is celebrated in the Latin Church on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday to solemnly commemorate the Institution of the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist. This great event is also commemorated on Maundy Thursday, mentioned as Natalia Calicis (Birth of the Chalice) in the Calendar of Polemius (448) for the 24th of March, the 25th of March being recognized in some places as the day of the Death of Christ. This day, however, occurs in Holy Week, a season of sadness, during which the minds of the faithful are expected to be occupied with thoughts of Our Lord's Passion. Moreover, so many other mysteries relative to the Passion are commemorated on this day that the principal event, the Institution of the Holy Eucharist, is deserving of a particular festival. This is mentioned as the chief reason for introducing the feast of Corpus Christi in the Papal Bull Transiturus.

The instrument in the hand of Divine Providence was St. Juliana of Mont Cornillon, in Belgium. She was born in 1203 at Retinnes near Liège. Orphaned at an early age, she was educated by the Augustinian nuns of Mont Cornillon. In time she made her religious profession and later became Superior. Intrigues and persecutions of various kinds drove her from her own convent several times. She died on the fifth of April, 1258, at the House of the Cistercian nuns at Fosses, and was buried at Villiers.

From her early youth, Sr. Juliana had a great veneration for the Blessed Sacrament, and always longed for a special feast in Its honor. This holy desire was given further impetus by an authentic vision which she was shown of the Church, whose liturgical cycle appeared as an almost-full moon, yet having one dark void, signifying the absence of such a solemnity. She humbly submitted this revelation to Msgr. Robert de Thorete, then Bishop of Liège; to the learned Dominican Hugh, later Cardinal Legate in the Netherlands; and finally to Jacques Pantaléon, at that time Archdeacon of Liège, who afterwards was successively made the Bishop of Verdun, Patriarch of Jerusalem (after the First Crusade), and finally elected to the Papacy as Urban IV. Bishop Robert was favorably inclined to promote a greater devotion to our Eucharistic King. Since bishops had the right of ordering feasts for their respective jurisdictions, he called a synod in 1246, and ordered the celebration to be held in the following year; also, that a monk whose name was John should write the special Office for the occasion. The episcopal decree is still preserved in Binterim (Denkwürdigkeiten, V, 1, 276), together with parts of the Office. The pious Bishop did not live to see the fulfillment of his command, for he died on October 16, 1246. Nevertheless, the feast was celebrated for the first time by the obedient canons of the Cathedral of St. Martin at Liège.

Meanwhile, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Jacques Pantaléon, was elected Pope on August 29, 1261. There was at that time in Liège a devout recluse in whom St. Juliana had inspired a fervent devotion of the Holy Eucharist, who spent her time in adoration of Our Divine Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. She besought the Bishop of Liège, Heinrich of Guelders, to request the Sovereign Pontiff to extend this beautiful celebration to the entire Catholic world. Pope Urban IV, who had long cherished a fervent devotion for the feast of Corpus Christi, granted the petition on September 8, 1264, by publishing the Bull Transiturus. Having extolled the love of Our Savior manifested in the Holy Eucharist, he ordered the annual celebration of Corpus Christi on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday, and at the same time granted many Indulgences to the faithful for the attendance at Mass and at the Office. This Office, composed at the request of the Pope by the Angelic Doctor St. Thomas Aquinas, is one of the most beautiful in the Roman Breviary, and has been admired not only for its wonderful devotion, but also for its literary excellence.

The death of Pope Urban IV on October 2, 1264, shortly after the publication of the decree, somewhat impeded the spread of the new feast. But Pope Clement V again took the matter in hand, and at the General Council of Vienne (1311), took measures to implement the feast of Corpus Christi. His new decree embodied that of Pope Urban IV, and his successor, Pope John XXII (of Sabbatine Privilege fame) also urged its observance. The Procession of the Blessed Sacrament, which was already held in some places, was endowed with rich indulgences by Popes Martin V and Eugene IV. The pious Bishops of the German Empire were the first to accomplish a uniform observance of the new feast (instituted at Köln in 1306, at Worms in 1315, and in Strasbourg in 1316). In England it was introduced from the continent between 1320 and 1325.

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