CELEBRATING THE FEAST OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST – THE SOLEMNITY OF CORPUS CHRISTI: THEN AND NOW

CELEBRATING THE FEAST OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST

If your name is John, Joan or another derivative of John, today is your onomastico or name day! Congratulations and best wishes to everyone marking the June 24 feast of St. John the Baptist!

June 24, the feast day of St. John the Baptist, is in fact a big day in Italy and in several Italian cities whose patron saint he is, including Turin and Florence. This is a very old celebration – also known as Saint John’s Day in ma y countries in the world – as it was established by the undivided Christian Church in the 4th century A.D., to honor the birth of John the Baptist.

As we know from accounts of the Visitation, John was six months older than his cousin Jesus whom he baptized as an adult in the River Jordan. Jesus was born, according to tradition on December 25, so John’s birthday was presumed to be mid-summer.

Florentines celebrate the city’s patron saint, considering John the “symbol of moral rectitude and political correctness. The daylong events including parades, boat rides on the Arno River and tables laden with local food and wine. An evening soccer match and rowboats carrying lit candles followed by fireworks traditionally end the day.

In Rome, among other events, there is a huge concert on June 24 at the archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist at the Lateran – the church you and I know as St. John Lateran. St. John, by the way, is also the cathedral church of the bishop of Rome, the Pope.

Rome’s patron saints are Peter and Paul and their feast day, June 29 is a holiday in the city and in the Vatican.

For many, the only place to be in Rome on the 24th is the Church of San Silvestro in Capite, where the decapitated head of St. John on public display. The words in capite in fact, refer to his head. People actually come here from around the world and all year around to pray, place flowers, light candles and venerate the relic of the precursor of Christ.

It seems that St. John’s head was brought to Rome by Greek monks in 1169 who then build a church dedicated to him and also to Pope St. Sylvester – thus the name of the church.

THE SOLEMNITY OF CORPUS CHRISTI: THEN AND NOW

The feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, known in many countries as Corpus Christi or Corpus Domini, is always a holiday in the Vatican. For years, the public celebration occurred on the Thursday before the Sunday feast of Corpus Christi and the main event on the papal schedule that day was Mass at 7 p.m. in the square outside the Pope’s cathedral church of St. John Lateran, a procession with the Blessed Sacrament down Via Merulana to St. Mary Major Basilica and a blessing of the crowd gathered there.

In March 2017, Pope Francis moved the traditional celebration in Rome of the feast of Corpus Christi from Thursday to the following Sunday. One of the reasons seemed to be the Pope’s desire to attract more people to this annual Mass and procession, including people who would have Sunday as a day off of work.

After the Corpus Christi Mass on June 18, 2017, the Holy Father travelled by car to St. Mary Major where he welcomed the huge procession carrying the Blessed Sacrament. For the first time, the monstrance was carried on a platform instead of placed in an open truck. It was held aloft on the shoulders of four men, alternating with others at points. A canopy was held over the Eucharist by 8 other men.

In 2018, the Holy Father celebrated Corpus Christi in the seaside town of Ostia, not far from Rome, celebrating Mass in front of the parish of Santa Monica. St. Pope Paul VI had celebrated Corpus Christi in Ostia in 1968. Before 1978, Mass was celebrated in different areas of Rome but since 1978, it had been held at St. John Lateran basilica, the cathedral church of the Pope who is the bishop of Rome. (photo Daniel Ibanez EWTN/CNA)

This year, 2019, Francis celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi in Rome’s Casal Bertone neighborhood the evening of June 23 with Mass at 6 pm outside the parish of Santa Maria Consolatrice, followed by a Eucharistic procession.

Let’s look back at the history of this important feast day.

Via Merulana, originally called Via Gregoriana, was laid out by Pope Gregory XIII during the Holy Year 1575. There is a Via Gregoriana in Rome today but it is located near the famed Spanish Steps. Among Pope Gregory’s achievements: He reformed the calendar, founded the papal observatory, as well as several colleges and seminaries, including the Gregorian University, and built the Quirinale Palace, for years the summer residence of Popes and now home to the president of Italy.

The procession between the two Roman basilicas began in the 1400’s. Its current itinerary began in 1575 when Pope Gregory XIII built Via Gregoriana – now Via Merulana. This route was followed for more than 300 years when the procession fell into disuse until 1979 when St. John Paul II revived the custom.

He processed the distance on foot every year except 1981, after the attack on his life in St. Peter’s Square, and 1994 following hip surgery. Starting in 1995 he rode in an open, canopy-covered vehicle, seated before a small altar bearing the monstrance and host. Pope Benedict XVI continued this tradition. (shuttercock file)

The feast of Corpus Christi is due in part to the visions of a 13th century Augustinian nun, Julianna of Lièges, known for her devotion to the Eucharist. In one vision, Our Lord appeared to her, reminding her there was no solemnity honoring the Blessed Sacrament and she began to promote such a feast.

Pope Urban IV, who also wished to honor the Eucharist, wrote a Bull in 1264 in which he spoke of the love of Our Lord and Savior as expressed in the Holy Eucharist, ordering Corpus Christi to be celebrated annually on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Indulgences could be gained, he wrote, by attendance at Mass and reciting the Office composed at Urban’s request by St. Thomas Aquinas, which many say is the most beautiful office of the Breviary.

Thomas was at the time the papal theologian (they have always been Dominicans) and one of the main defenders of the corporeality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist against those scholastics who denied this.

You can thank St. Thomas when you sing the beautiful Adoro te Devote, or Pange Lingua. You may have indeed sung this if you have ever participated in a Corpus Christi Eucharistic procession in your parish or your home diocese of possibly even in Rome. By the way, the last two stanzas of Pange lingua are usually referred to and/or sung separately as Tantum ergo at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, about this same time in history – which was a period of infrequent communion – the elevation of the chalice and host came into being at Mass as well as placing the host in a monstrance for Eucharistic adoration.

Corpus Christi is a moveable feast and in some countries is observed on the first Sunday following Trinity Sunday.

I am often asked: What is the difference between a solemnity and a feast day in the Church? Liturgy is, of course, the Church’s public worship and includes all rites and ceremonies by means of which the Church expresses her worship of God. The principal acts of liturgy that would immediately come to mind to all of us would be the seven sacraments, called sacramental liturgies.

There are also categories of liturgical days. The three technical categories are, in descending order: Solemnity, Feast and Memorial.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, a feast is “technically, one category of liturgical day, a lesser rank than ‘solemnity’ and a higher rank than ‘memorial’. In popular usage, however, ‘feast’ is applied indiscriminately by the faithful to all liturgical days on which the Church commemorates a mystery of Our Lord or Our Lady, or keeps the memory of a saint.” Thus, these days mark an event in the life of Jesus or Mary or a saint.

The Vatican is very careful to make the distinction between solemnity, feast or memorial: Corpus Christi is a solemnity.

Often the observance starts on the vigil, that is, the evening prior to the actual date. Many solemnities occur on fixed dates such as January 1 – Mother of God, January 6 – Epiphany, March 25 – the Annunciation, June 29 – Sts. Peter and Paul, August 15 – the Assumption, December 8 – the Immaculate Conception. Others are movable dates: Easter, the Ascension, Pentecost and Corpus Christi.

A memorial refers to the so-called lowest type of feast found in the Church’s liturgical calendar. There is the obligatory memorial that must be celebrated and the optional memorial that is celebrated at Mass at the priest’s discretion. May 10th is, for example, an optional memorial of Saint Damien de Veuster of Molokai, the priest who treated lepers.