The long-awaited encyclical of Pope Francis on the environment and ecology will be published Thursday, June 18, 2015. Next week further details about the encyclical will be made public in the daily bulletin of the Holy See Press Office. For reflections on the imminent encyclical and explanation of what an encyclical means, see my previous post today on “Joan’s Rome” and Facebook (facebook.com/joan.lewis.10420).
Several hours from now, for today’s feast of Corpus Christi, Pope Francis will preside at Mass at St. John Lateran Basilica and then process down Via Merulana to St. Mary Major Basilica in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Following is some background on this traditional celebration.
THE FEAST OF CORPUS CHRISTI – THEN AND NOW
Today, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, known in many countries as Corpus Christi or Corpus Domini, is a holiday in the Vatican and only one public event is usually on the papal schedule on this day – an evening Mass and procession to celebrate this feast which commemorates the Real Presence of Christ – Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity – in the Eucharist.
This annual celebration here in Rome starts with 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 at this Marian basilica.
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 the street that links the two churches and was originally named Via Gregorian, now called Via Merulana. This route was followed for more than 300 years until the procession fell into disuse until 1979 when St. John Paul 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.
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.
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; and 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 was, for example, an optional memorial of Saint Damien de Veuster of Molokai, the priest who treated lepers.