So I want to start with a quick history lesson about this feast. In 1264, Pope Urban IV declared this a universal feast, although it took until about 1317 before it really became celebrated universally. But where did it come from? That’s the real question, and it’s a fun question.
The legend of this feast starts in 1263, in a little Italian village called Bolsena. A parish priest there had been suffering from a crisis of faith, a crisis that was getting progressively worse. His spiritual director advised him to make a pilgrimage to Rome, to pray at the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul, but to no avail; he returned to Bolsena perhaps worse than when he left. He was starting to doubt everything; even the Eucharist itself. That is, until one morning. He was celebrating Mass that day, and as he fractured the host, it began to bleed onto the corporal. Crisis of faith averted. He finished Mass, then immediately took the corporal to his bishop and explained the whole matter.
Now, all of that is true. You can go to the cathedral in Orvieto – which is one of the most magnificent cathedrals in Italy, and that’s saying a lot – and see the blood-stained corporal. The part of the story that is legend is that the bishop took the corporal to Pope Urban IV and he immediately declared Corpus Christi a feast day.
Instead, the feast came about because of the influence of Saint Juliana of Liége. (Don’t ever let people tell you women have no influence in the Church.) Juliana was orphaned at a young age, and raised by the sisters of a Norbertine monastery. Juliana had a deep devotion to the Eucharist. She would eventually enter the monastery herself, and much later in life become the prioress.
At age 16, she had her first vision, one that would repeat many times. In it, she saw a magnificent church, bathed in the light of a full moon, but there was something off about the moon. There was a large dark spot on it. Juliana didn’t understand what this meant at first, but came to understand that the dark spot on the moon represented the fact that the Church didn’t have a feast specifically in honor of the Eucharist.
She took the matter to her confessor, who was a pretty well-connected guy. He took it to the local bishops and leading theologians, all of whom came back and said, “Well, why not have a feast for the Eucharist?” And so it became a local feast in that part of Belgium…and eventually, one of those bishops was elected as Pope…and took the name Urban IV. And, as mentioned, he declared that Corpus Christi was to be celebrated by the entire Church. And so here we are.
Whichever story you prefer, there’s something to take away from each of them, and I would say that they are equally important takeaways.
First, the Bolsena story teaches us that this is real. That when the priest consecrates the host and the wine, he stands in persona Christi – in the person of Christ – and it is through His authority and at His command that we do this. And although the bread and wine retain their accidents – that is, they continue to look, taste, feel, and smell like bread and wine – they become substantially different, in that they are no longer bread and wine, but the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. We are witnesses to a miracle every time we come to Mass, whether we see the Host bleed or not.
But not just witnesses. We are participants. We take this miracle and consume it. We literally internalize it, so that we in turn might be internalized into the heart of God. The Catechism, paragraph 460, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, says “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.” To be a sharer in divinity, as St. Thomas understands it, means to share in the communicable attributes of the divine. Things like goodness. Holiness. Love. The Eucharist is what draws us into these things.
This segues nicely into the takeaway from the Liége story: That this is worth celebrating. Saint Augustine says, “God in His omnipotence could not give more; in His wisdom, He knew not how to give more; in His riches He had not more to give, than the Eucharist.” What an unmerited gift! What a tremendous act of love! You can’t just sit on that. You can’t act like it doesn’t mean anything, doesn’t do anything for you. This is the shortest way to heaven. This is the everlasting memorial. This is love. And it should be celebrated in our prayers and our liturgies, sure; but it should also be celebrated in how we live our lives.
Because we’re nothing without the Eucharist.
This is everything. And it’s worth celebrating.