Pope Benedict’s first Corpus Christi, in the 2005 Year of the Eucharist, was celebrated literally in the shadow of Christ.
The 20-foot high statue of Christ the Redeemer faced us with his right hand raised as a sign of perpetual blessing and with his left holding a big cross.
The statue crowns the facade of the St. John Lateran basilica — an imposing structure masterfully built by Alessandro Galilei in 1732-35 and dedicated to Christo Salvatori (to Christ the Savior).
From above, the stone Christ looked victorious and strong. Below, the 78-year old Pope raised the real Christ in his hands. The Eucharistic Jesus looked weak and small. Yet he was the Christ, the only Savior.
Following John Paul II’s tradition, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated the Corpus Christi Mass in St. John Lateran’s huge plaza May 26.
“This year,” Benedict XVI had said to the College of Cardinals on the first day of his pontificate, “Corpus Christi must be celebrated with special solemnity.”
Thousands of priests, seminarians, religious and lay people participated at the celebration. Many of them were foreigners. I never saw as many people and sensed as much fervor on this solemnity in Rome as I did this time.
The faithful listened attentively to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Eucharistic hymn “Lauda, Sion, Salvatorem” (Praise, Zion, Your Savior), beautifully sung by the Vicariate of Rome’s choir.
When the Holy Father raised the body and blood of Christ, we all silently knelt or stood in worship. You could hear the honk of a distant car.
What an occasion! The Son of God was really with us in the hustle and bustle of the city.
“For faith, the Eucharist is certainly a mystery of intimacy,” said Pope Benedict in his homily. “The Lord instituted this sacrament in the upper room, surrounded by his new family, by the 12 apostles, a prefiguration and anticipation of the Church of all times.”
This is the Church that, according to John Paul II’s last encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Eucharist in Relation to the Church), “draws her life from the Eucharist.”
The universal Church was that day represented by the faithful surrounding the Vicar of Christ outside the basilica of St. John Lateran, which has been traditionally called mater omnium ecclesiarum (the mother of all churches).
I thought it symbolic that the basilica’s facade, with its stone Christ, protected us from Rome’s scorching sun.
After the Mass, the Holy Father and the two masters of ceremonies knelt before the Blessed Sacrament placed in a big monstrance on a special open-air van. Rome’s traditional Corpus Christi procession, reestablished by John Paul II, began.
Hundreds of priests and seminarians, wearing black cassocks and white surplices, preceded the Holy Father’s van through the wide and long Via Merulana that links St. John Lateran to the basilica of St. Mary Major.
The rest of the faithful followed the van, singing and praying, with candles in their hands. Neighbors and passersby watched the procession from their balconies and windows and from the sidewalks of the street.
I followed the van, together with monks, nuns and lay people. Walking at my right and left were the seven children of an Argentinean family I know well. Mariana, 3, was proudly carrying her lit candle.
The Eucharistic Jesus, adored by his Vicar on Earth, is the central point of the pilgrim Church.
“In this sacrament, the Lord is always on his way to the whole world,” the Pope had said in his homily. “This universal aspect of the Eucharistic presence is shown in the procession of our feast. We take Christ, present in the figure of bread, through the streets of our city. We entrust these streets, these homes — our daily life — to his goodness. May our streets be Jesus’ streets! May our homes be homes for him and with him! May his presence penetrate our everyday life.”
Every minute, the beautiful portico of St. Mary Major loomed larger in front of us. The sky turned dark blue. The weather was mild.
“Our procession ends before the basilica of St. Mary Major,” noted Benedict XVI in his homily, “in our meeting with the Virgin, called by the beloved John Paul II the ‘Eucharistic woman.’ Mary, Mother of the Lord, really shows us what it is to enter into communion with Christ: Mary offered her own flesh, her own blood to Jesus and became the living tent of the Word, allowing herself to be penetrated in body and spirit by his presence.”
In the basilica’s wide plaza, we sang “Tantum Ergo.” The Pope gave the Benediction. Silence reigned over the crowd. The city became still.
To our right stood a statue of Our Lady with the Child Jesus on top of the plaza’s towering Corinthian column. The spiritual presence of Mary and the physical presence of the Holy Father and so many Catholics elicited an overwhelming feeling that heaven and earth were united.
The Blessed Sacrament was the meeting point. Both the triumphant and the militant Churches form one mystical body with Jesus as our head.
As the Pope raised the monstrance, I remembered St. John Lateran’s statue of Christ in a posture of blessing. Here and now, I thought, we are being blessed by the Redeemer himself — really present in body, soul and divinity.
The Corpus Christi procession was a remarkable experience of “the mystery of our faith.” “Through the streets of Rome, we did walk with God. And God did walk with us.”
Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar
teaches philosophy at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University.