How a Saint’s Eucharistic Devotion Led to the Solemnity of Corpus Christi

The reverence of St. Juliana of Liège contributed to the founding of this great feast.

St. Juliana of Liège loved the Eucharist.
St. Juliana of Liège loved the Eucharist. (photo: By Grentidez - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The Solemnity of Corpus Christi was instituted in the 13th century as a direct result of the Eucharistic dedication of an extraordinarily faithful nun, St. Juliana of Liège. During Eucharistic adoration, she experienced a mystical vision of the full moon with a dark blot running across it. In a subsequent private revelation, Jesus disclosed to her that the moon represented the Church’s life, and the darkened band represented the dimming of faith caused by the absence of a feast dedicated to Eucharist reverence. 

Responding to the vision, St. Juliana successfully pressed her local bishop to institute the feast of Corpus Christi. Several years later, Jacques Pantaleon, an archdeacon of Liège who had become a strong supporter of the feast’s celebration, was elected as Pope Urban IV. He instituted the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ as a universal feast for the Church in 1264, six years after St. Juliana’s death.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke of St. Juliana’s Eucharistic devotion at his Nov. 17, 2010, general audience:

“I would like to introduce a female figure to you,” Benedict began. “She is little known, but the Church is deeply indebted to her, not only because of the holiness of her life but also because, with her great fervor, she contributed to the institution of one of the most important solemn liturgies of the year: Corpus Christi.”

He continued: “She is St. Juliana de Cornillon, also known as St. Juliana of Liège. We know several facts about her life, mainly from a biography that was probably written by a contemporary cleric; it is a collection of various testimonies of people who were directly acquainted with the saint.

“Juliana was born near Liège, Belgium, between 1191 and 1192. It is important to emphasize this place because, at that time, the Diocese of Liège was, so to speak, a true ‘Eucharistic Upper Room.’ Before Juliana, eminent theologians had illustrated the supreme value of the sacrament of the Eucharist, and, again in Liège, there were groups of women generously dedicated to Eucharistic worship and to fervent Communion. Guided by exemplary priests, they lived together, devoting themselves to prayer and to charitable works.

“Orphaned at the age of 5, Juliana, together with her sister Agnes, was entrusted to the care of the Augustinian nuns at the convent and leprosarium of Mont-Cornillon.

“She was taught mainly by a sister called ‘Sapienza’ [wisdom], who was in charge of her spiritual development to the time Juliana received the religious habit and thus became an Augustinian nun.

“She became so learned that she could read the words of the Church Fathers, of St. Augustine and St. Bernard in particular, in Latin. In addition to a keen intelligence, Juliana showed a special propensity for contemplation from the outset. She had a profound sense of Christ’s presence, which she experienced by living the sacrament of the Eucharist especially intensely and by pausing frequently to meditate upon Jesus’ words: ‘And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age’ (Matthew 28:20).

“When Juliana was 16 she had her first vision, which recurred subsequently several times during her Eucharistic adoration. Her vision presented the moon in its full splendor, crossed diametrically by a dark stripe. The Lord made her understand the meaning of what had appeared to her. The moon symbolized the life of the Church on earth; the opaque line, on the other hand, represented the absence of a liturgical feast for whose institution Juliana was asked to plead effectively: namely, a feast in which believers would be able to adore the Eucharist so as to increase in faith, to advance in the practice of the virtues and to make reparation for offenses to the Most Holy Sacrament.

“Juliana, who in the meantime had become prioress of the convent, kept this revelation that had filled her heart with joy a secret for about 20 years. She then confided it to two other fervent adorers of the Eucharist, Blessed Eva, who lived as a hermit, and Isabella, who had joined her at the Monastery of Mont-Cornillon. The three women established a sort of ‘spiritual alliance’ for the purpose of glorifying the Most Holy Sacrament.

“They also chose to involve a highly regarded priest, John of Lausanne, who was a canon of the Church of St. Martin in Liège. They asked him to consult theologians and clerics on what was important to them. Their affirmative response was encouraging.

“What happened to Juliana of Cornillon occurs frequently in the lives of saints. To have confirmation that an inspiration comes from God it is always necessary to be immersed in prayer, to wait patiently, to seek friendship and exchanges with other good souls, and to submit all things to the judgment of the pastors of the Church.

“It was in fact Bishop Robert Torote of Liège who, after initial hesitation, accepted the proposal of Juliana and her companions and first introduced the Solemnity of Corpus Christi in his diocese. Later other bishops following his example, instituting this feast in the territories entrusted to their pastoral care.

“However, to increase their faith, the Lord often asks saints to sustain trials. This also happened to Juliana, who had to bear the harsh opposition of certain members of the clergy and even of the superior on whom her monastery depended.

“Of her own free will, therefore, Juliana left the Convent of Mont-Cornillon with several companions. For 10 years — from 1248 to 1258 — she stayed as a guest at various monasteries of Cistercian sisters.

“She edified all with her humility; she had no words of criticism or reproach for her adversaries and continued zealously to spread Eucharistic worship.

“She died at Fosses-La-Ville, Belgium, in 1258. In the cell where she lay the Blessed Sacrament was exposed, and, according to her biographer’s account, Juliana died contemplating with a last effusion to love Jesus in the Eucharist, whom she had always loved, honored and adored. Jacques Pantaléon of Troyes was also won over to the good cause of the feast of Corpus Christi during his ministry as archdeacon in Lièges. It was he who, having become Pope, with the name of Urban IV, in 1264, instituted the Solemnity of Corpus Christi on the Thursday after Pentecost as a feast of precept for the universal Church.

“In the bull of its institution, entitled Transiturus de hoc Mundo (Aug. 11, 1264), Pope Urban even referred discreetly to Juliana’s mystical experiences, corroborating their authenticity. He wrote: ‘Although the Eucharist is celebrated solemnly every day, we deem it fitting that at least once a year it be celebrated with greater honor and a solemn commemoration.’ … In remembering St. Juliana of Cornillon let us also renew our faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.”

Pope St. Paul VI made a Eucharistic pilgrimage to Orvieto, Italy, on the 700th anniversary of the declaration of Corpus Christi as a solemnity.

“Our distant predecessor, a pious and valiant son of France, Urban IV, on Aug. 11, 1264, gave precisely from this city, where the papal court was then a refugee, thus extending to the whole Church the feast, already in use in the Diocese of Liège (where Urban IV had been archdeacon), of Corpus Christi. …

“… Christ using his divine power, has dressed himself with these appearances to affirm in the most expressive and evident way, that He wants to be an inner food, multiplied for all. He wanted to speak to us because of signs to make us understand that He is the Bread, that he is the available and irreplaceable food of redeemed humanity. Just as you cannot live without material bread, so you cannot live spiritually without Christ. He is necessary. He is Life. He is ready for each of us. He wants to be the inner principle of our supernatural earthly existence to be the bearer of our fullness in future life.

“To this conclusion leads us and almost obliges us the most elementary meditation on the Eucharist; and this celebration commemorating the establishment of the feast of Corpus Christi invites us to it. … He comes to us by many ways: history, Tradition, the Church, the Gospel; then he comes, Himself, but understandable only for those who have faith, and presents himself to us in the symbols of bread and wine, and tells us: ‘I am your bread, your support, your strength, your peace, your happiness!’”

May we adore the Eucharist as fervently as St. Juliana, recognizing always the great gift we have in our Eucharistic Lord! 

Solemnity blessings!

Register staff contributed to this post.