A Solemnity of Life, Light and Love

COMMENTARY: 750 Years of the Feast of Corpus Christi

St. Juliana of Liege was instrumental in the establishment of the feast of Corpus Christi.
St. Juliana of Liege was instrumental in the establishment of the feast of Corpus Christi. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The annual celebration of Corpus Christi — the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ — which the Church celebrated on Sunday, marks 750 years since it was extended to the whole Church.

Corpus Christi originated through Our Lord’s communication with St. Juliana of Liege. Soon after, on Sept. 8, 1264, Pope Urban IV, a former archdeacon of the Belgian Diocese of Leige, made it a universal feast on the occasion of the Eucharistic miracle of Orvieto-Bolsena.

In his general audience conference on Nov.17, 2010, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI described St. Juliana’s Eucharistic focus, called it a veritable “Eucharistic Upper Room” and presented it as a model Eucharistic diocese for our times.

But do we have the same Eucharistic amazement?

Many converts to the Catholic faith are surprised by the lack of devotion to the Eucharist evident among those attending Mass — their poor responses to the liturgy, their blase attitude at the reception of holy Communion.

The cause is  no mystery. St. Paul regrets the Corinthians’ poor appreciation of the Eucharist to the point that many were “ill, infirm and dying” (1 Corinthians 11:30).

He is not discussing physical symptoms, but spiritual ones. Weak faith in the Eucharist kept them from being properly nourished and nurtured by the Bread of Life. This is the same reason why so many baptized Catholics today do not attend Mass or have left the Church for other faiths.

Let us also recall that the last book of the Bible, Revelation, opens with the castigation of seven churches (dioceses) for their lack of fervor, admonishing them to return to their original devotion or be “vomited” out of the Lord’s mouth (Revelation 3:16).

When he was instituting the Eucharist at the Last Supper, Jesus clearly indicated what the proper disposition should be for a beneficial participation in the Eucharist: “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22.19). These words are included in the formula of the consecration.

The priest does not say, “Do this in memory of Jesus,” but “of me.” He is speaking in persona Christi (in the person of Christ). How many of us attend Mass for that purpose? How can we keep memory of him alive and fresh in this hectic, noisy world?

That would require a decisive commitment to prayer.

Since the Eucharist is the sacrament of Christ’s intense love demonstrated in his paschal mystery (his passion, death and resurrection), that should be firmly implanted in our minds and hearts to have an effective participation in the Mass. Some of us do not feel any connection with the saving events of Christ’s life. They might seem distant time-wise. The following account could bridge the time span and help make those ancient Jerusalem events more relevant or understandable.

When I served at a Connecticut parish, an employee frequently invited the pastor and me to dinner at her home. Her children and then her grandchildren attended our parochial school until they moved out of state.

Recently, the grandmother told me what happened to her only grandson. He was in a medical unit in Afghanistan. A particularly dangerous mission was scheduled, but “C.J.,” as he was called, was not assigned to it. But his best friend was. C.J. then volunteered to take that friend’s place because the friend was married with a family, while C.J. was not. The convoy was attacked, and C.J.’s vehicle was hit, killing him.

I try to imagine C.J. meeting Our Lord at the time of judgment. What immediately comes to mind is: “No greater love does a man have than to give his life for his friend” (John 15:13) — but more forcefully, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me” (Matthew 25:40).

St. Paul points out how difficult it is to find someone willing to sacrifice his life for another person (Romans 5:7). In many ways, C.J. was very Christlike in his sacrifice and, in a certain way, an icon of life and love.

Jesus took upon himself the assignment of the Lamb of God meant to liberate each person from the consequences of sin, a liberation not merely for a natural life on earth, but the beatific life with God.

Do we not have the same obligation to Jesus for the gift of our eternal future as that friend has towards C.J.? As that dangerous mission revealed the strength of friendship between those two men, so too does Calvary enlighten us about the depth of Christ’s love for each of us. As Pope Benedict elucidated it in Spes Salvi (Christian Hope, 3), Jesus knows us, loves us, wants us and awaits us, especially in his personal presence in the Eucharist.

Our Lord left us a sacramental celebration of his total self-sacrifice in the Eucharist. St. Paul makes that very personal: “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). As that “for me” is renewed in each Mass, we should be conscious of that fact at each consecration of the Eucharist.

Should that not enkindle great “amazement and gratitude” when participating in the Mass, as St. John Paul II expressed in Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Eucharist in Its Relationship to the Church)?

Would not the epidemic affecting those “ill, infirm and dying” from Eucharistic famine quickly subside and bring them ever closer to the fullness of life promised by Christ?

With such a “Eucharistic springtime in every parish,” as Pope Benedict expressed at the conference on Leige, many parishes and dioceses would progress from the condition of Corinth with its Eucharistically “sick, infirm, and dying” to that of Liege, a veritable “Eucharistic Upper Room.”

As St. John Paul II noted in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, may Mary, Woman of the Eucharist and Star of the New Evangelization, guide us to the Eucharist, the source and summit of our Christian life.

Father Stanley Smolenski, a Baptistine canonical hermit is

the director of the Our Lady of South Carolina — Shrine of Our Lady and Mother of Joyful Hope

in Kingstree, South Carolina.