O what a wondrous reality!

Even in an institution with as rich a history as the Catholic Church, it’s still rare that we have the chance to celebrate a 750th anniversary. That, however, is our joy this Sunday as we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi for the 750th time. 

Pope Urban IV instituted the feast in 1264 in response to two factors. 

He had previously served as the Archdeacon of the Diocese of Liège, Belgium, where St. Juliana of Mont Cornillon for 20 years received mystical visions in which Jesus pleaded for the institution of a feast celebrating His Body and Blood. In 1246, Liège Bishop Robert de Thorete, with the help of his archdeacon, inaugurated a local Eucharistic feast in his diocese. 

In 1263, two years after Urban IV had been elected pope, something happened that led him to extend the feast of the Lord’s Body and Blood to the Universal Church. 

In Bolsena, a town located just a few miles from the well-protected papal city of Orvieto where Urban was living, a priest named Peter from Prague celebrated Mass for a caravan of pilgrims returning from Rome. As he split the Sacred Host during the Lamb of God, the Host began to bleed profusely over the corporal. Word was sent to the pope, who sent a local bishop to investigate. The bloodstained corporal was soon brought to Orvieto where it quickly became an object of pilgrimage, wonder and devotion. 

Pope Urban IV understood this event as a sign that the Lord wanted the routine Eucharistic miracle that was the basis of the extraordinary Eucharistic miracle to be celebrated. He asked St. Thomas Aquinas, who was living in Orvieto at the time, to compose a special office of Liturgical hymns and prayers for the feast of Corpus Christi and even solicited him to help write the 1264 Papal Bull Transiturus that decreed this feast for the entire Latin Rite. 

Pope Urban in Transiturus noted that on Holy Thursday, the day on which Jesus instituted the Eucharist, many other things are pondered besides Jesus’ Eucharistic self-gift, from His command to wash others’ feet, to the institution of the priesthood, to the inauguration of His Passion, death and Resurrection. Corpus Christi was to be an occasion in which the Church would concentrate on and celebrate the world’s greatest daily gift. 

This year’s 750th anniversary of the first feast of Corpus Christi in the Universal Church is an opportunity for all of us to thank God for that gift with special gratitude and devotion.

On May 31, on a day off while leading a pilgrimage in Rome, I traveled to Orvieto with Jack Shrader, a seminarian from our diocese studying at the North American College, so that I could prepare better for this feast. In between train rides through the Italian countryside and two nice Italian meals, we spent several hours praying in the exquisite Orvieto Cathedral that enshrines the bloodstained corporal. 

For my meditation, I pondered the five great hymns St. Thomas Aquinas had written for the feast three-quarters of a millennium ago: the Sequence before the Gospel that Catholic parishes will sing this Sunday, Lauda Sion Salvatorem; the hymn for the Office of Readings Sacris Solemnis, which contains the famous Panis Angelicus; the chant for Morning Prayer, Verbum Supernum Prodiens, which concludes with the Adoration hymn O Salutaris Hostia; the canticle for Vespers, Pange Lingua Gloriosi, which finishes with the Benediction hymn Tantum Ergo Sacramentum; and the beautiful hymn for Eucharistic adoration Adoro Te Devote

I’ve sung these hymns many times publicly and privately but I’ve never taken the chance to pray them all as a unit. In my time in the “Chapel of the Miracle,” however, I entered into the deep Eucharistic faith and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, whom St. John Paul II called an “impassioned poet of Christ in the Eucharist” and Pope Benedict XVI said had an “exquisitely Eucharistic soul” that produced the “most beautiful hymns that the Liturgy of the Church sings.” 

Among all of St. Thomas’ lyrical Eucharistic wisdom, the phrase that moves me the most is from the Panis Angelicus, when he writes, “O Res mirabilis, manducat Dominum, pauper servus et humilis”: “O what a wondrous reality: a poor and humble servant eats [his] Lord.” 

We would need far more than 750 years to ponder the love of the Lord in becoming so poor and humble so that we poor and humble servants could live off of Him! 

To mark this feast in the special way it deserves, we don’t have to make a pilgrimage to Italian cathedrals or ponder Latin hymns. It’s a great day to show our appreciation and awe publicly through Corpus Christi processions like the one led by the Franciscan Friars in New Bedford. It’s also a fitting time to ponder the ways we could make Jesus in the Eucharist the “source and summit” of our life, through, for example, making a commitment each week to pray an hour of Eucharistic adoration and as often as possible to come to Mass during the week to “eat the Lord” we so desperately need. 

Quantum potes, tantum aude,” St. Thomas sang in the Lauda Sion Sequence: “Dare to do as much as you possibly can!” This year’s special celebration of Corpus Christ is a summons boldly to do all that is within our power to celebrate the wondrous reality of Christ’s Eucharistic love.

Anchor columnist Father Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River. fatherlandry@catholicpreaching.com.

© 2018 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing   †   Fall River, Massachusetts