1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Corpus Christi, Feast of

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CORPUS CHRISTI, FEAST OF (Lat. festum corporis Christi, i.e. festival of the Body of Christ, Fr. fête-Dieu or fête du sacrement, Ger. Frohnleichnamsfest), a festival of the Roman Catholic Church in honour of the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament of the altar, observed on the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday. The doctrine of transubstantiation was defined by the Lateran Council in 1215, and shortly afterwards the elevation and adoration of the Host were formally enjoined. This naturally stimulated the popular devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, which had been already widespread before the definition of the dogma. The movement was especially strong in the diocese of Liége, and when Julienne, prioress of Mont-Cornillon near Liége (1222–1258), had a vision in which the need for the establishment of a festival in honour of the Sacrament was revealed to her, the matter was taken up with enthusiasm by the clergy, and in 1246 Robert de Torote, bishop of Liége, instituted such a festival for his diocese. The idea, however, did not spread until, in 1261, Jacob Pantaleon, archdeacon of Liége, ascended the papal throne as Urban IV. By a bull of 1264 Urban made the festival, hitherto practically confined to the diocese of Liége, obligatory on the whole Church,[1] and a new office for the festival was written by Thomas Aquinas himself. As yet the stress was laid on reverence for the Holy Sacrament as a whole; there is no mention in Urban’s bull of the solemn procession and exposition of the Host for the adoration of the faithful, which are the main features of the festival as at present celebrated. Urban’s bull was once more promulgated, at the council of Vienne in 1311, by Pope Clement V.; and the procession of the Host in connexion with the festival was instituted, if the accounts we possess are trustworthy, by Pope John XXII.

From this time onwards the festival increased in popularity and in splendour. It became in effect the principal feast of the Church, the procession of the Sacrament a gorgeous pageant, in which not only the members of the trade and craft gilds, with the magistrates of the cities, took part, but princes and sovereigns. It thus became in a high degree symbolical of the exaltation of the sacerdotal power.[2] In the 15th century the custom became almost universal of following the procession with the performance of miracle-plays and mysteries, generally arranged and acted by members of the gilds who had formed part of the pageant.

The rejection of the doctrine of transubstantiation at the Reformation naturally involved the suppression of the festival of Corpus Christi in the reformed Churches. Luther, in spite of his belief in the Real Presence, regarded it as the most harmful of all the medieval festivals and, though he fully realized its popularity, it was the first that he abolished. This attitude of the reformers towards the festival, however, intensified by their abhorrence of the traffic in indulgences with which it had become closely associated, only tended to establish it more firmly among the adherents of the “old religion.” The procession of the Host on Corpus Christi day became, as it were, a public demonstration of Catholic orthodoxy against Protestantism and later against religious Liberalism. In most countries where religious opinion is sharply divided the procession of Corpus Christi is therefore now forbidden, even when Catholicism is the dominant religion. In England occasional breaches of the law in this respect have been for some time tolerated, as in the case of the Corpus Christi procession annually held by the Italian community in London. An attempt to hold a public procession of the Host in connexion with the Eucharistic Congress at Westminster in 1908, however, was the signal for the outburst of a considerable amount of opposition, and was eventually abandoned owing to the personal intervention of the prime minister.

  1. The pope’s decision, so the story goes, was hastened by a miracle. A priest, saying mass at the church of Santa Christina at Bolsena, was troubled, after the consecration, with grave doubts as to the truth of the doctrine of transubstantiation. His temptation was removed by the Host beginning to bleed, the blood soaking through the corporal into the marble of the altar.
  2. Nothing caused more offence to Liberal sentiment in France after the Restoration than the spectacle of King Louis XVIII. walking and carrying a candle in the procession through the streets of Paris.

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