In 1246 Pope Urban introduced the Feast of Corpus Christi or the Body and Blood of the Lord to the universal Church. Since that time in Orvieto, Italy there has been a yearly procession with the Holy Eucharist leading the faithful. Significantly, it makes only two stops: one at the convent of the cloistered Carmelite nuns, who are not allowed to go out, and one at the local prison. In both cases the Cardinal officiating carries the Lord into those dwellings for special prayers and blessings. The Eucharistic Lord comes to saints and sinners alike!
I remember very well the Corpus Christi celebrations that we had at St. Mary of the Knobs in my boyhood. The canopy under which walked the priest with the Blessed Sacrament in a jeweled monstrance, a procession of visiting priests, the choir, and all the servers decked out in our cassocks and surplices, sweating in the hot summer sun and processing from the altar, around the church and through the graveyard and back to the altar again. Afterwards there were refreshments. Kids played games and the grown-ups visited. The priests went to the rectory where (I found out much later in life) they indulged in scotch and cigars.
Processions in the liturgy are accompanied by singing. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote a special Mass and several hymns for the Feast of Corpus Christi, the most famous one being the Pange Lingua which we sing on Holy Thursday night as we take the Blessed Sacrament from church to a special altar of repose. The last two verses of the Pange Lingua we sing at benediction and we know this song as the Tantum Ergo.
Singing and walking. That is what the Church does on this day and every day. Maybe not with as much festivity but surely with great hope and love. We are a people on the move, we Christians, and we believe the Lord Jesus is with us as we go. He goes before us and leads us.
Pope Benedict XVI in his homily on this feast in 2007 said:
“We join together this evening in the procession to carry the Lord Jesus, as it were, to all the streets and neighborhoods of Rome. We bring him into the ordinariness of our daily life, because he walks where we walk, because he lives where we live. We journey on the streets of this earth, knowing that he is at our side, we are sustained by the hope of one day seeing his unveiled presence in the final encounter of heaven.
“Our procession tells us — or rather through it we remind ourselves — that we are pilgrims on the earth. We have here no lasting dwelling place. Like ancient Israel who followed the pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, we are a people who are on the way, seeking our real homeland and our everlasting rest. We are not merely a throng. Our motion is not simply the mass flight of those who are hurrying unthinkingly through time. Our procession is a holy movement of those truly united. It is a gentle stream of peaceful majesty, not a procession of fists clenched in bitterness, but of hands folded in gentleness. It is a procession which threatens no one, excludes no one, and whose blessing even falls on those who stand astonished at its edge and who look on, comprehending nothing.
“It is a movement which the holy One, the eternal One supports with his presence; he gives peace to our journey and he gives unity to those taking part in it. The Lord of history and of this holy exodus from exile towards the eternal homeland himself accompanies the exodus.”
Today, my friends, you will come forward to the altar with measured step, singing a little song. You will receive the Body and Blood of the Lord and will return to your pews with the Lord in your hearts. Our procession to the altar is a little rehearsal for what we will do when Mass is done. We will have become living vessels of the Lord’s love and we will take him – or rather he will take us – to all the places that need his love and care. We will carry the Sacrament through the fields and wilderness of our life, and give testimony that, as long as Jesus goes with us, we are never lost. Never alone.