The custom most associated with Corpus Christi is the procession in which the Blessed Sacrament is carried in a monstrance through the local streets with great solemnity and communal festivity. The procession is a public witness of the Church’s belief in and popular devotion to the sacrament of the Eucharist. Beginning with Blessed John Paul II, recent popes have revived the custom at the papal level, celebrating Mass at the Papal Basilica of St. John Lateran (Rome’s Cathedral), and then going from there in procession with the Blessed Sacrament up the Esquiline Hill to the Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major, where the procession concludes with Benediction outdoors. That was on Thursday, the traditional day for Corpus Christi. Today, Sunday, at 5:00 p.m. Rome time (11:00 a.m. our time), the Holy Father will preside over a special hour of Eucharistic adoration extended all over the world. The world’s cathedrals will be synchronized with Rome and will, for an hour, join the Pope in Eucharistic adoration.
In 1984, I got to attend a particularly impressive Corpus Christi procession in Montreal, Quebec, where we followed the Blessed Sacrament through the narrow streets of the Old City to the historic basilica of Notre Dame. But perhaps the most impressive, certainly the most moving outdoor eucharisitc procession I’ve ever attended was not on Corpus Chrsti but the one that takes place every summer afternoon at the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in southern France. After being exposed all day under a tent, the Blessed Sacrament is carried at the end of a procession of sick pilgrims and their caregivers to the massive underground basilica. Empty, the basilica (the only structure large enough to contain the vast number of piolgrims present on any given day) resembles an ugly underground parking lot. Crowded to capacity for afternoon Benediciton, however, the experience is – as my British friends would say – “brilliant.”
A more traditonal word might be”awesome” – a word which really used to mean something before it became a contemporary synonym for “nice.” Thus, we used to start the Mass for the Consecration of a Church with the words of the Patriarch jacob in Genesis: How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven; and it shall be called the court of God [Genesis 28:17].
We build and maintain churches to be “awesome,” so that “awesome” things can happen there - so that the community of faithful we call the Church (with a capital “C”), can assemble to pray, to hear God’s word, and to celebrate the sacraments, especially the Eucharist in which Christ is present in a unique way in his Body and Blood. Prefigured by the bread and wine offered (as we just heard) by the priest and king Melchizedek [Genesis 14:18-20], the Eucharist was established as a sacrament (as we also just heard) by Christ at the Last Supper [1 Corinthians 11:23-26], and now is celebrated daily on our altar and permanently reserved for adoration in the Taberancle. Today’s celebration is meant to highlight all of that, all the while inviting us to a deeper devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is that Real Presence which is so vividly celebrated in the tradtional Corpus Christi procession, in which the Church ritually acts out the reality of Christ coming into our world, walking our streets, so to speak.
In the Eucharist – and in the life we share together as Christ’s Church united by and through the Eucharist we celebrate – Christ comes among us. And he remains with us, blessing the streets we and he walk together, nourishing our ordinary and sometimes somewhat messed up lives with the real, felsh-and-blood presence of God himself, who invites us – like the 5000+ people in the Gospel [Luke 9:11b-17] – to eat until we have more than enoough.
Homily for Corpus Christi, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 2, 2013.