Thursday, May 26, 2016

Corpus Christi

In the calendar of the Universal Church today is Corpus Christi, the Church's annual recollection of the joyful side of Holy Thursday and a celebration of the ongoing centrality of the sacrament of the Eucharist in the Church's daily life. Like Epiphany and Ascension earlier in the year, Corpus Christi is postponed in the United States until next Sunday. But today is its proper day. And in Rome the Pope will celebrate it in suitable splendor with Mass at the Piazza San Giovanni Laterano followed by an outdoor eucharistic procession to Santa Maria Maggiore for Benediction (See photo above from 2015). 

The symbolism of Thursday for this feast is obvious, which is why it has historically been assigned to this Thursday after Trinity Sunday (until 1969 the first Thursday after the Easter season). The historic (pre-Paul VI) liturgy for this feast was ostensibly composed by Saint Thomas Aquinas in 1264. Pius Parsch famously called it "a perfect work of art," in which "we constantly uncover new evidences of structural grandeur." A prime example of such grandeur if, of course, the magnificent sequence Lauda Sion.

At the contemporary papal liturgy and traditionally throughout Christendom, Corpus Christi's distinctive characteristic has been the eucharistic procession. The procession is a public witness of the Church’s belief in and popular devotion to the sacrament of the Eucharist. Here in the United States, such processions are a relative rarity, though they do occur here and there. 

The most magnificent such Corpus Christi procession that I ever saw took place in Montreal, Quebec, in 1984, 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 eucharistc 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 pilgrims present on any given day) resembles an ugly underground parking lot. Crowded to capacity for afternoon Benediction, however, the experience is – as my British friends would say – “brilliant.”

A more traditional 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].

But back to 1984. That summer, as a seminarian stationed in Toronto, I was assigned to visit Catholic patients in the local hospital. (It was a dreadful old place, that has since been torn down) One day, as I was doing my regular hospital visit, I found myself trying to communicate with an elderly, totally non-English-speaking, Hungarian woman, whose name was on my list, but who clearly had no notion who I was or why I was visiting her.

Such experiences, of course, contribute to feeling inadequate, which, in turn, further fosters frustration. And frustrated was exactly how I felt. Frustrated and impatient with the whole situation, all I wanted to do was get out of there as fast as possible.  But I was also – or at least wanted to be - conscientious about my duties, one of which was to bring Holy Communion to the sick. So, I took out a Host and held it up for her to see. Suddenly, her confusion about who I was and what I was doing there no longer seemed to matter. I no longer mattered. The sight of the Host resulted in instant recognition. She made the Sign of the Cross - and began to pray.

In all these intervening years, I have never forgotten my meeting with that devout old woman in that otherwise depressing place - and what that experience impressed on me about the power and importance of the Eucharist, whose minister it is now my privilege to be as a priest.  Experiencing her response to the Real Presence of the Risen Christ – the real, body-and-blood presence of our living and loving Lord, present and active in his Church - impressed on me the meaning of those familiar and seemingly simple words of St. Paul: The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? [1 Corinthians 10:16].

In both good times and bad, in sickness and in health, Christ is present in the Eucharist, and we in turn experience his presence and share in the new life he offers the world through his Church.

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