John Gayford explores the history and practice of the feast of the Blessed Sacrament


It was at the Last Supper that Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Eucharist, but the Thursday before Good Friday (Maundy Thursday) is filled liturgically with the foot-washing and the beginning of the Passion in the garden of Gethsemane. This leaves no time or space for contemplation of the mystery of the Blessed Sacrament. The feast of Corpus Christi developed for this purpose. It is kept on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday or the Sunday after, and was made a feast of the universal Church by Pope Urban IV, promulgated by his bull Transiturus de hoc mundo (‘about to pass from this world’) in 1264.

The doctrine of transubstantiation (literally meaning ‘change of substance’) came with the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. This definition was an essential precursor to the development of the feast of Corpus Christi, but is not considered further here. It was in Liege that the nascent feast of Corpus Christi emerged. Juliana of Mont Cornillon or Liege (1192–1258) was an orphan, but precocious and brought up under monastic protection. She was allowed to take the veil at the age of 13 and started on the path of becoming a nun. Juliana had, from about the age of 16, recurrent dreams of an imperfect or disfigured moon with a dark spot, which she later gave this significance: the moon represented the church calendar, but there was no specific feast of the Blessed Sacrament. She kept her dreams secret for years, eventually confiding them to her superior, Sister Sapientia. Juliana become convinced that Our Blessed Lord was wanting her to promote a special feast of the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. The Beguines (Mulieres religiosae) were usually well-born, intelligent, single women who shared a devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and supported Juliana. Unfortunately they were not popular with the secular clergy who did nothing to suppress accusations of heresy against them.

In 1230 Juliana was elected prioress at Mont Cornillon. One of the canons, John of Lausanne, shared her enthusiasm for the creation of a new feast and helped her compose the liturgy and music. They shared these ideas with Robert de Thorete, Bishop of Liege, and with John Pantaleon who was archdeacon (later to become Pope Urban IV in 1261). The bishop celebrated the feast at Liege in 1247 using the liturgy composed by Juliana and young John with the intention that it was to be repeated each year. Sadly the bishop died shortly after the first of the feasts and it was not to be celebrated the next year, nor did Juliana live to see the celebration. Fortunately Hugh of Saint Cher, who had assisted the bishop and supported the cause, was to become an important cardinal legate, and helped in the dissemination and promotion of the feast.

Unfortunately there were antagonistic feelings that existed about the need for the feast on the grounds that every Mass was a feast of Corpus Christi. Juliana was deposed as prioress and expelled from her convent with the false accusation that she had used convent funds to promote the feast. Eventually she lived with Eve, a hermit from Liege, who continued to promote the feast after the death of Juliana. In 1264 Pope Urban IV published the bull Transiturus de hoc mundo promoting the feast, but this remained undistributed until after his death. New liturgy and music was composed for the feast by St Thomas Aquinas, much of which is still in use like Lauda Sion, O sacrum convivium and Pange lingua gloriosi Corporis mysterium. These provide the doctrine of transubstantiation in Latin in a simple form, but some of the English translations dilute the theology.

With the death of Pope Urban IV little progress of the feast occurred until the appointment of Pope Clement V in 1305. However, it was not until Pope John XXII in 1317 that Transiturus was disseminated and became active. Nevertheless the feast was propagated by trade links and religious orders. It was in 1318 that the feast reached England and spread rapidly through the country, especially when it became a public holiday allowing processions and public events. The feast started with first vespers in the afternoon of the day before, after which the pious continued in prayer and meditation while secular events continued into the night. These events could feature heavy drinking, and the troubles associated with it. Confraternities and trade guilds were given special responsibilities in the processions (which started after the solemn sung High Mass of the day). Palm Sunday processions, which often included the Blessed Sacrament, were taken as models for Corpus Christi processions. There were also Corpus Christi sermons and plays. The latter had little to do with the feast, but took the chance of a summer feast to perform plays to teach the story of salvation history. Dramas like the York mystery plays became famous, attracting tourists and even royalty to watch them being performed by local people on special wagons that were pushed round the city. Claims can be made that Corpus Christi plays represent a stage in the evolution of English theatre. The text of some of these plays has been preserved and revived in modern times.

In England the feast of Corpus Christi had its opponents in the form of John Wycliffe and the Lollards. John Wycliffe was the intellectual leader of the Lollards. He was educated at both Oxford and Cambridge until he was forced to leave in 1361. His prime aim was church reform, and he became an enemy of the doctrine of transubstantiation. He called those who adhered to it confederates of Satan. Pope Gregory XI condemned the teachings of Wycliffe and warned King Edward III of the danger he posed to both church and state. Wycliffe’s reply was to claim that the only true teaching came from the Bible (Sola Scriptura) and called the Pope an antichrist if he did not follow this.

Thomas Cranmer abolished the feast of Corpus Christi for the Church of England in 1548. This allowed radical Protestants to bring to a conclusion events that were going their way by the suppression of Eucharistic and Marian devotion among the laity. Corpus Christi plays continued for some time, but became a target for reformers. Anything to do with Corpus Christi was described as bad memories and monuments of superstition. The same thing happened in other Protestant countries. Tabernacles were raided and hosts (called ‘white buts’— dieux blanc) were fed to swine. Not surprisingly when these hosts were rescued they were treated as Eucharistic martyrs. Abortive attempts were made to revive Corpus Christi ceremonies in the reign of Mary Tudor (1553–1558) but as these had a Spanish flavour they did not receive the support of patriotic Englishmen.

After the Reformation Penal Law banned the Catholic Mass with extreme penalties for priest and lay assistance, the Mass became clandestine and so had to be simple and quick with little ceremony for fear of detection. In the eighteenth century, large embassy chapels allowed full Catholic ceremony within the confines of the chapel. At the end of the eighteenth century there was a relaxation of the law allowing Catholics to have plain registered chapels. The French Revolution led to persecution of clergy with émigré bishops and priests coming to England in large numbers who in the main were received with remarkably charity. Some of these clergy organized themselves into monastic or seminary style houses and celebrated their liturgy which included Corpus Christi.

Catholic line art (which could be called ‘Catholic fantasy art’) are imaginative black and white line drawings which have adorned missals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is ‘pious art for the pious’ depicting perfect, ascetic Corpus Christi processions unattainable in reality.

Nowadays we can sit in front of a computer screen and see pictures of Corpus Christi processions throughout the world. In Catholic countries where the feast of Corpus Christi is a public holiday the solemn liturgy of the cathedral spills out into the streets where carnival takes over around the procession of the Blessed Sacrament. National costumes, brass bands and the like are the order of the day. Even in modern England, Corpus Christi processions can take to the streets, especially when the feast is celebrated on a Sunday. For this to be successful careful planning and thought is needed to preserve dignity and make it a procession of witness. Even within the church or cathedral there is a prescribed liturgy. The procession should take place after the principal solemn sung Mass which does not end with a blessing. The Sacrament is carried in a monstrance, preferably by the celebrant of that Mass wearing a chasuble or a cope but also with a humeral veil. Sometimes a canopy may be carried over the celebrant and the monstrance. Acolytes accompany this part of the procession and the cross leads the procession. If possible there should be two thurifers who precede the sacrament. At one time they would walk backwards, but this adds nothing to the dignity especially if there is a possibility of falling over. Clergy are all bareheaded (no mitre, zucchetto or biretta) and precede the Sacrament. A diocesan bishop, if not the celebrant, walks immediately before the sacrament wearing a cope and carrying his pastoral staff. There is a tradition of children scattering rose petals in front of the procession. The choice of music to accompany the procession is a matter of taste. Finally the liturgy ends with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

Problems start to arise if the procession in England is to go outside the church. Singing can sound ragged and weedy in the open air. The choir remaining static and amplified may seem the answer but could cause local annoyance and ridicule. A ‘plan B’ needs to be available if there are adverse weather conditions. Finally, will it really be a procession of witness to those who do not understand the theology behind the event?

The Antiphon to second vespers of the feast by St Thomas Aquinas translated into modern English tells us we are remembering the past, being fulfilled with present grace and looking to future pledge: ‘O Sacred banquet! In which Christ is received, the memory of his passion renewed, the mind is filled with grace and a pledge for future glory given.’


Suggested further reading:

Kolve, V.A. The Plays Called Corpus Christi (Edward Arnold), London, 1966.

O’Carroll, M. Corpus Christi (Liturgical Press), Collegeville, 1988.

Rubin, M. Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge University Press), Cambridge, 1991.

Walters, B.R. The Feast and the Founder in The Feast of Corpus Christi (The Pennsylvania State University Press), Pennsylvania, 2006.