In 1264, Pope Urban IV instituted this solemnity for the Universal Church, as a statement of our belief in the True Presence of Jesus in Eucharist. But let’s be clear, that’s not when this belief began. It was only a formal declaration of belief, long held. So where did we get this idea, that the Eucharist was more than just a bread wafer and wine? From Jesus himself: “My flesh is true food and my blood, true drink….unless you eat my body and drink my blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6: 53-55). And from the earliest times, the Christian people have believed this. You need only consider the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (D. 110), Justin the Martyr (D. 165) and Irenaeus of Lyon (D. 202), Tertullian (D 250) and Origen of Alexandria (D. 254). I remind us that before there was a Bible, Christians gathered to celebrate the Eucharist.
But there was a Belgian nun who lived in the 1200s named Juliana of Liege, who through her deep experiences in prayer, received a calling to create a specific liturgical celebration that formally celebrates our belief in the True Presence. She shared this strong desire with Pope Urban IV, but it would not be until sometime later that he would act upon it.
What happened is that a priest from Prague by the name of Peter, decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome in 1263 to pray at the tomb of his namesake, St. Peter. Along the way he stopped at a little church in the Italian town of Bolsena, about 70 miles north of Rome. He asked if he could celebrate Mass at a chapel there.
Fr. Peter had struggled with doubts about this notion of Jesus’ True Presence in the Eucharist, and so before he celebrated the Mass he prayed for faith to believe. Then as he celebrated the Mass, he raised the host, as he said the words of consecration. The host began to bleed profusely, onto his hands and onto the altar cloths. He nervously wrapped the host in the corporal, and uncertain of what exactly to do, he left the altar, as blood continued to drip on to the altar steps and the floor.
Fr. Peter left the chapel and went to the neighboring town of Orvieto, about 12 miles away, because residing there at that time was Pope Urban IV. He first confessed his sin of unbelief and described what happened. Pope Urban sent a delegation back to Bolsena. What he saw in the evidence was enough to compel him to at last, act on Sister Julian’s request.
Over the next year he worked on it, and in 1264 he issued a statement declaring this solemnity, Corpus Christi, for the Universal Church. And he asked a Dominican friar to compose prayers and hymns to be used for such a glorious feast. His name was St. Thomas Aquinas, and from his pen came the beautiful hymns that we still sing today: Tantum Ergo, Adoro te Devote, O Salutaris and the Pange Lingua.
When Thomas, who was a brilliant mind, struggled with an intellectual issue, he would place himself before the tabernacle, even resting his head on it, pleading for guidance. Towards the end of his life, he wrote a treatise on the Eucharist. Upon completing it, not believing that he had done it justice, he laid the pages he had written at the foot of the cross of Jesus and began to pray. He heard a voice say to him, “You have written well of me, Thomas, what would you desire in return?” Thomas replied, “Non nisi Te” (“I will have nothing, except you.”).
From this altar, we see before us, held aloft, the Pearl of Great Price. To those without regard or belief in it, it seems insignificant. But as St. Paul once said, and is true of us who believe, “We live as having nothing (in other words, just a wafer of bread), yet everything is ours” (2 Cor 6:10). And that everything—the God who created the cosmos, the mountains, our parents, our children, as an act of love—makes Himself vulnerable and allows Himself to be placed in our hands and on our tongues—in an act so intimate. Let us pray that we might be conscious of what we receive; that like Fr. Peter of Prague, we might at least desire to believe in this mystery; that we might have hearts disposed to receive it; so that ultimately, we might be overcome by it and possessed by it.