Undoubtedly, the most distinctive (and probably most popular) custom associated with the celebration of Corpus Christi is the public procession in which the Blessed Sacrament is carried in a monstrance through the local streets with great solemnity and festivity, as an expression of belief in and devotion to the sacrament of the Eucharist.
26 summers ago, I was visiting Montreal with a Methodist friend from the Midwest. It just happened to be the feast of Corpus Christi. As we toured the old city, we found ourselves in a crowd outside the historic church of Notre Dame, where a crowd was waiting for the Corpus Christi procession to begin. Caught up in the mood, my friend and I became part of the throng, following the Blessed Sacrament through the narrow streets.
Since then, I have experienced any number of Eucharistic (as well as non-Eucharistic) outdoor processions. Perhaps the most impressive, certainly the most moving, would be the outdoor Eucharistic procession every summer afternoon at the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in southern France. After being exposed all day under an outdoor tent, the Blessed Sacrament is carried outdoors, accompanied by groups of sick pilgrims and their caregivers, to the massive underground basilica, the only structure large enough to contain the vase number of pilgrims present on any given day. Empty, the basilica 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 for such a sacred experience would be “awesome” (a word which really used to mean something before its contemporary reincarnation as a synonym for “nice.”) Thus, for example, we used to begin the Mass for the consecration of a Church with the Patriarch Jacob’s words 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 consecrate churches (with a small “c”), so that the Christian community (the “Church” with a capital “C”) can assemble to pray, to hear God’s word, to celebrate the sacraments, and, most especially, to participate in the Eucharist. Christ is present in his church whenever we faithfully gather together in his name. He is present whenever the scriptures are read and explained and the sacraments are celebrated. Above all, he is present in a special and unique way in his Body and Blood - prefigured by the bread and wine offered by the priest and king Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-20), established as a sacrament by Christ at the Last Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), celebrated daily at the altar, permanently reserved for ongoing adoration in the Tabernacle, and exposed on occasion in a monstrance for public adoration. This celebration of Corpus Christi highlights all of that and invites us all to a deeper devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in this most Blessed Sacrament.
Corpus Christi always reminds me of something else that happened to me that same summer 26 years ago. It’s a story I’m sure I’ve told before, but it’s one well worth repeating. I was in Toronto that summer, as a Paulist seminarian serving at St. Peter’s parish, the very same Toronto parish where, 11 years later, I would finally be ordained a priest. One of my regular student responsibilities that summer was to bring Communion to Catholics in one of the local hospitals. One patient on my list turned out to be an elderly Hungarian woman, who knew no English. Needless to say, I know no Hungarian. So my feeble attempts to communicate were worthless. Bear in mind, that so much of our training in seminary seemed to be focused on how we communicate compassionately, etc. Unable to communicate at all, I felt like a total failure. All I wanted to do was get out of there as fast as possible. But I was trying to be conscientious. So I made one last try to see if at least she wanted to receive Communion. I took out a Host and held it up for her to see. Instantly, her confusion gave way to recognition. She made the sign of the cross and began to pray.
I think the memory of that incident has stuck with me all these years because it probably taught me more about the Eucharist than any of my classes ever did. Simply, quietly, but clearly, it illuminated the inner reality at the root of all our Eucharistic devotions and practices. It illustrated for me how the Eucharist really is Christ’s way of assuring us that he is with us – no matter what. Wherever we go, whatever we do, whatever our successes or failures, rich or poor, healthy or sick, we always have a place at the Lord’s table. In the Eucharist, Christ remains with us, no matter what, blessing our ordinary and sometimes somewhat messed up lives with the real, flesh-and-blood presence of God himself, who invites us – like the 5000+ people in the Gospel – to eat until we have enough.
There is an ancient expression concerning the Eucharist, associated with the great St. Augustine, Become what you receive. In the Eucharist, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, our Risen Lord, really and substantially present for us in his Church. Becoming what we receive, we ask Christ to do with us what he does with bread and wine. We ask him to take us in his hands, to bless us, and to give us to one another with the same love with which he has given us himself – for the life of the world.
Homily given at St. Paul the Apostle Church, June 5 & 6, 2010.