Friday, May 27, 2016

St Thomas and the Feast of Corpus Christi

Besides his great theological work, Thomas was a poet and hymn writer. He wrote his most famous hymns for the feast of Corpus Christi, which was first celebrated in 1246 in the diocese of Liège (Belgium). Under the inspiration of a devout group of women headed by St. Julienne of Mont-Cornillon, the bishop Robert of Torote approved their request to establish a feast in honor of the Body and Blood of Christ. It was a local celebration but soon began to spread. The Dominican Hugh of Saint-Cher approved it for use in Germany, where he was the cardinal-legate.
On August 11, 1264, Pope Urban IV established the feast for the whole Church through the publication of the papal bull Transiturus. Before becoming Pope, Urban had been in Liège and knew St. Julienne, so he was well acquainted with the background of the feast. However, in Italy the impetus for the feast originated with the Eucharistic miracle at Bolsena, a small town near Orvieto. A priest who was traveling through the area and who had been experiencing doubts about the Eucharist celebrated Mass in the town. During Mass the sacred host began to bleed, and the doubting priest reaffirmed his faith. The corporal he used is now venerated in the cathedral in Orvieto. This miracle stirred up popular Eucharistic devotion. Pope Urban asked Thomas to write the texts for the Mass and Office of this feast. This includes some of his most famous hymns that are still sung today and cherished by Catholics, such as the Pange lingua, Tantum ergo, and Panis angelicus. Although for a while some scholars had expressed doubts that Thomas was the author of the liturgical texts, more recent studies have concluded without a doubt that he indeed was (see Jean-Pierre Torrell, St Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1, p. 129-132). The theology of the texts is like Thomas’ autograph.
Although the feast was set for the Thursday following the octave of Pentecost, that first year it was celebrated in Orvieto in the late summer of 1264. Pope Urban died shortly after, on October 2. The implementation of the feast was never fully carried out until 1317 under Pope John XXII (who also canonized Thomas).

Tantum ergo Sacramentum
Veneremur cernui:
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui:
Praestet fides supplementum
Sensuum defectui.

Genitori, Genitoque
Laus et jubilatio,
Salus, honor, virtus quoque
Sit et benedictio:
Procedenti ab utroque
Compar sit laudatio. Amen.

Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail,
Lo! o'er ancient forms departing
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail.

To the everlasting Father,
And the Son Who reigns on high
With the Holy Spirit proceeding
Forth from each eternally,
Be salvation, honor blessing,
Might and endless majesty. Amen.

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