Have you ever watched a lunar eclipse? North America experienced a partial lunar eclipse on Jan. 31, but will not see a total lunar eclipse on Jan. 20, 2019. (Europe will have one on July 27.)
In a lunar eclipse, the moon slowly darkens on one side and, with a total eclipse, eventually turns dark red. In some cultures, including the Philippines, the appearance is so frightening that their legends say a dragon eats the moon.
While our faith doesn’t believe that dragons eat the moon, one of our mystic saints did have a fear regarding a missing piece of a full moon image.
20 years of visions
For 20 years, St. Juliana of Liege had the same vision about a full moon, with one imperfection.
Orphaned at a young age, Juliana and her sister, Agnes, had been placed in the newly established Augustinian convent at Mont-Cornillon in Retienne, Belgium, at the end of the 12th century. When she was 16, Juliana — who had always been devoted to the Blessed Sacrament — had the first of her lunar visions. She saw a nearly full moon with a dark spot or stripe within it.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, at a general audience on Nov. 17, 2010, explained the vision: “The Lord made (St. Juliana) understand the meaning of what had appeared to her. The moon symbolized the life of the church on earth, the opaque line, on the other hand, represented the absence of a liturgical feast for whose institution Juliana was asked to plead effectively: namely, a feast in which believers would be able to adore the Eucharist so as to increase in faith, to advance in the practice of the virtues and to make reparation for offenses to the Most Holy Sacrament.”
Juliana kept her lunar visions a secret for years, until she was prioress of her convent. Then she revealed the visions to her confessor and to a local hermit known as Blessed Eva of Liege. They both urged her to follow the instructions revealed to her. So Juliana began to petition for a feast honoring the Blessed Sacrament. She was supported in her mission by both the bishop and the archdeacon of Liege, Jacques Pantaléon (who later became Pope Urban IV).
Left her convent
Despite her piety, many — even some of the clergy — opposed Juliana. She eventually left her convent of Mont-Cornillon, taking with her several companions. For the next 10 years, until her death in 1258, Juliana lived as a guest at various monasteries of Cistercian sisters.
Blessed Eva helped continue Juliana’s cause after the saint died. Pope Urban IV, on Aug. 11, 1264, instituted the Solemnity of Corpus Christi to be held on the Thursday after Pentecost as a feast of precept for the universal church. He wrote, “Although the Eucharist is celebrated solemnly every day, we deem it fitting that at least once a year it be celebrated with greater honor and a solemn commemoration.”
Pope Urban also asked St. Thomas Aquinas to compose the office (series of prayers and chants) for the feast. From him, we have the famous Eucharistic hymns “Pange Lingua Gloriosi” and “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum,” which is still used at holy hours and eucharistic adoration.
Pope Urban died within the year of issuing his decree, so the feast remained localized to Belgium and France for many years. Pope Clement V (1305-1314), and his successor, Pope John XXII, moved the feast of Corpus Christi to the status of a universal observance. Later popes, (such as Popes Martin V and Eugene IV in the 15th century) added indulgences to encourage Eucharistic processions with the Blessed Sacrament. These colorful, outdoor Eucharistic processions, which continued into modern times, started in Cologne, Germany, and from there spread across Europe.
Before long, the Corpus Christi processions were elaborate. Not only was the Blessed Sacrament carried through the streets — monstrances came into existence specifically for this purpose — but elaborate pageants depicting Christ’s Passion and key biblical stories, were also staged. As a boy, St. Thomas More joined the Guild of Corpus Christi in Coventry, England. That guild built intricate floats, many with moving parts, to portray various scenes of salvation history — from Adam and Eve in the garden to Christ’s Ascension — for the Corpus Christi processions that wound their way through the streets of London.
During and following the Protestant Reformation, such processions were scaled back, but still continued in some places. During the middle of the 20th century, Corpus Christi processions finally dwindled and were all but forgotten in the United States and many other countries. However, that began to change when St. John Paul II declared October 2004 through October 2005 as the “Year of the Eucharist.” In his Apostolic Letter, Mane nobiscum Domine, proclaiming that jubilee year, the pope urged Catholics to participate in processions on the Feast of Corpus Christi.
A moveable feast
The feast of Corpus Christi — correctly called the “Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ” — is a “moveable feast,” meaning that its date is not fixed on the calendar. Rather, it is traditionally celebrated on the 60th day after Easter, the Thursday following the feast of the Most Holy Trinity. In countries where the feast is not a holy day of obligation, its celebration is transferred to the following Sunday (as in the United States.) The earliest day the feast can be celebrated is on May 21, and the latest is on June 24. (This will happen in 2038). This year, the feast is celebrated in the U.S. on June 3.
A key part of the Corpus Christi processions is their pubic nature — the Blessed Sacrament is carried out of the church setting and into the public venue. There, it is exposed for all — believers and non-believers alike — to see. In this way, we are reminded — as were the disciples on the road to Emmaus — that Jesus draws near to us in the moments of everyday life.
As St. John Paul II said, “Our faith in the God who took flesh in order to become our companion along the way needs to be everywhere proclaimed, especially in our streets and homes, as an expression of our grateful love and as an inexhaustible source of blessings.”
Sources: “The Liturgical Year: Days of the Lord, the Liturgical Year”; “The Life of St. Thomas More”; “The Church at Prayer, the Liturgy and Time”; documents of Vatican II; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The 1911 Encyclopedia”; “Dictionary of the Liturgy”; therealpresence.org; “Theological Threads”; sharefaith.com; catholicculture.org; salveregina.org; vatican.va; and “A Brief History of the Feast of Corpus Christi” at www.stacbcs.org