As you will know the words ‘Corpus Christi’ mean ‘the Body of Christ’. So you might be inclined to ask: Why have a feast about the Body of Christ, when every Mass celebrates and makes present that Body of Christ on the altar to be adored and shared by the congregation as they celebrate the Eucharist? The answer is to be found in the history of this Feast.
This Feast was first celebrated back in the 13th century, that is, about 800 years ago. It seems that at that time some doubts were emerging in the Church about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. These seem to have been fostered by the way the Mass was celebrated in those days. The faithful were finding participation in the Mass difficult and unhelpful to their devotion. The Mass was in Latin, the priest stood with his back to the congregation, in the long narrow churches people were quite distant from the altar, felt rather excluded and only rarely went to Communion.
To combat the doubts arising at that time the Feast of the Body [and Blood] of Christ was instituted. The emphasis in it was on the presence of Christ on the altar and it was stressed that the basic purpose of the Mass was precisely to make that presence a reality.
To strengthen the belief that Christ was actually present body and blood in the Eucharist the practice of elevating the consecrated host and chalice during the Mass came in and people were urged to gaze in faith on the consecrated species. This led in time to the practice of people running from one church to a neighbouring one to experience this elevation. In addition, many Eucharistic devotions emerged and flourished, including Corpus Christi processions, Benediction, Holy Hours, Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, etc., all emphasising the presence of Christ, body and blood, in the consecrated host. These were intended to bring the worshippers closer to the Eucharistic presence and to help them to be more active and involved in the Mass and devotion to the Lord in the Eucharist.
It will come as no surprise to hear that at times some of these devotions came to be or to feel rather separate from the Mass and for some people even more important in their spiritual life than the Mass itself. Hence, in more recent times and especially since Vatican Two (1962-5), church teaching puts notable emphasis on the centrality of the Mass itself in our spiritual lives. This is aided by the fact that the Mass is now celebrated in our own language, the priest faces the people and lay involvement is practised and encouraged. The point is made too that all these devotions derive from and are secondary to the Mass, and it is vital to keep our priorities right in this matter.
The Church today continues to celebrate this Feast as an important liturgical event each year. It reminds us of the real presence of Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist itself, calls us to ensure that in our spiritual lives the Mass holds the priority and any Eucharistic devotions we participate in are seen as flowing from and also pointing to the Mass as the central sacrament in the Church’s liturgy and in our Christian lives.