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Rome Notes: Corpus Christi, Strong at 740; Fairy Tale Weddings

6/18/2004 - 9:00 AM PST

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Eucharist Procession Is One of John Paul II's Roman Legacies

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JUNE 18, 2004 (Zenit) - June is the month of contradictions in Rome. Perhaps it is because June is the month of the Gemini, the twins, and the city founded by twins feels her dual nature most keenly.

Riotous and relaxed, as the high tourist season starts at the same time the schools let out, busy and lazy as some scurry to tie up loose ends while others slip off for the first days on the beach. Wind and rain even while the hot sun shines. Even in the market, the green and white of the winter produce linger as the first flashes of summer color arrive with the peaches and melons.

But in one respect Rome is wholeheartedly single-minded. The atmosphere of jubilant celebration. Whether it be the secular face of the city crowding 250,000 spectators into the Circus Maximus for a concert by Sting, or the Catholic face of the city, filling the Pantheon to the bursting point on Pentecost Sunday to see the rose petals dropped through the oculus, a round hole at the pinnacle of the dome, the city shrugs off the inertia of winter and gives herself completely to the celebrations at hand.

On one of the longest days of the year, in the golden twilight so characteristic of Rome, thousands gathered along the crest of the Esquiline Hill to participate in the 740th celebration of Corpus Christi. Carrying on a tradition he began many years ago as archbishop of Krakow, Pope John Paul II accompanied the Blessed Sacrament in an hour-long procession along the Via Merulana from the basilica of St. John Lateran, to that of St. Mary Major.

The establishment of this feast is traditionally attributed to the Miracle of Bolsena which recounts how in 1263, Peter of Prague, a German priest doubted the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. During a pilgrimage to Rome, he stopped to say Mass on the altar of St. Christina in Bolsena and as he spoke the words of consecration, the Host began to drip blood onto his hands, the corporal and the altar.

The priest then went to the nearby city of Orvieto, where Pope Urban IV was residing, and brought him the relics of the miracle. The bloodstained corporal is still on display in the cathedral of that city.

On Sept. 8, 1264, Urban IV issued the papal bull "Transiturus" establishing the feast of Corpus Domini. The date was set on the first Thursday after Pentecost to remind the faithful of the institution of the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday, without diminishing the solemnity of the Lord's Last Supper through festivities.

While the Miracle of Bolsena remains the best-known story regarding the foundation of Corpus Christi, the papal bull of Urban IV makes no mention of it. Part of the lasting fame of this account perhaps has to do with Raphael's magnificent fresco in the papal apartments of Julius II.

The lesser-known story attributes the origins of this feast to an Augustinian nun, St. Juliana of Mont Cornillon. Born in 1206, her great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament led to her vision of a special feast in its honor. She persuaded the bishop of Liege, Robert de Thorete and his archdeacon, Jacques Panaleon, who later became Pope Urban IV.

The feast was extended to the universal Church in 1311, and was celebrated in many towns and villages throughout Europe with processions from the mid-1300s. When the popes returned to Rome from Avignon, the processions were endowed with indulgences.

As Rome has loved processions since antiquity and the time of the triumphs of the Caesars, the processions in Rome were elaborate and magnificent affairs. The processional route developed over the years, settling on the present itinerary in 1575, when the road from St. John Lateran to St. Mary Major was opened by Pope Gregory XIII. Where once the emperor had distributed bread to the citizens in times of famine, now the Pontifex Maximus would bring the Bread of Life.

This custom continued until 1870, when the unification of Italy ceased the papal processions. In 1979, to the astonishment of the city, John Paul II announced that he would be reviving the usage. Twenty-five years later, it has regained its status as Roman tradition.

The festivities started about 6 p.m. at the Basilica of St. John Lateran at the very gates of the ancient city. The Holy Father first celebrated Mass at the high altar under the relics of the skulls of Sts. Peter and Paul, the first to bring the news of Christ's redemptive sacrifice to Rome.

At the end of the Mass, the people in attendance moved outside where they were joined by an even greater multitude awaiting the procession in the huge piazza outside St. John Lateran. The Pope, still dressed in Mass vestments, sat on a chair before the monstrance which rested on a gilded pillar on the back of a processional ...

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