All About Corpus Christi
Corpus Christi Definition and Summary
The Solemnity of Corpus Christi commemorates the Eucharist; traditionally it falls on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, although in some regions it is transferred to the following Sunday.
Liturgical Color(s): White
Type of Holiday: Solemnity; Holy Day of Obligation
Time of Year: The Thursday after Trinity Sunday; translated to the Sunday after Trinity Sunday in some Catholic dioceses
Duration: One day
Celebrates/Symbolizes: The Holy Eucharist
Alternate Names: Festum Corpus et Sanguinis Christi; The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ
Scriptural References: Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:19-20; John 6:51-58; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Even though Christians highly esteem every sacrament, the Eucharist has traditionally held a special place among them. To illustrate this, Ignatius of Antioch (AD 105) referred to the Eucharist as the "medicine of immortality" (Letter to the Ephesians 20:2). St. Ephrem the Syrian (AD 373) taught that even crumbs from the Eucharistic host could sanctify thousands and thousands (Homilies 4,4).
Thomas Aquinas considered the Eucharist to be the greatest of all sacraments (Summa Theologica III: 65,3). Thus, the Church has consistently viewed the Eucharist as unique, even among the sacraments. Thus it is fitting that a feast exist to specifically commemorate the Eucharist. The Catholic Catechism summarizes this teaching of the importance of the Eucharist:
The Eucharist is "the source and summit of the Christian life." "The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch" (1324).
The Feast of Corpus Christi is the name of this feast celebrating the Holy Eucharist. The Eucharist is also called Communion, the Lord's Supper, or the Mass (from the Latin word meaning "to dismiss"). Maundy Thursday would seem to be the best day to celebrate the Eucharist, because that is the day Jesus actually instituted the sacrament. In fact, the Institution of the Eucharist is celebrated on Maundy Thursday. However, the emphasis on the passion themes present in the Maundy Thursday celebration created the need for another day to focus entirely on the Eucharist itself. The Thursday after Trinity Sunday was chosen for the date of the Corpus Christi feast because it is a Thursday (the same day Christ instituted the Eucharist) and it is the first free Thursday after the Easter season (since the Thursday after Pentecost was a part of the ancient octave of Pentecost). Thus Corpus Christi falls within Ordinary Time. Typically Corpus Christi services consist of singing traditional hymns, Lauda Sion and Pange Lingua, both attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas. Some Anglicans celebrate Corpus Christi, and these hymns are in the 1980 Hymnal of the Episcopal Church (pp. 320, 165). Outdoor processions of the Blessed Sacrament are common in some churches as a way to celebrate Corpus Christi. Eucharistic Exposition and Benediction are also common Corpus Christi devotional practices in many churches.
Corpus Christi is primarily thought of as a Western holiday, although the Syrians, Armenians, Copts, and other Eastern Churches have similar festivals. Some dioceses and conferences (including many dioceses in the American Catholic Church) celebrate Corpus Christi on the Sunday after the traditional feast date, i.e. on the Sunday after Trinity Sunday.
In some ways every Sunday is a feast of the Eucharist, because by participating in the Mass and receiving Communion we are honoring and celebrating the Eucharist. Nonetheless, a desire to specifically celebrate the Eucharist developed. The feast of Corpus Christi owes a rather large debt to St. Juliana, a nun of Liege, Belgium, who was led to start a celebration of the Mass around AD 1230. At an early age, she developed a strong devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and she longed for a feast in honor of the Eucharist. In AD 1264 a bull of Pope Urban IV commanded universal the observance of the feast. Nonetheless, Urban's death impeded the spread of the feast. However, by the 14th century, the feast became universally celebrated in the West. St. Thomas Aquinas is often given credit for many of the customs and hymns associated with Corpus Christi, although scholars have questioned this. However, the hymns and prayers certainly are in the tradition of Aquinas, and many defend the traditional ascription based on internal evidence. The Feast of Corpus Christi is celebrated throughout the Catholic Church. Although the feast is not officially observed in most Protestant churches, some Anglican churches, especially Anglo-Catholics, observe the feast.
Worship and Prayer Resources
Corpus Christi and Communion Prayers
Traditions and Symbols
Traditions Opening Mass with Lauda Sion (St. Thomas Aquinas), singing the Pange Lingua (St. Thomas Aquinas) Eucharistic Exposition and Benediction, Corpus Christi procession
Symbols Bread and wine (or plate and chalice); bunch of grapes, vine, peacock feeding on grapes, any symbol of the Eucharist
This page written by David Bennett
Updated 03-02-2023 by Elizabeth Craig