St. John the Evangelist Corpus Christi Procession 2020: What is it and why do we do it?

In 1978, I was 11 years old and living in West Germany with my family. In late spring, we traveled to the city of Munich, the historical heart of German Catholicism, and as we ambled down the central pedestrian zone we ran right into a Corpus Christi procession.

I was entranced! I remember columns and columns of people dressed in beautiful clothing,  nuns in black habits, Dominicans men in white, Franciscans in sandals, flags, tapestries, statues of saints carried on platforms, bouquets and baskets of flowers everywhere – even being tossed in the air!

 There were children dressed in their First Communion finery (and girls with beautiful floral crowns) – even people riding horses!

Finally, I recalled large embroidered canopy hovering over a bishop carrying a huge monstrance. Even now, I can remember breathing in the incense and marveling at the colorful scene.

Yes, it was Archbishop Josef Ratzinger, our future Pope Benedict!

“Corpus Christi” is Latin for “The Body (and Blood) of Christ”. It is a feast that was established in the year 1264 by Pope Urban IV a year after he declared that a Eucharistic miracle had happened. A German priest visiting Italy had a big problem: he wasn’t sure he believed that the bread and wine truly became the Body and Blood of Christ during the Consecration! He begged God to increase his faith.

“The next day, (the priest) celebrated Mass at the tomb of St. Christina, an early martyr of the church. As soon as he said the words of consecration, the host began to bleed. Blood fell onto his hands and onto the corporal on the altar. He was awestruck and began to cry. At first, he was not sure what to do and tried to hide the blood, but then interrupted the Mass and announced what had happened. The congregation, too, was awestruck. He asked to be taken to see Pope Urban IV who was residing at the neighboring town of Orvieto about 10 miles away.” (https://catholicstraightanswers.com/what-eucharistic-miracle-inspired-the-feast-of-corpus-christi/

The reliquary containing the holy Blood-stained corporal (altar cloth), Orvieto Cathedral, Orvieto, Italy

Pope Urban IV asked his friend St. Thomas Aquinas to compose an entire Mass full of sacred music for a special feast to honor the Real Presence of Jesus. Even now, we sing “O Salutaris Hostia” and “Tantum Ergo” for adoration and Benediction, and many of his hymns have been set to beautiful music by composers for the past 800 years!

From ‘Madonna and Child with St. Dominic and St. Thomas Aquinas’ (Fra Beato, 1430)

About 100 years later, people began to have processions throughout their towns with the priest or bishop carrying the Blessed Sacrament in a Monstrance, blessing people along the route. At some point, some thought about carrying baskets of flowers and petals to throw in front of the priest, to make a beautiful carpet for the priest to carry Our King – just as servants strewed flowers in front of earthly queens and kings. Later, people started making beautiful flower petal carpets ahead of time, and only the priest with the monstrance would be allowed to walk on those special decorations.

The northern Italians now call these decoration efforts “Infiorata” and today entire towns come out to decorate the procession route. These images were taken in Spello, Italy, which hosts one of the most beautifully decorated Corpus Christi processions.

At some point in the 16th century, the custom of “Madonnari” began in Italy. These were vagabond artists who moved from town to town to decorate for special feast days.

Do you recognize our own Baltimore Basilica of the Assumption? Fr. James Boric asks Michael Kirby, a Baltimore Madonnari artist, to honor Mother Mary on her Solemnity, every August 15th.

Interestingly, the flower and chalk carpets don’t last very long after the procession, do they? The petals fade quickly in the heat, the winds blow, the rain washes out the color. In fact, even a beautiful St. Thomas Aquinas hymn can be sung, but unless it’s recorded – swish! The sound waves disappear into the air and we don’t hear them anymore.  But, taking the time to glorify the King of the Universe in His Eucharistic Body and Blood with the best beauty we can offer is worth a lot of effort, and even the disappointment of watching our beautiful offering to him fade away.

Here are photos of St. John parishioners and friends decorating the procession route in past years:

We have been decorating the Corpus Christi procession route at St. John for about 6 years. We will do it again on June 12th, 2020! We will chalk the parking spots and Father Erik will carry Jesus in the Monstrance to a beautiful altar on Larsen Field. A parishioner and college art student, Owen Zaleski, will construct a beautiful flower carpet in front of the altar. It will be wonderful!

Here are some examples of Praise and Worship chalk art from Our Lady of the Pines Catholic Community, Colorado Springs, Colorado. In the midst of the pandemic in April, their families came out and decorated!

Outdoor altar on Larsen Field, June 1st, 2020. Overnight adoration to pray for the city of Baltimore and our country.

“But my family and I can’t chalk like those Madonnari artists! It’s not good enough!” Not true! Recall how pleased we as parents are when our children create “treasures” for us. How much more is God our loving FATHER delighted in us honoring His Son! We are acting with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and He is beholding our efforts to honor him with love and affection. And that is a great truth to pass on to our children.

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