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Procession of Corpus Christi

The Solemnity of Corpus Christi

June 9, 2023


We are in the midst of a campaign for Eucharistic Revival at the behest of the United States Conference for Catholic Bishops and which Bishop Barron himself is encouraging in his own diocese as well as through Word on Fire. So I want to focus on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.

The solemn feast of Corpus Christi celebrates the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. As the Church teaches, the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium §11; CCC §1324). As such, it is wise to contemplate the depths of this mystery regularly. Rightly, Catholics often emphasize the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which is precisely what the Solemnity of Corpus Christi highlights. Connected with this truth, however, there are additional aspects that we would do well to meditate upon.

Scholastic sacramental theology spoke of three aspects of the sacraments. First, there is the sacramentum tantum, or the sign of the sacrament. Then, there is the res et sacramentum, or the symbolic reality (or sign and reality) of the sacrament (see Paul F. Palmer, SJ, “The Theology of the Res et Sacramentum with Particular Emphasis on its Application to Penance,” 121). Finally, there is the res tantum, what the sacrament realizes or effects (see Susan Wood, “The Sacramental Foundations of Ecclesial Identity: Barrier or Passageway to Ecumenical Unity?”, 457). The sacramentum tantum of the Eucharist is the appearance of bread and wine (the species), which act as outward signs. The res et sacramentum of the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist: his Body and Blood. “The res tantum is the effect of the sacrament, that is, the unity or bond of love created by the sacrament” (ibid.).

Let us unpack this last aspect a bit further. The bond of unity in charity created by the reception of the Eucharist is the reason it is called Holy Communion. This communion is two-fold. The reception of Holy Communion unites us with Christ (the head) and with the Church (the body). To this point, St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa theologiae, quotes St. John Damascene (De fide orthod. 4), where he says, “It is called Communion because we communicate with Christ through it, both because we partake of His flesh and Godhead, and because we communicate with and are united to one another through it” (ST 3.73.4). Hence, in the same section, Aquinas writes that the Eucharist “has another meaning, namely, that of Ecclesiastical unity, in which men are aggregated through this Sacrament” (ibid.). Again, St. Thomas teaches: “The reality [res tantum] of the sacrament [of the Eucharist] is the unity of the mystical body [the Church]” (ST 3.73.3).

The Church, understood as communion, is therefore the effect of the Eucharist. This beautiful truth of our faith is expressed by St. Paul: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). Cardinal Henri de Lubac accordingly said that “the Eucharist makes the Church” (see Paul McPartlan, Sacrament of Salvation, 30).

De Lubac is keen to point out that it is precisely Christ’s true presence that enables the Eucharist to have a real effect, which is the communion of the Church. As Paul McPartlan explains, “Christ and the Spirit are at work in the Eucharist, forming the ecclesial Body, gathering the Church. De Lubac states that ‘eucharistic realism’ and ‘ecclesial realism’ are interdependent, and . . . that ‘ecclesial realism ensures eucharistic realism’” (McPartlan, The Eucharist Makes the Church, 80). It is because Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, as the Solemnity of Corpus Christi celebrates, that the Church is really generated as the Body of Christ. We are the Body of Christ because we receive the Body of Christ.

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Pope St. John Paul II was so convinced of this truth that he dedicated an encyclical to this reality (Ecclesia de Eucharistia: the Church from the Eucharist). In that document, he teaches: “The Eucharist, as Christ’s saving presence in the community of the faithful and its spiritual food, is the most precious possession which the Church can have in her journey through history” (§9). In his encyclical Redemptoris Hominis, he likewise teaches: “It is an essential truth, not only of doctrine but also of life, that the Eucharist builds the Church, building it as the authentic community of the People of God, as the assembly of the faithful, bearing the same mark of unity that was shared by the Apostles and the first disciples of the Lord” (§20).

Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI refers to the Eucharist as the “causal principle of the Church” in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (see the heading before §14). “The Eucharist,” he writes, “is thus constitutive of the Church’s being and activity. This is why Christian antiquity used the same words, Corpus Christi, to designate Christ’s body born of the Virgin Mary, his eucharistic body and his ecclesial body. This clear datum of the tradition helps us to appreciate the inseparability of Christ and the Church” (§15).

For all of the reasons mentioned above, it is paramount that we celebrate the Eucharist at a Catholic Divine Liturgy, whether in the Roman Rite (the Mass) or in one of the Eastern Catholic Divine Liturgies. The Eucharist properly belongs within the communion of the Church. As de Lubac writes, “Schism has always inspired the true believer with horror, and why from earliest times it has been anathematized as vigorously as heresy. For destruction of unity is a corruption of truth, and the poison of dissension is as baneful as that of false doctrine” (Catholicism, 77).

Unfortunately, today, there are those who—under the pretext of being ‘traditional’ Catholics—try to rationalize their separation from the hierarchical authority of the Church in the offering of Holy Mass, placing their devotion to one form of the liturgy above the very ecclesial unity that the Eucharist calls for. This error is grave and spiritually dangerous.

Fortunately, there are those with a particular devotion to the Extraordinary Form who have remained faithful to the Church and work within the hierarchical structure. If one wishes to attend the Extraordinary Form, I encourage you to attend only at those places operating within the full communion of the Catholic Church.

Whichever form of the liturgy you attend, recognize that it is the self-same sacrifice of Christ that is offered on the altar and meditate upon the Catholic unity that it both calls for and effects. For, our Lord Jesus Christ is truly present—Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity—in the Eucharist, and our reception of this most august mystery strengthens our unity as one Body, the Church.