The origin of Corpus Christi processions in Central Europe

Some considerations on the liturgical feast and processions of Corpus Christi, from a Central European perspective.

José M. García Pelegrín-June 19, 2022-Reading time: 4 minutes

Photo: boat procession on Lake Traunsee, Upper Austria. © Brainpark, TVB Traunsee-Almtal

Liège, 1209. An Augustinian nun of the convent of Mont-Cornillon, located in this city of French-speaking Belgium, 16 years old, later known as Saint Julienne de Liège (or de Cornillon), has a vision during a Eucharistic adoration: a dark stripe crosses the moon in full splendor; Julienne understands that the moon signifies the life of the Church on earth; the dark stripe, the absence of a liturgical feast dedicated to Corpus Christi.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the feast of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist The celebration of the feast began in Liège, in the basilica of St. Martin. In 1247, once the bishop of this city, Robert de Thourotte, welcomed Julienne's proposal, after transmitting to her this vision that had been kept secret for decades.

However, in the development of Eucharistic doctrine - and, consequently, of Eucharistic devotion - the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, convoked by Pope Innocent III, played a very important role; it was the main council of the Middle Ages and, together with the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the most important in the field of the sacraments.

Extension of devotion

For the extension of the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ to the universal Church, a Eucharistic miracle occurred in 1263 in Bolsena (Italy). According to tradition, while a priest was celebrating Mass, blood flowed from the consecrated Host. The spread of this miracle led Pope Urban IV (1261-1264), who had previously been archdeacon in Liege, to institute the "Feast of the Body of Christ" (in Latin, festum corporis Christi, festum corpus domini) through the encyclical Transiturus de hoc mundopromulgated on August 11, 1264.

In this encyclical, Urban IV ordered: "That every year, therefore, a special and solemn feast of so great a sacrament be celebrated, in addition to the daily commemoration which the Church makes of it, and We establish a fixed day for it, the first Thursday after the octave of Pentecost. We also establish that on the same day devout crowds of the faithful shall assemble for this purpose in the churches, with generosity of affection, and all the clergy, and the people, joyfully sing songs of praise, that lips and hearts may be filled with holy joy; Let faith sing, hope tremble, charity exult; let devotion throb, let purity exult; let hearts be sincere; let all be united with diligent spirit and prompt will, busy in preparing and celebrating this feast". 

The role of Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) had participated very actively in the elaboration of the encyclical. He was also commissioned to prepare the texts for the Office and Mass proper of the day, which includes hymns y sequencesas Pange Lingua, Lauda Sion, Panis angelicus y Adoro te devote.

Very soon processions with the Blessed Sacrament began to be organized; in 1273 it was celebrated in Benediktbeuren, in Bavaria; in Cologne the first Corpus Christi procession was held for the first time in 1274; it is still celebrated today, with one of the most numerous participations in Central Europe. The norms for regulating the procession were established by Clement V at the Council of Vienne in 1311. In Rome, the first procession, presided over by Pope Nicholas V, dates back to 1447.

Luther's rejection

While Luther, in 1530, showed a strong rejection of Corpus Christi: "there is no other feast of which he is more inimical, for it is the most ignominious feast. In no other feast is God and his Christ more blasphemed; it is a disgrace to the Blessed Sacrament, because it is only used as a spectacle and for vain idolatry", the Council of Trent declares: "Very piously and religiously was introduced in the Church of God the custom that every year, on a certain feast day, this exalted and venerable sacrament is celebrated with singular veneration and solemnity; and reverently and honorably it is carried in procession through the streets and public places".

Just as these statements of the Council of Trent can be seen as a reaction to the Protestant Reformation - not for nothing is there talk of "Counter-Reformation" - so too as a response to the criticisms of the Enlightenment and to the Prussian policy of the Kulturkampf ("cultural combat") against the Catholics, in the 19th century new Corpus Christi processions arose, such as the "Great Procession" in Münster or in Spandau - at that time still an independent city; since 1920 it has been part of "Greater Berlin" - which attracted large numbers of Catholics from the Prussian capital, although the Protestant population called it a "great procession". provocation by the Catholic minority.

During National Socialism, the Corpus Christi procession is seen as a manifestation of faith that expresses the rejection of the Nazi pagan worldview; it is not surprising that, from 1936 onwards, the Nazis forbid the mass participation of schools in Cologne.

Processions today

Today, the Corpus Christi procession is considered to be the greatest manifestation of faith, not only in cities with a Catholic majority, but also precisely where, as in Berlin, the Catholic population does not even reach ten percent. Although it is a working day in the German capital - as in nine other nine of the 16 federal states - the procession traditionally takes place on Thursday evening in the city center, while a good number of Berlin parishes organize processions on the following Sunday.

In addition to the conventional -In Austria and Germany, for example, there is a tradition of boat processions in Austria and Germany, including that of Sipplingen on Lake Constance, with a floral carpet 800 meters long. For example, on Lake Traunsee in Upper Austria, the procession starts at the church in Traunstein and heads out onto the lake, where a boat with a particularly rich canopy transports the Blessed Sacrament, accompanied by other boats, to the various stations of the procession. This tradition has existed since 1632.

Other ancient processions

And since 1623 another procession has been held on a nearby lake, the Hallstatt Lake. Not quite as old, dating back to 1935, is the procession on Lake Staffelsee in Bavaria. Here, however, the procession does not only cross the lake, but goes from Seehausen to the island of Wörth, where the roots of the Seehausen parish are located.

In Cologne there is a long-standing tradition of a river procession, the so-called Mülheimer Gottestracht The procession is held in Mülheim, the most populous district of Cologne. The boat procession on the Rhine probably dates back to the 14th century.

After a two-year hiatus due to the Covid pandemic, this year the traditional processions were held again, both the conventional ones and the ones that take place by boat.

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