The festive air surrounding Corpus Christi , the sumptuous decorations adorning churches and lining the streets, and everything else that goes along with the popular devotion expressed on this special solemnity, can distract us from its objective core: the Eucharist, the Body of our Lord, the papal bull Transiturus of Urban IV, the corporal venerated in the cathedral at Orvieto – all these have been scrutinized from a historical point of view, but in recent years there has been insufficient attention to a more rigorous theological discussion and analysis of these themes. A recently published volume attempts to fill this lacuna: Il “Corpus Domini”: Teologia, antropologia e politica, edited by Laura Andreani and Agostino Paravicini Bagliani.
A simple glance at the book’s contents gives us an idea of the enormous range of research that went into a virtually exhaustive project. Beginning with the extreme care given to the Eucharist, the liturgy, and papal ceremonies in the thirteenth century, the book goes on to examine four general areas of research: a theology rooted in experience, the liturgy, connections with domains outside the area of worship, and various social groups involved in outward expressions of the Eucharistic event.
Sixteen scholars gathered to discuss these areas from the viewpoint of their respective specialties, including theology, anthropology, and politics. Although there is an obvious interest in looking at the Eucharistic liturgical cult itself throughout the year and especially on this feast day, less evident is an interest in the influence the Eucharist has on mysticism, social life, popular belief, historiography, general mindsets, and how all these relate to heretical positions and magical beliefs.
Insofar as this Eucharistic event extends to the life of the whole city, it naturally provokes interest among government officials and those responsible for the civitas. “Civic” religion, in fact, never loses sight of the importance of Corpus Christi, even if only for the fact that the celebration of Corpus Christi involves large civic processions. Princes and bishops, cardinals and artists, confraternities and associations have all left their mark on the origins of this feast as well as on its image in the public mind.
Reading the sixteen chapters of this book, it may come as a surprise – especially given its medieval roots – that it was primarily women who made the jump from Eucharistic piety to the mystical life, beginning from Brabante and extending to Renania and all the way to Umbria – or to the “Brabantine Umbria” – and from there to Bolsena and the miracle of the corporal in Orvieto, thus paving the way for the great age of mysticism we find in figues like Angela da Foligno, Margherita da Cortona, and Chiara da Montefalco between the years of 1247 and 1309.
Women, “who stood on the margins of the ‘religion of the book’, placed adoration of the Body of Christ at the center of their own faith”. Biographies of the time acknowledge that women were excluded from priestly ministry and from physical contact with sacred things, but that they were nonetheless elevated to “become” the altar, the incense, and the sacrificial victim. Angela da Foligno, who experienced both Trinitarian and Eucharistic ecstasies, put it in this way: “Having my heart enthralled with joy and being inside the Trinity – inside that little compartment where the Body of Christ is reserved – I understood that he was in all places, filling every thing with his presence”.
Even today, those who study popular piety, while highlighting various aspects of pilgrimages to famous sanctuaries where miracles and apparitions took place, remind us today that there is no holier place on earth than the tabernacle. Indeed, they teach us that “there are Eucharistic miracles occurring all the time in the modern world, which history will soon or later have to start paying attention to”.
by Fortunato Frezza