Sunday, June 06, 2010

Corpus Christi.

Corpus Christi procession in Amsterdam, June 2007 (source).

While admitting at the outset that exactly when Corpus Christi should be celebrated is a point of contention - traditionally observed on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday, it is now typically transferred to the following Sunday - I would like to offer some words on this feast. In particular, I would like to invite your prayerful reflection on one of the most important liturgical texts of the day, the sequence Lauda Sion, which St. Thomas Aquinas composed for Corpus Christi shortly after Pope Urban IV prescribed the celebration of the feast throughout the Latin Church. Meant to be intoned immediately before the proclamation of the Gospel, this sequence has remained a part of the liturgy to this very day, though I suspect that relatively few contemporary Roman Catholics have the opportunity to hear it sung during Mass. With apologies for the great length, here is the text in the original Latin followed by a loose but poetic English translation:

Lauda Sion Salvatórem
Lauda ducem et pastórem
In hymnis et cánticis.

Quantum potes, tantum aude:
Quia major omni laude,
Nec laudáre súfficis.

Laudis thema speciális,
Panis vivus et vitális,
Hódie propónitur.

Quem in sacræ mensa cœnæ,
Turbæ fratrum duodénæ
Datum non ambígitur.

Sit laus plena, sit sonóra,
Sit jucúnda, sit decóra
Mentis jubilátio.

Dies enim solémnis ágitur,
In qua mensæ prima recólitur
Hujus institútio.

In hac mensa novi Regis,
Novum Pascha novæ legis,
Phase vetus términat.

Vetustátem nóvitas,
Umbram fugat véritas,
Noctem lux elíminat.

Quod in cœna Christus gessit,
Faciéndum hoc expréssit
In sui memóriam.

Docti sacris institútis,
Panem, vinum, in salútis
Consecrámus hóstiam.

Dogma datur Christiánis,
Quod in carnem transit panis,
Et vinum in sánguinem.

Quod non capis, quod non vides,
Animósa firmat fides,
Præter rerum ordinem.

Sub divérsis speciébus,
Signis tantum, et non rebus,
Latent res exímiæ.

Caro cibus, sanguis potus:
Manet tamen Christus totus,
Sub utráque spécie.

A suménte non concísus,
Non confráctus, non divísus:
Integer accípitur.

Sumit unus, sumunt mille:
Quantum isti, tantum ille:
Nec sumptus consúmitur.

Sumunt boni, sumunt mali:
Sorte tamen inæquáli,
Vitæ vel intéritus.

Mors est malis, vita bonis:
Vide paris sumptiónis
Quam sit dispar éxitus.

Fracto demum Sacraménto,
Ne vacílles, sed memento,
Tantum esse sub fragménto,
Quantum toto tégitur.

Nulla rei fit scissúra:
Signi tantum fit fractúra:
Qua nec status nec statúra
Signáti minúitur.

Ecce panis Angelórum,
Factus cibus viatórum:
Vere panis fíliórum,
Non mittendus cánibus.

In figúris præsignátur,
Cum Isaac immolátur:
Agnus paschæ deputátur
Datur manna pátribus.

Bone pastor, panis vere,
Jesu, nostri miserére:
Tu nos pasce, nos tuére:
Tu nos bona fac vidére
In terra vivéntium.

Tu, qui cuncta scis et vales:
Qui nos pascis hic mortales:
Tuos ibi commensáles,
Cohærédes et sodales,
Fac sanctórum cívium.
Amen. Allelúja.


Sion, lift thy voice and sing;
Praise thy Savior and thy King;
Praise with hymns thy Shepherd true.

Strive thy best to praise Him well,
Yet doth He all praise excel;
None can ever reach His due.

See today before us laid
The living and life-giving Bread,
Theme for praise and joy profound.

The same which at the sacred board
Was by our Incarnate Lord,
Giv'n to His apostles round.

Let the praise be loud and high;
Sweet and tranquil be the joy
Felt today in every breast;

On this festival divine,
Whih records the origin
Of the glorious Eucharist.

On this table of the King,
Our new paschal offering
Brings to end the olden rite.

Here, for empty shadows fled,
Is reality instead;
Here, instead of darkness, light.

His own act, at supper seated,
Christ ordained to be repeated
In His memory divine;

Wherefore now, with adoration
We the Host of our salvation
Consecrate from bread and wine.

Hear what holy Church maintaineth,
That the bread its substance changeth
Into flesh, the wine to blood.

Doth it pass thy comprehending?
Faith, the law of sight transcending,
Leaps to things not understood.

Here, beneath these signs are hidden
Priceless things, to sense forbidden;
Signs, not things, are all we see:

Flesh from bread, and blood from wine,
Yet it is Christ in either sign
All entire, confessed to be.

They too who of Him partake,
Sever not, or rend, nor break,
But entire their Lord receive.

Whether one or thousands eat,
All receive the selfsame meat,
Nor the less for others leave.

Both the wicked and the good
Eat of this celestial food;
But with ends how opposite!

Here 't is life, and there 't is death,
The same, yet issuing to each,
In a difference infinite.

Nor a single doubt retain,
When they break the host in twain,
But that in each part remain,
What was in the whole before.

Since the simple sign alone
Suffers change in state or form,
The signified remaining one
And the same for evermore.

Lo! upon the altar lies,
Hidden deep from human eyes,
Bread of angels from the skies,
Made the food of mortal man.

Children's meat, to dogs denied:
In old types foresignified:
In the manna heav'n-supplied,
Isaac, and the paschal Lamb.

Jesu! Shepherd of the sheep!
Thou Thy flock in safety keep.
Living Bread! Thy life supply;
Strengthen us, or else we die;
Fill us with celestial grace:

Thou who feedest us below!
Source of all we have or know!
Grant that with Thy saints above,
Sitting at the feast of love,
We may see Thee face to face.
Amen. Alleluia.

If you compare this English rendering of Lauda Sion with a more literal translation, you may see why I chose eloquence over strict accuracy in this instance. For me, verses like "Doth it pass thy comprehending? / Faith, the law of sight transcending, / Leaps to things not understood," have a more pleasing ring than "What you do not understand, / what you do not see, / a lively faith confirms / in a supernatural manner." Then again, a seasoned Latinist might reply that the elegant simplicity of the original text is hard to replicate in any translation. In the end, though, academic questions like these matter little when one considers the message of St. Thomas' text and of the feast for which it was written. In offering us his own body and blood under the appearance of bread and wine, Jesus Christ offers us the very food of salvation - a source of spiritual sustenance which, we hope, will enable us to become companions of the saints and finally "see Thee face to face."

Belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist has been a spiritual stumbling block for many. This should hardly surprise us, particularly given the reaction that Jesus receives in John's Gospel when he tells his listeners in the synagogue at Capernaum that his flesh and blood would be the food of everlasting life. "This is a hard saying," some of the disciples murmur, "who can accept it?" The meaning of the Christ's presence in the Eucharist has long been debated by church leaders and theologians, but it has also been a source of consternation for everyday Christians. I was reminded of this a few years ago when I taught religious education classes to middle-schoolers. The students in my class had all made their First Communion, so I took it for granted that they had already received some basic instruction about the Eucharist. Nevertheless, many expressed a kind of shock when I began to teach them about the Real Presence - for the most part, they weren't so much skeptical or disbelieving as they were unsure about what receiving the body and blood of Christ should mean for them in their own lives. In other words, they were unsure about how the change in the bread and wine offered at Mass was meant to change them as followers of Christ.

Thinking about these matters, I can't help but recall some deeply challenging words that I once heard from the liturgical theologian Father Robert Taft in a talk given last year at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York. Here is a bit of what Father Taft had to say:
. . . the point of liturgy is that we are supposed to become what we celebrate. The purpose of the Eucharist isn’t to change bread and wine into Jesus Christ, it’s to change you and me into Jesus Christ – that’s what it’s all about. We are supposed to become the word of comfort and forgiveness, we are supposed to become the bread of life for the world, we are supposed to become the healing oil – and by 'we,' I don’t mean just the ordained, [but] all Christians. . . .

. . . What we do in church is simply the initiation into, and the feeding, and the restoration, if it’s lost by sin, and the intensification through preaching and the sacraments of what we’re supposed to be. If we don’t become it, we might as well stay in bed on Sunday morning, because what we’re doing is just a comedy.

We who believe that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist that we so regularly (and, perhaps, nonchalantly) receive would do well to reflect on Father Taft's words. As we receive Christ in the form of the "life-giving bread" that promises to "fill us with celestial grace," are we truly open to the transforming change that the Eucharist is intended to bring about in our lives? Are we really willing to "become what we celebrate"? If not, why not? In what ways do we resist being more fully open to the mystery commemorated by the Feast of Corpus Christi? How can we make the effects of our sharing in Christ's body and blood more visible in our day-to-day lives? AMDG.


At 6/07/2010 9:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your reflections on this beautiful feast. I tripped across your blog a while ago and have enjoyed reading it.

I wonder - why do you think that so few churches use Thomas's sequence anymore? I wonder if it is simply rooted in ignorance?

At 6/08/2010 11:35 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thanks for your comments - I don't really know how to explain why the sequences disappeared (not only for Corpus Christi, but for Easter and Pentecost, which also have them) - provision is still made for them in the reformed liturgy, but my impression is that many (or perhaps most) parishes omit them. I don't think I was even aware of their existence until I was in college - my memory on this point could be unreliable, but I doubt that they were ever done in my home parish when I was growing up (or if they were, I don't think their use was explained in such a way that I understood what they were and why they were done).

I think it would be a good thing if the sequences were done more universally, both because of their catechetical value (they teach a lot about the feasts, and about Catholic belief) and because they're simply beautiful texts. Of course, some explanation might be necessary - if I were preaching on Corpus Christi, I would certainly devote part of my homily to the sequence, explaining both WHY it exists (because the fact that it exists shows how important the feast is) and how it helps us come to a better understanding of the feast and of our faith in general.

The way that the sequences are incorporated into the liturgy makes a difference. There are various hymn settings of them, some of which only loosely paraphrase the original texts. I think it's a bad idea to use the hymns in place of the actual sequences themselves - I would rather hear the sequence chanted in plainsong (by choir, cantor or celebrant) than hear a hymn based on it, partly because using a hymn could make the importance of the sequence less evident to the congregation (they could think it's just another song, and wonder why it's been stuck in an odd place in the liturgy) and partly because the originals are frankly much better. Listening to the sequence on Pentecost or Corpus Christi should be as memorable and moving as listening to the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil - which is why the sequences should be recited in a manner similar to that of the Exsultet and not replaced by forgettable modern hymns.

At 6/08/2010 3:34 PM, Blogger Joseph Fromm said...

Fantastic piece!
Thank you



At 6/08/2010 10:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response. Your thought that the original sequences should be used rather than "forgettable" based-in-the-sequences hymns makes good sense to me. I have become increasingly more convinced that a lot of the tension between various liturgical "sects" in the Church is caused by the fact that things like the Corpus Christi, Easter, and Pentecost sequences have been left out of the "new" liturgies when they really should be retained (and cherished!), or have been replaced by cheap imitations.

As a convert, I used to be pretty unconcerned with and unaware of the deep discomfort and (at times) resentment that many older catholics or catholics whose families are more traditional have regarding post-Vatican II liturgy. However, I am currently working with many people who fit that description, and it has been a real struggle for me to be able to simultaneously respect their concerns and insecurities and also affirm the validity of and need for the council. I guess that's why the question of these sequences hits home to me. Thanks again for taking the time to share your knowledge of this beautiful part of our church.

At 6/09/2010 5:08 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thanks for the follow-up comments - I can appreciate the challenges involved in negotiating the tensions that you describe. I don't expect these conflicts to go away anytime soon, but I do think that a lot of them are rooted in particular generational experiences. Many Catholics who lived through the period of Vatican II have strong feelings that are rooted in their own past - some feel a sense of pain at the loss of old traditions, while some who welcomed the changes of that era now have their own fears about what they see as the unrealized vision of the Council or as a loss of its spirit within the Church. In my experience, younger Catholics with no memory of those years tend to take a different perspective - they lack the historical 'baggage' of their parents and grandparents who lived through the conciliar period, which offers the possibility of a more detached perspective on questions about the legacy of the Second Vatican Council. I don't know what this generational shift portends, but I do think that we'll be talking about these issues differently in ten or twenty years than the way we talk about them now.

At 6/12/2010 10:58 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Joe, Your observation about the newer generation(s) who are gradually replacing older ones and thus the fact that these issues will be understood, felt, and viewed differently in the not-so-distant future seems dead on. The difference between having that personal memory of the pre-Vatican II days and lacking such memory is really decisive (regardless of whether that memory is more positive or more negative). Still, I'm equally curious to know how the "tendencies" or even "sects" that we can identify, even in the younger generations, will shape the future understanding and performance of liturgy. Despite the welcome absence of historical "baggage," younger Catholics are still going to have certain cleavages like left-leaning and right-leaning, pro-traditionalist and pro-"modernist" (which I don't claim is a single united philosophy but could be alternatively more ecumenical, more aesthetically abstract, etc. etc.)...As much as it pains us all to see the Church in division, certain splits do occur, but hopefully they will not be severe.

Another point for reflection is how non-Catholic discourse will affect, if at all, Catholic thought and practice. Certainly non-Catholic journalists and scholars of religion will continue to make normative and empirical judgments on liturgy, tradition, and the role and value of pre-Vatican II practices. While, as with Catholics, some of the baggage will fade in future decades, we see often enough the kneejerk reaction -- at least among the current generation of journalists and scholars -- elicited by echoes of the Latin Mass (even if done in the post-Vatican II liturgy!) and anything pre-Vatican II...

At 6/16/2010 7:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seeing dpr1982's comment, I feel that I should clarify -

Among the co-workers I mentioned, the one who is most sensitive about and resistant to V II is only 22-years old! (My own age.) The others are all younger than 50. So although I am hopeful that some of this historical baggage will be let go in coming years, I am concerned about those members of the flock who grew up after V II but still can't seem to let it go. I can think of quite a few people I've known, actually, who are in their twenties and are angry at the less prominent role Latin has in the Church. (Many of these people I knew while a student at Franciscan University.) My primary concern is how and if they can be reached as they nearly seem to think that V II was a concession to postmodern culture or protestantism.

At 6/16/2010 12:07 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...

Emily (and, indirectly, David),

Thanks for the clarification - the point you raise is a very important one, particularly as the interactions you describe seem to mirror larger trends in the Church. My impression (based on personal experience as well as reading and conversations with others) is that a lot of Gen X/Y and millennial Catholics are more traditional in their attitudes and that many adopt a questioning or skeptical stance toward aspects of the Second Vatican Council (or at least toward Vatican II as it is commonly understood - whether or not this is the right way to interpret the Council is another question, and a contentious one at that).

I still think that the question of historical experience matters a lot here. Young Catholics who are skeptical of Vatican II are unlike older Catholics who were unhappy with the changes, once again because of a critical difference in historical experience. Because they didn't live through the Council, young Catholics are capable of analyzing, appropriating, criticizing (and even deconstructing) it in a more detached way - in contrast with Catholics who lived through the Council, they don't think of Vatican II as that big of a deal, partly because they either take it for granted (it's always been part of the Church as they've known it) or because they contextualize it differently (as just one among many councils in the history of the Church).

One thing that strikes me about some contemporary debates on the legacy of Vatican II is the kind of role reversal that seems to have occurred in Catholic polemics. Older Catholics devoted to keeping the spirit of the Council alive in the Church can sometimes come across as conservative defenders of an old status quo, while younger Catholics who are skeptical of the Council's legacy can take the role of the insurgent reformers.

My hope is that with time we will be able to come to a balanced appreciation of the role of Vatican II and its place in the history and tradition of the Church, but I suspect it will take us a while to get there. When we do get there, though, my hope is that we'll be able to move beyond some of the polemics and black-and-white reductionism that we see a lot of today.


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