It’s taken nearly four decades, but officials at the Vatican have finally come back to their senses, at least on one issue: the papal Mass and procession on the Feast of Corpus Christi, officially called the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.
It may seem a no-brainer, but they have actually decided that Pope Francis will celebrate it the very day that his diocese and the rest of Italy (with few exceptions) celebrate it—the Sunday after Trinity Sunday (June 18). And he’ll do at his Cathedral Basilica of St. John Lateran.
“Really, now?” you say with feigned astonishment. “What is so remarkable about that?”
Well, since 1982 the Bishop of Rome has not been celebrating Corpus Domini, as the Italians call it, on the actual day of the solemnity. He’s been celebrating it three days earlier. And, of course, it all has to do with a stubborn adherence to “small-t” tradition, something that should more properly be called “custom.”
Here’s the background. When the Feast of Corpus Christi was introduced in the Middle Ages, the date for its celebration was fixed for the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. That was to make clear its connection to the Last Supper, which is marked on Holy Thursday.
In Catholic countries in Europe and some other places around the world, the festival was also a public holiday. But as states began eliminating this and other church feasts from the official civic calendar, national bishops’ conferences began transferring these celebrations that were always held on weekdays to the nearest Sunday.
The Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI) did so with a decree on March 5, 1977. Naturally, as in other countries, not all Catholics in Italy were happy. But the rationale behind the change was that it would allow more people—specifically those who work on Thursdays—to participate in the Corpus Christi liturgy and procession by moving it to Sunday, a public holiday.
Self-defined traditionalists and others with short memories are under the illusion that the Vatican never accepted the change. But, actually, that is not the case.
On June 12, 1977—just a few months after the CEI decree—Paul VI became the first pope ever to celebrate Corpus Christi on Sunday.