What the Cathedral of Orvieto teaches us about Corpus et Sanguis Christi

It should be no wonder to us that a great number of magnificent churches and cathedrals are dedicated to Our Lady. In these sacred buildings, the motherhood of the Blessed Virgin and the holy Catholic Church naturally merge into one for us. But just as it was most fitting for the Blessed Virgin to carry the Word Incarnate in her womb, it is also most fitting for Mary, as the Church, to offer a dwelling place – in the safety within her walls – for Our Lord, truly present in the Sacrament of the altar. The Cathedral of Orvieto, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, was in fact built for this purpose – to provide a suitable home for the corporal of Bolsena that was miraculously adorned with the most Precious Blood of Our Lord. 

The Corporal of Bolsena

In 1263 a German priest, Fr Peter of Prague, on a pilgrimage to Rome stopped at the town of Bolsena, situated north of the Eternal City. He was apparently afflicted with doubt about the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist. He struggled to believe that at the words of consecration the bread and wine really became the Body and Blood of Our Saviour. He, of course, knew well what the Church taught and also that the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 had solemnly re-affirmed the doctrine of the Church by using the word “transubstantiation”. Yet, Fr Peter had difficulty with believing and he prayed that God would increase his faith.

While in Bolsena, he offered Mass at the church of St Christina. As soon as he had said the words of consecration, the host began to bleed. Blood dripped onto the corporal and on the altar. Fr Peter stopped the Mass and asked to be taken to see Pope Urban IV who was residing at the neighbouring town of Orvieto. The great theologians St Bonaventure and St Thomas were also there at the time. Pope Urban, having heard Fr Peter’s account of what had happened, ordered a full investigation. After all the facts had been ascertained, the Holy Father declared that a miracle had occurred. 

The Eucharistic miracle also related to the visions of St Juliana of Liège, Belgium (1193-1258). St Juliana, a Norbertine nun and mystic, had a series of visions in which she was instructed by Our Lord to work to establish a liturgical feast for the Holy Eucharist, to which she had a great devotion.

In 1246, after many years of trying, she finally convinced some eminent theologians in Liège, including Jacques Pantaleon of Troyes, the archdeacon of Liège at the time and the future Pope Urban IV, that a special feast in honour of the Blessed Sacrament should be created. 

A year after the Eucharistic miracle in Bolsena, in 1264, Pope Urban instituted the feast of Corpus Christi for the Universal Church to honour the great gift of the Blessed Sacrament. He commissioned St Thomas Aquinas to compose a special Mass and Office for the feast. This is when St Thomas composed the beloved Eucharistic hymns Panis Angelicus, Pange Lingua, O Salutaris Hostia and Tantum Ergo. The works to erect the great cathedral of Orvieto, a worthy dwelling place for the relics of the miracle, were begun and the cornerstone of the cathedral was laid in 1290. The corporal with the Precious Blood as well as fragments of the miraculous host are kept there to this day. 

As is so often the case, science confirms what we know by faith. The notice boards in the cathedral inform us that examinations in the ultraviolet fluorescence light of the linen cloth, measuring 48x50cm (that is stitched on to a cloth of ivory satin, which is in turn nailed along its edges on a wooden tablet) reveal the presence of blood separated into plasma and serum. Further notes remind to us that according to St John’s Gospel, blood (plasma) and water (serum) sprung forth from the wound that pierced the side of Our Lord when He died on the Cross for our sins.

The beautiful cathedral and her treasures are most certainly worth a visit, whenever one is in a position to go. However, it is not only the extraordinary remnants of uplifting beauty and devotion of the middle ages that we find on that visit. Above all, we are truly reminded in the chapel with the blood-stained corporal that a drop of this dried Blood is more important for our life and eternal health than all the blood running in our veins. 

Corpus Christi 

The feast of Corpus Christi, instituted in response to these marvellous events, remains as one of the most public and proud expressions of Catholic worship today. The Blessed Sacrament carried in a solemn procession through the public streets proclaims to the world Who is enthroned in our hearts and Who is the true King of Heaven and earth. 

Corpus Christi beautifully complements what we celebrate on Holy Thursday nine weeks earlier, when Our Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist the day before He died. In His Sacrifice on Calvary, He died for each one of us once and for all. In His Real Presence in the Sacrament of the altar, He gives us an opportunity to live for Him now and forever.

“He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood abideth in me: and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me.” (Jn 6:54-56) 

The Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist helps us to grasp the meaning of “forever” to the highest degree possible in our earthly life. In the Holy Eucharist, Our Lord lives permanently with us as He lived with our ancestors of past ages and will live with all generations that come after us until the end of the world. In the Holy Eucharist Our Lord has invited us to the most intimate and secure union with Him – not only on the feast day or on Sundays but all days, forever: “He that eateth this bread shall live for ever.” (Jn 6:58) 

Therefore, Our Lord has wished to be the food that also unites us to all saints in Heaven. The Council of Trent teaches that the “same Heavenly Bread that we eat now under the sacred veils, we shall feed upon in heaven without veil.” In the Third Nocturn of Corpus Christi, we find the words of St Augustine: 

“there is the Communion of Saints, where peace and perfect unity are found; therefore Our Lord is leaving us His Body and Blood, chosen for this purpose substances, the unity of which, is composed of several parts, one single loaf made of many grains of wheat; one kind of wine formed from juice mixed with many grapes.”

To quicken our gratitude for the great Sacrament, let us often consider what the Carmelite author Fr Gabriel of St Mary Magdalen wrote in his Divine Intimacy:

“The solemnity of Corpus Domini is not just the simple memorial of a historical event which took place almost two thousand years ago at the Last Supper; rather, it recalls us to the ever-present reality of Jesus always living in our midst. We can say, in truth, that He has not ‘left us orphans’, but has willed to remain permanently with us, in the integrity of His Person, in the fullness of His humanity and His divinity. ‘There is no other nation so great,’ the Divine Office enthusiastically sings, ‘as to have its gods so near as our God is present to us.’(Roman Breviary)”

Catholics truly possess the treasure that surpasses all treasures, for in the Holy Eucharist we have God Himself. Our wealth does not require any ordinary locks or guards. Our treasure is best safeguarded by our Blessed Mother, the Church. Let us always seek her help to approach worthily Our Lord, since her Immaculate Heart alone can teach us how to love and honour Him well. 

“O Lord, my God, my Creator and my Redeemer, I do desire to receive Thee this day, with such affection, reverence, praise and honour, with such gratitude, worthiness and love, with such faith, hope and purity, as Thy most holy Mother, the glorious Virgin Mary, received and desired Thee, when to the Angel who declared unto her glad tidings of the mystery of the Incarnation, she humbly and devoutly answered, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to Thy word.” (Of the imitation of Christ, chapter XVII)