Once upon a time, long ago (in the 13th century, in fact), there was a Belgian nun, of the Order of Cistercians, named Juliana. A particularly devout and mystical woman, she was granted a vision by Our Lord in which He spoke to her of His desire to see His Sacramental Body honored in a feast. She reported the vision to her bishop, who recognized the virtue of her story, and the feast was initiated on a local level.
Then, shortly after Juliana died in 1258, a priest from her diocese became Pope Urban IV. It is perhaps not surprising that Urban continued and expanded on the new feast in particular honor of the Body of Christ, but it is quite surprising whom he ordered to write the liturgy for this feast: a Dominican friar named Thomas Aquinas.
It’s not that the Dominicans weren’t qualified for this work. Quite the contrary! Since the days of St. Dominic himself, the order had exercised particular devotion to the Holy Eucharist.
The amazing thing is that Aquinas was — well, he was a theologian, not a poet/liturgist. He was a prolific writer, the author of the Summa Theologica (which he was working on at the time Urban ordered him to write the Corpus Christi Office), the Summa Contra Gentiles, the Catena Aurea… brilliant theological works but, can we say, definitely prose? To re-appropriate Lucy Maud Montgomery’s words, a “very prosy prose”. Jesuit scholar Martin D’Arcy is quoted as calling it “dull, good jog-trot prose.” Trust me: I had to read excerpts of the Summa Theologica as an undergraduate! Denser than cheesecake, the man is brilliant, but a hard read. The liturgy, in startling contrast, is poetry — how could Urban have expected Aquinas to reach so far beyond his normal writing style to compose an entire Mass and Office for the Church?
The hand of God must surely have been upon Aquinas, for the Office of Corpus Christi is one of the most perfect works of liturgy ever composed. As a literature teacher, I will even “pull a secular” and say that it is one of the most exquisite works of literature ever composed. Written in Latin, translated in the 19th and 20th centuries by some of the most wonderful scholars and poets of the English language, these hymns are timeless and powerful — of great meditative value to the non-Catholic meditating upon Christ’s salvific work on the Cross as well as to the Catholic worshipping Christ in the Eucharist.
I’ll be copying the words to these hymns, above. I pray they become a basis for meditation and worship for you, my friends, this week.