Today we celebrate the Sunday within the Octave of Corpus Christi, so we are still concentrating on the great Sacrament of the Body of Christ, which is our heavenly food in the form of bread, and which gives life to those who receive it in faith. We also call to mind that it is the Sacrament of unity, binding us together in close spiritual union with Christ, and with one another as true brothers and sisters, who are to love one another as Christ loves us. This must not remain merely an idea or an ideal, but must be love in action, love here and now, love for each and every one.
The Feast of Corpus Christi was established as a result of the influence of Blessed Juliana of Cornillon, who, in the year 1208, had a vision concerning the incompleteness of the liturgical year. In the year 1264 the feast began to be celebrated throughout the entire western Church, by order of Pope Urban IV.
New feasts must have prayers and texts chosen or composed for their celebration. In this case, two great theologians, St. Bonaventure of the Franciscan Friars, and St. Thomas Aquinas of the Dominican Order, were asked to present texts for the feast. We will never know what St. Bonaventure prepared, because, it is said, when he saw those prepared by St. Thomas, he was so overcome with admiration that he tore up his own.
St. Thomas is best known for his great theological work, the Summa Theologica. Those who read, or try to read the Summa, might find it hard to believe that the same man was also capable of rising to the heights of sublime religious poetry. His hymns are a miracle of inspiration, surely written under the influence of the Holy Ghost.
The sequence for the Mass alone has twenty-four verses, the first of which begins:
"Lauda, Sion, Salvatorem, lauda ducem et pastorem, in hymnis et canticis"
"Sion, lift thy voice and sing; praise thy Savior and thy King; praise with hymns thy Shepherd true."
The sequence is sung to a beautiful Gregorian chant, but some verses have been put to other musical settings, as some may recognize, for instance, the verses beginning with the twenty-first:
"Ecce panis Angelorum, factus cibus viatorum…"
St. Thomas composed hymns and texts for the Divine Office as well as for the Mass. The Vespers Hymn is among the best known of all Catholic hymns:
"Pange, lingua, gloriosi Corporis mysterium…"
"Sing, my tongue, the Savior's glory, Of His flesh the mystery sing…"
The last two verses of the Vespers hymn are always sung for Benediction:
"Tantum ergo Sacramentum veneremur cernui…"
"Down in adoration falling, Lo! The sacred Host we hail."
The hymn for the office of Matins contains a surprise. It begins with the verse:
"Sacris solemniis iuncta sint gaudia…"
"At this our solemn feast, let holy joys abound…,"
These words have been given musical settings other than the Gregorian. But it is the sixth and seventh verses which are famous even in the concert halls of the world:
"Panis Angelicus fit panis hominum…"
"The bread of Angels is made the bread of man…"
When sung at Mass or Benediction it is most familiar set to a melody by Lambilotte. Sung to a setting by Cesar Frank, it is sung and usually recorded by the great tenors like Pavarotti and Domingo at some point in their careers.
The hymn for Lauds contains another surprise:
"Verbum supernum prodiens…," it begins,
"The heavenly Word, proceeding forth…"
But the fifth verse sounds a more familiar note:
"O salutaris hostia, Quae caeli pandis ostium…"
"O saving Victim, opening wide the gate of Heaven…"
This is, of course, the other hymn which is usually sung at Benediction.
As the feast ends, we note that the antiphon for the Magnificat at Second Vespers has also been set to music by the great masters:
"O Sacrum convivium, in quo Christus sumitur; recolitur memoria passionis eius; mens impletur gratia; et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur, alleluia."
"O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received; the memory of His Passion is recalled; the mind is filled with grace; and there is given to us a pledge of future glory, alleluia."
These are some of the most beautiful, inspired words which have provided an abundance of inspiration for many generations of wayfarers here below. †