By Ella Johnson
The three-year “Eucharistic Revival,” called for by the bishops of the United States, will begin on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), which falls on June 19 this year. Our diocese will open the revival on this day with a celebration of the eucharistic liturgy at Sacred Heart Cathedral, followed by a procession to St. Anthony Church in Davenport.
What exactly is a eucharistic procession? We can consider this question, following retired Pope Benedict XVI’s consideration of the Eucharist in Sacramentum Caritatis as a mystery to be celebrated, believed, and lived, in particular: What does this celebration entail? What does it say about what we believe? What is being lived?
(i.e., Why will we be doing it?)
What does this celebration entail?
The ritual book “Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass” describes a procession as a ritual, typically following Mass, in which a eucharistic host from that Mass is placed in a monstrance and “carried through the streets in a solemn procession with singing.” The procession takes place the day of or another day connected to the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. The Eucharist is to be carried from one church to another, usually under a canopy by a priest, who is vested in a white cope, and accompanied by lit candles and incense. The rite also encourages “stations where the Eucharistic blessing is given” and a conclusion with benediction (103-108).
What does it say about what we believe?
Theologically, eucharistic processions have their origin in the ancient practice of reserving Communion for the sick, as well as the development of greater emphasis on the “real presence” of Christ in the eucharistic species, particularly from the ninth to the 11th centuries. Eucharistic devotions, like benediction and adoration, developed after the Fourth Lateran Council’s definition of the doctrine of transubstantiation in 1215. Processions and the feast of Corpus Christi, in particular, were inspired by St. Juliana, a young Belgian nun in the 13th century, who suggested a feast and a procession to her bishop to celebrate and promote belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The feast and customary procession was approved by her diocese in 1246 and extended to the universal Church by Pope Urban IV in 1264.
The feast and its procession were “born for the very precise purpose of openly reaffirming the faith of the people of God in Jesus Christ, alive and truly present in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist,” retired Pope Benedict XVI noted in a homily in 2007. As with other forms of eucharistic devotion, processions are not to be seen as in competition with the Mass. “Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass” states accordingly, “It is fitting that a Eucharistic procession begin after the Mass in which the host to be carried in the procession has been consecrated” (103).
Why will we be doing it?
Processions publicly proclaim that we believe that the Eucharist is food for the journey, nourishing us in our pilgrimage to our eternal home. As Pope John Paul II stated in a 1996 Corpus Christi homily, processions witness a belief that God, who is present now with us in the Eucharist, is the same God who led the people of Israel through the wilderness to the promised land. This same God will continue to lead the Church and us all to the New Jerusalem by providing us food for the journey.
When we process, we remember and witness to the world around us our belief that life is a journey, a pilgrimage, a procession. Processions are symbolic as well as ceremonial. We process with the eucharistic body of Christ, which should lead us to the most vulnerable members of the mystical body of Christ. Like pro-life, anti-death penalty, anti-racist and peace rallies and marches, eucharistic processions should lead us to the margins of society — to serve and provide food for those most outcast, suffering and hungry.
Accordingly, in a homily last year on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, Pope Francis said that the eucharistic procession reminds us “that we are called to go out and bring Jesus to others.” He encouraged everyone to “go out” with enthusiasm, “bringing Christ to those we meet in our daily lives,” so that the Church may become a “large and welcoming room where everyone can enter and meet the Lord.”
Walking through the city streets of Davenport with the Eucharist this June provides us with a great opportunity to remember and to witness the real presence of God: in the Eucharist, in the world and in every individual, particularly those most marginalized. It allows us to celebrate how God became human to be with us — not just within the walls of a church, but everywhere — radically and fully to guide us along the Way.
(Ella Johnson, PhD, is an associate professor in the theology department of St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)