Monstrance on the Altar

Image: Marge Fenelon

If you’ve ever been to Eucharistic Benediction or attended holy Mass on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, chances are you’ve heard a hymn written by St. Thomas Aquinas. That’s because he was commissioned by Pope Urban IV to compose the Mass and Office for the feast of Corpus Christi. The four hymns he wrote, Pange Lingua, Tantum Ergo, Panis Angelicus, and O Salutaris Hostia have become standard choices for such Eucharistic celebrations.

The Solemnity of Corpus Christi, celebrated on the Thursday following the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity (and observed on Sunday, June 14 in the United States) honors the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The feast originated in the Middle Ages with a visionary nun and a Eucharistic miracle.

In 1263, a German priest named Fr. Peter Prague went on a pilgrimage to Rome. On his way, he stopped in Bolsena, Italy, where he celebrated Mass at the Church of St. Christina. Sadly, Fr. Prague was experiencing doubts about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. A growing debate had sprung up among theologians of the time as to the Body and Blood of Christ being truly present in the bread and wine and this debate affected Fr. Prague’s own belief. As the spoke the prayer of consecration of the Mass, blood started seeping from the consecrated Host and onto the altar and corporal. The stunned priest reported this event to Pope Urban IV who at the time was in nearby Orvieto. The Holy Father sent delegates to investigate and ordered the miraculously blood-stained host and corporal to be brought to Orvieto where he had them placed in a reliquary in the Cathedral of Orvieto. They remain there to the present day, displayed for the veneration of the faithful.

This Eucharistic miracle confirmed the visions of St. Juliana of Mont Cornillon in Belgium (1193-1258). This nun and mystic had a series of visions during which our Lord instructed her to establish a feast for the Holy Eucharist. After many years of trying, St. Juliana was finally able to convince the bishop – the future Poe Urban IV – to create the feast of Corpus Christi in honor of the Blessed Sacrament.  No such feast had existed before this and shortly after the holy nun’s death, Pope Urban IV instituted the Solemnity of Corpus Christi for the Universal Church. It was celebrated for the first time in 1264 in Orvieto.

Inspired by the miracle, Pope Urban IV commissioned a learned Dominican Friar named Thomas Aquinas to compose the Mass and Office for the newly instituted feast of Corpus Christi. Aquinas answered the pope’s request by composing four beautiful works in honor of the Holy Eucharist that have become cherished hymns throughout the centuries: Pange LinguaTantum ErgoPanis Angelicus, and O Salutaris Hostia. The Church sings them on the feast of Corpus Christi as well as throughout the year during Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. 



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