It felt a little like a wedding celebration. First the invitation arrived in our mailbox — words typed in a scripted font with an embossed border and stuffed in an oversized envelope. It detailed the events to happen on this special feast day, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Chariton, Iowa. Founded in 1869, Sacred Heart is the home parish of a fellow couple in deacon formation and is also renowned for their Corpus Christi (Latin for “Body of Christ”) procession. The invite also included an RSVP card with an option to request vestments, that’s a fancy word for special Catholic Church clothes. “Be vested and ready to proceed by 2:30 p.m.,” it read.
We arrived in Chariton, a rural community in southern Iowa with a population of 4,295 and a town motto of “Pride in Community,” at 2:45 p.m., fifteen minutes behind schedule. We Schmidts are always a tad late to the party. Lisa immediately noticed the entrance to the church was draped in white tulle, like how one might expect with a wedding. Then she noticed the sidewalks were lined with flower baskets filled with flowing white and red petunias — the colors a purposeful yet subtle symbolism for the body and blood of Jesus. And when we walked into the church, we noticed a white runner lined the aisle. Clearly the parish stepped up for this celebration and the wedding symbolism was impossible to miss.
We’re reminded of a modern day parable. A bride wakes up on the day after her wedding staring at her diamond ring but has forgotten completely about the one who put it on her finger. We’re sometimes like her, no? As Christians, how easy it is to occasionally forget about the person of Christ. The Corpus Christi procession is a remedy for such amnesia. We take to the streets and publicly, proudly proclaim our love for the One who loves us so completely that He gave up his body for us . . . and continues to do so.
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[Joel here.] There was little time to spare. The winding drive through the rolling Iowa countryside had taken a bit longer than expected. When we finally arrived, two of my diaconate classmates, Tom and Eric ushered me into the sacristy. As Eric sized me up for cassock and surplice, I asked, “Okay, what do I need to know?” Eric responded, “You’ll be out front, carrying the crucifix. We’ll be right next to you carrying the candles. We’ll tell you where to go and what to do.”
“Okay, got it.” We were in such a hurry, I didn’t really have time for that to sink in. Everyone who was vested for the procession gathered for quick instructions and a prayer from father, then we were off. As I approached the sanctuary and seized the wooden staff on which the crucifix was mounted, a thought occurred to me. I’ve never done this before. Ever.
The thing is, I’m a convert. I didn’t grow up as an altar server. This assignment, which might have been somewhat passé, if not a bit nostalgic for a cradle Catholic, was a big deal for me. I sort of felt like that ten-year-old first-time altar server who FINALLY gets the honor of doing what he’s spent years watching the other kids do. Now it was my turn.
Suddenly all this novelty was blunted by a bit of déjà vu. My thoughts quickly turned to my beloved father-in-law Lenny who passed away a few years ago. Like me, he was an adult convert to the Catholic Church. In that moment, I was reminded of a conversation we had in which he had intimated the same experience of carrying the crucifix for the first time as an adult, how he was filled with an almost-childlike sense of wonder and awe.
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The story of Corpus Christi begins with St. Juliana of Liège, a Belgian Augustinian nun. She is said to have had dreams of a full moon with a small smudge or dark spot signifying the absence of the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. Juliana petitioned Jacques Pantaléon, Archdeacon of the Cathedral of Liège, and the bishop, Robert de Thorete to institute this feast. At the time, bishops could institute feasts in their diocese. In 1246, Bishop Robert convened a synod and ordered a celebration of Corpus Christi to be held each year thereafter. In 1261, eight years after St. Juliana’s death, Jacques Pantaléon became Pope Urban IV.
Because of his love of the Feast and desire to extend it to the universal Church, Urban commissioned two great theologians of the day from the University of Paris, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, to compose the Office and Mass of the Feast of Corpus Christi. Urban issued Transiturus de hoc mundo in 1264, which officially instituted the Solemnity of Corpus Christi throughout the entire Latin Rite.
For centuries, the feast was also celebrated with a Eucharistic procession, in which the Blessed Sacrament was carried throughout the town, accompanied by hymns and litanies. The faithful would venerate the Body of Christ as the procession passed by. In recent years, this practice has almost disappeared. Not so in Chariton, Iowa, where the community of Sacred Heart Parish clearly takes pride in being Catholic.