The establishment of the feast of Corpus Christi (“Body of Christ,” now called the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ) was the particular achievement of one Belgian woman, St. Juliana of Liege. As is so often the case, the saint, to achieve her purpose, had to suffer much.
Juliana, orphaned at age five, was sent to be raised in the Augustinian monastery of Mount Cornillon. The monastery conducted a hospital, particularly for lepers (of whom there were many in Europe in those unhygienic days). To preserve her from possible infection, the nuns sent her to live on a farm of theirs. Educated here by a Sister Sapientia, she grew up a highly intelligent young woman, feasting on the writings of the great saints shelved in the monastic library. At the same time she became most devoted to the Blessed Sacrament.
When she was 16, Juliana was haunted night and day by the strange appearance of a bright moon with a dark band running across it. At first she feared this was a diabolical illusion. Then our Lord appeared to her in a vision or a dream and explained the symbol. The moon, He said, represented the cycle of feasts in the church calendar. The dark band meant that there was still one important feast missing from the annual calendar: one in honor of the Blessed Sacrament.
Juliana eventually became a nun of Mount Cornillon. For some time she was in no position to do anything about the institution of a Eucharistic feast. However, when elected prioress in 1225, she began to undertake the project, enlisting first the support of two holy women, Bl. Eva, a recluse, and Sister Isabel, one of her nuns. With their encouragement she now asked some church authorities whether such a feast would be appropriate. Several theologians, including James Pantaleon, said that they saw no objections. The clergy of St. Martin’s church, Liege., to which Bl. Eva was attached, even began celebrating such a feast.
Then came the fireworks.
A priest named Roger was installed as prior of the monastery (by bribery, it is said). He immediately launched an attack on Juliana, whose piety he disliked, charging her with embezzlement of the monastery funds and of promoting a devotion “which nobody wanted.” He so stirred up the local citizens that they demanded that the prioress leave town. When the bishop investigated Roger’s charges, he found them groundless, and in 1248 he proclaimed the celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi in the diocese of Liege.
After the bishop died, however, Roger returned, still gunning for Juliana. Exiled with three other sisters, she was finally given shelter by the abbess of Salzinnes at Namur. Then Henry II of Luxembourg laid siege to Namur, and this abbey was burned down. Juliana fled. She escaped to Fosses, where she remained until her death in 1258, living as a recluse in poverty and ill health. Interestingly, she had foretold these various setbacks that had befallen her.
Only after Juliana’s death, thanks to the renewed efforts of Bl. Eva, was the feastday of Corpus Christi accepted by the Latin Rite of the Church. The pope who authorized the festival was none other than James Pantaleon, now Pope Urban IV, who had earlier confirmed Juliana’s inquiry whether such a feast was feasible. Urban commissioned St. Thomas Aquinas to compose the office of the feastday. Aquinas’s beautiful composition included those ever-popular Eucharistic hymns: the “Lauda Sion”, the “Pange Lingua”, the “O Salutaris”, and the “Tantum Ergo.” This feast was long a holy day of obligation.
When miracles were reported in connection with Juliana’s tomb, she came to be venerated as a saint. A local feast in her honor was allowed by Pius IX in 1869, but her feastday has not yet been extended to the whole church.
Thanks to St. Juliana’s reverence for the Holy Eucharist, the dark line on the moon of her vision was eliminated. May we imitate her in our love–and respect–for the real Eucharistic presence of Christ in our tabernacles.
–Father Robert F. McNamara