Corpus Christi, Strong at 740; Fairy Tale Weddings

Eucharist Procession Is One of John Paul II’s Roman Legacies

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By Elizabeth Lev June is the month of contradictions in Rome. Perhaps it is because June is the month of the Gemini, the twins, and the city founded by twins feels her dual nature most keenly.

Riotous and relaxed, as the high tourist season starts at the same time the schools let out, busy and lazy as some scurry to tie up loose ends while others slip off for the first days on the beach. Wind and rain even while the hot sun shines. Even in the market, the green and white of the winter produce linger as the first flashes of summer color arrive with the peaches and melons.

But in one respect Rome is wholeheartedly single-minded. The atmosphere of jubilant celebration. Whether it be the secular face of the city crowding 250,000 spectators into the Circus Maximus for a concert by Sting, or the Catholic face of the city, filling the Pantheon to the bursting point on Pentecost Sunday to see the rose petals dropped through the oculus, a round hole at the pinnacle of the dome, the city shrugs off the inertia of winter and gives herself completely to the celebrations at hand.

On one of the longest days of the year, in the golden twilight so characteristic of Rome, thousands gathered along the crest of the Esquiline Hill to participate in the 740th celebration of Corpus Christi. Carrying on a tradition he began many years ago as archbishop of Krakow, Pope John Paul II accompanied the Blessed Sacrament in an hour-long procession along the Via Merulana from the basilica of St. John Lateran, to that of St. Mary Major.

The establishment of this feast is traditionally attributed to the Miracle of Bolsena which recounts how in 1263, Peter of Prague, a German priest doubted the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. During a pilgrimage to Rome, he stopped to say Mass on the altar of St. Christina in Bolsena and as he spoke the words of consecration, the Host began to drip blood onto his hands, the corporal and the altar.

The priest then went to the nearby city of Orvieto, where Pope Urban IV was residing, and brought him the relics of the miracle. The bloodstained corporal is still on display in the cathedral of that city.

On Sept. 8, 1264, Urban IV issued the papal bull «Transiturus» establishing the feast of Corpus Domini. The date was set on the first Thursday after Pentecost to remind the faithful of the institution of the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday, without diminishing the solemnity of the Lord’s Last Supper through festivities.

While the Miracle of Bolsena remains the best-known story regarding the foundation of Corpus Christi, the papal bull of Urban IV makes no mention of it. Part of the lasting fame of this account perhaps has to do with Raphael’s magnificent fresco in the papal apartments of Julius II.

The lesser-known story attributes the origins of this feast to an Augustinian nun, St. Juliana of Mont Cornillon. Born in 1206, her great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament led to her vision of a special feast in its honor. She persuaded the bishop of Liege, Robert de Thorete and his archdeacon, Jacques Panaleon, who later became Pope Urban IV.

The feast was extended to the universal Church in 1311, and was celebrated in many towns and villages throughout Europe with processions from the mid-1300s. When the popes returned to Rome from Avignon, the processions were endowed with indulgences.

As Rome has loved processions since antiquity and the time of the triumphs of the Caesars, the processions in Rome were elaborate and magnificent affairs. The processional route developed over the years, settling on the present itinerary in 1575, when the road from St. John Lateran to St. Mary Major was opened by Pope Gregory XIII. Where once the emperor had distributed bread to the citizens in times of famine, now the Pontifex Maximus would bring the Bread of Life.

This custom continued until 1870, when the unification of Italy ceased the papal processions. In 1979, to the astonishment of the city, John Paul II announced that he would be reviving the usage. Twenty-five years later, it has regained its status as Roman tradition.

The festivities started about 6 p.m. at the Basilica of St. John Lateran at the very gates of the ancient city. The Holy Father first celebrated Mass at the high altar under the relics of the skulls of Sts. Peter and Paul, the first to bring the news of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice to Rome.

At the end of the Mass, the people in attendance moved outside where they were joined by an even greater multitude awaiting the procession in the huge piazza outside St. John Lateran. The Pope, still dressed in Mass vestments, sat on a chair before the monstrance which rested on a gilded pillar on the back of a processional vehicle. All was decorated in white, the color of rejoicing, the color of the vestments worn on this day in honor of the holy Eucharist. A canopy covered them, and the whole thing was brilliantly illuminated by spotlights. By the Pope’s side sat his secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz.

The mile stretch of Via Merulana was interspersed with loudspeakers. The procession commenced with crucifix and candles, followed by pious lay confraternities of Rome, religious, seminarians (taking time off from exams), clergy, monsignors, bishops and about 20 cardinals in the red robes of their station. The Holy Father and the monstrance came next flanked by the Italian Carabinieri in formal uniforms.

As in the Old Testament when the ark of the covenant preceded the people through the desert, the Blessed Sacrament was followed by thousands of lay faithful who sang and prayed in unison with the hymns broadcast from the loudspeakers.

In one of the glorious moments when Rome remembers her past, many people joined in for the singing of the «Tantum Ergo,» one of the hymns composed by St. Thomas Aquinas at the request of Pope Urban IV for the feast.

When the procession arrived about 8:30 p.m. at St. Mary Major, the sun had not yet set and the Rome sky had turned its unique lapis blue, a fitting cloak for the basilica of Our Lady. The Pope gave the Benediction from the vehicle before the multitude kneeling in the piazza. All sang «Salve Regina» before the Pope returned to St. Peter’s.

* * *

Here Come the Brides

June as is well known, is also the month of weddings, and with its magnificent ancient churches and spiritual ambience Rome provides an ideal venue for prospective couples.

Brides, in elaborate coifs and long, silk dresses, pose for photographs around every monument giving stiff competition to the street performers for attention. Perched by the Trevi fountain, dwarfed by the Colosseum or arrayed along the Spanish steps, these tireless young women drag dusty trains from site to site.

When the bride and groom pass close by, often one doesn’t hear Italian spoken, but English, Spanish, Korean or some other tongue.

Rome has grown in popularity as a setting for weddings. While once the only foreigners seen in bridal dress were those gathered at the Wednesday general audience for the special blessing of the Pope, now couples choose to have wedding, reception and honeymoon here.

I spoke with Sandra Maffey, president of Vista Weddings & Events, who has been organizing weddings here for a decade. I wanted to know why so many were choosing Rome to pronounce their vows.

«It’s a chance to live the fantasy from childhood of a fairy tale wedding,» she answered. «You can marry in a Baroque church, have a reception in a castle and dance the night away in a Renaissance garden. It’s like being a princess.»

Of course, there are also some practical advantages. «The distance tends to shorten the guest list considerably,» she noted, «so the bride and groom are surrounded by a few close people who really want to be there.»

s can also be a consideration. «It’s much more common nowadays for the bride and groom to come from different countries,» she said. «If the bride is from the Philippines and the groom is from New York, each travels half way.»

The peak months for weddings in Rome are May, June, September and October. During these busy times brides and grooms contend for the preferred churches. Out of the 900 churches in the city, the «hot list» is surprisingly short.

Italians tend to prefer San Giorgio in Velabro, Santa Francesca Romana and Santa Sabina, while Americans like Santa Susanna, which is the American church in Rome. Santa Maria in Trastevere and Santa Costanza are universally popular.

While these churches are popular for religious ceremonies, these do not make up the majority of weddings in this city among Americans marrying abroad. «About 20% of the people who come, just want some kind of ‘blessing,'» while the other 80% divide up half and half between church and civil weddings, Maffey said.

Maffey is one of the few who arranges church weddings. «Many wedding coordinators won’t do Catholic weddings because there is too much paperwork,» she said. «All the civil documents for the Italians and then the religious documents drive them crazy.»

Italians still tend to prefer church weddings, although organizing their weddings is as about as chaotic as amassing paperwork. «Organize is the key word here,» said Maffey. «Americans like timing and choreography in their weddings. They like things to run smoothly and efficiently and are willing to be very detail-oriented to accomplish that.»

On the other hand, Italians resist the rigidity of a choreographed wedding. «They are much more laid-back, they wander all over the place,» she said. «You’re trying to put the procession in place, but the mother is having a coffee at the cafe, the father is off discussing cars, the reserved seats are taken by random invitees and there is no place for the family …» The result is that the Italians are very relaxed about the whole ceremony. «They’re just having a good time.»

A surprising difference between American and Italian custom involves seeing the bride before the wedding. «A very popular tradition calls for the groom to present the bouquet to the bride and then join the procession,» explained Maffey. «As you can imagine, that doesn’t go over well with American brides.»

Where does St. Peter’s Basilica fit into all this? «It is the preferred choice for a church wedding among Americans, but they usually don’t know they can be married there,» Maffey said. «When people hear that they can be married at St. Peter’s and then be blessed by the Pope himself, they are shocked. It’s a dream come true.»

Of course, marrying in St. Peter’s involves some sacrifices. It’s not expensive and the waiting list isn’t too long, but the bride won’t be processing down the 187-meter aisle. Weddings are held in the choir chapel, which has a capacity of about 100.

«You have limited choices of music and of flower arrangements,» Maffey told me. «Photographers need special permits and you have to deal with walking through the church surrounded by thousands of people, before you’re whisked into the chapel and the heavy drape is closed.»

But these are very minor difficulties for the opportunity to be married near the tomb of St. Peter. Maffey’s hardest task is impressing appropriateness of dress at the basilica on the wedding party and guests.

«People don’t believe it, but it’s true: The dress code is strictly enforced,» she emphasized. «If the outfit is too revealing, it doesn’t matter — maid of honor, VIP guest or the bride herself won’t be allowed into the church.»

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome Campus. She can be reached at

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