Rome sizzles in summer heat. The sun glares down remorselessly on shoppers thronging the streets around St. Maria del Populo, where the priest has just finished celebrating the last morning Mass. I had wanted to enjoy a long gaze at the glorious Carravaggio paintings, but no—it was time to close the church. With a weird logic which has always defeated this English visitor, the Italian idea is that in the hottest part of the day the coolest and most attractive places, the churches, must be sealed off to anyone who might seek a refuge from the heat.
We retreat instead to a cafe and enjoy expensive but very delicious ice creams. It’s Corpus Christi. For the first time, the annual procession through the streets has been moved to Sunday evening. In Rome, as elsewhere, this major feast day—celebrated for centuries on Thursday to honor the fact that the Last Supper and institution of the Eucharist took place on that day of the week—has been moved to a Sunday.
In general, this moving of feast days has not been a good idea. It presupposes that people don’t really want to come to church, and that attendance is a matter of tiresome rules rather than joyful faith. It rests on the horrid assumption that a feast day is essentially a nuisance and that the task of the Church is to make this obligation something that can be minimized. For the past few years, I’ve been protesting about this in London to anyone who would listen, and to those who don’t. It’s particularly irritating in Britain where some feast days—notably the Ascension—are marked by the Anglicans and thus do sometimes qualify for a brief mention from the BBC, which means that there might be a bit of music or even a reflection from a clergyman on some early morning radio talk-show (especially if there is nothing much else happening). Corpus Christi doesn’t come into that category. But it has its own special delights for any Catholic, echoing with First Communion traditions, pictures in a family album—or, today, Facebooked or emailed to friends and family—white frocks, flowers strewn before the Blessed Sacrament…
Moving a feast day to the nearest Sunday effectively minimizes or even (in some minds) abolishes it. When I wrote this to an archbishop, he wrote back enquiring indignantly if I really meant to suggest that people didn’t read their parish newsletters and see the name of the feast day written there at the head of the parish notices? Yes, Your Grace, that’s exactly what I was suggesting. To most people, a feast day is something special; Mass on a Sunday is just routine and a few subtle differences about the color of vestments or details of the liturgy, or words in a newsletter or even in the homily, will often remain unnoticed. To make Corpus Christi significant, it needs its own special day. Take an example: Ash Wednesday is not a day of obligation—but churches are packed to overflowing, and receiving ashes on the forehead has become a mark of recognition, an opportunity for communicating something of the Faith, a drama for the New Evangelization. Moving it to a Sunday would wreck all that: the whole point is that it’s a Wednesday: God in the cities on a weekday, God in our overcrowded churches that spill out congregations into the street, God in people’s lives, requiring just that small extra commitment that adds zest to life.
Back to Rome and ice cream in the Piazza del Populo. Do people in Rome know that it’s Corpus Christi? In fairness, they will certainly know it this evening. Already, the preparations are in hand around St. John Lateran and St. Maria Maggiore, and along the streets where traffic will have to be banned, barriers are already being erected for the expected crowds. The procession will begin with an open-air Mass and then form up to make its way through the streets with loudspeakers pouring out the music, the chants, liturgies, and readings.
But will it work? Yes, it worked magnificently. Pope Francis presides annually at the Mass and at the Benediction which concludes the whole event, but is unable to walk the route or to kneel for any length of time. Recent popes, similarly unable to make the long walk, resorted to kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament as it was borne through the streets on an altar constructed on a truck carefully decorated and turned into a sort of chapel for the journey. There was something magnificent in St. John Paul’s humble attempts to kneel—powerfully noted by Cardinal Sarah in a recent speech, in which he described how this great man struggled to force his broken body to this posture before his Savior and Lord even at the cost of pain and humiliation. But it could not be sustained for the whole journey and the Pope could not bear to sit. Pope Benedict’s frailty for this and every other task of the papacy was at the heart of his need to resign. So a change has been made. Francis isn’t about to adopt a sitting position before the Lord either, and his knees don’t bend enough to do much of a genuflection, much less enable him to kneel. So rather than resort to a chair, the whole idea of a truck has been abandoned: the procession has reverted to the tradition of the centuries and the Blessed Sacrament is carried through the streets on foot, beneath a great golden canopy lifted by strong men—all eyes are centered on the glowing Presence in the glittering monstrance held aloft by a young priest whose footsteps never waver as they take him steadily forward.
And so—in a way that both St. John Paul and Pope Emeritus Benedict would approve—the attention has reverted to the Blessed Sacrament itself and away from the Pope. And a Sunday evening means bigger crowds—people aren’t hurrying home after work, they are happy to spend an evening doing something that is connected with God and church and prayer and, well, Sunday-ish things. Closing the roads and diverting traffic is easier and doesn’t create annoyance. Above all, as the sizzling heat of the day gently gives way to a golden evening, it is a glorious thing to be part of an ancient tradition made new, as Christ is carried through the streets of the Eternal City accompanied by choirs and cardinals, bishops and banners, singers and sodalities.
Oh, it was beautiful. And heartening too. When dear Benedict XVI celebrated his inaugural Mass as pope back in 2005, he spoke of the millions of people who had gathered in Rome to pay tribute to his predecessor John Paul and declared forcefully, “The Church is alive, and the Church is young!” Successive World Youth days bore out the truth of his words. And on this Corpus Christi Sunday well into the second decade of the 21st century, crowds and crowds honored the Blessed Sacrament through the streets of Rome, the evening air filled with soaring chants and hymns—a sight and sound to lift the heart.
It’s still essential to give us back our feasts on their proper days: we need to sanctify time, to hear and see God in the very pattern of our days. But part of that is honoring Sundays in all their glory. On this Dies Domini, the Lord’s Day, in the octave of Corpus Christi, Rome welcomed Christ anew and it was good to see.