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G.K. Chesterton and Corpus Christi

For Chesterton, belief in the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament was the very touchstone of truth.

This Sunday is a very special anniversary for all who admire the great English writer, G. K. Chesterton. It was on this date in 1936 that Chesterton died. In that year, the Sunday after Corpus Christi fell on June 14, as it does this year. And there is even the suggestion of an additional touch of divine or providential humor in the Introit for that day’s Mass, which was printed on Chesterton’s memorial card and seemed to connect his own “corpus” and especially its corpulence with the his deliverance into the heavenly banquet:

The Lord became my protector and He brought me forth into a large place. He saved me because He was pleased with me. I will love thee O Lord my strength. The Lord is my firmament and my refuge and my deliverer.

Chesterton’s love for the feast of Corpus Christi was deepened during the writing of his celebrated book on Thomas Aquinas, during which he seems to have learned the Angelic Doctor’s Corpus Christi sequence by heart. His friends recall his reciting the final two stanzas “time and again”:

Bone Pastor, panis vere,
Jesu, nostri miserere,
Tu nos pasce, nos tuere,
Tu nos bona fac videre,
In terra viventium.
Tu, qui cuncta scis et vales,
Qui nos pascis hic mortales,
Tuos ibi commensales,
Cohaeredes et sodales,
Fac sanctorum civium. Amen.

[O Good Shepherd, True Bread,
O Jesus, have mercy
on us: feed us and protect us:
make us see good things in
the land of the living.
Thou who knowest all things
and canst do all things,
who here feedest us mortals,
make us there be Thy guests, the co-heirs,
and companions of the heavenly citizens. Amen.]

According to friends who knew him well in the final years of his life, he would “repeat and repeat” the recitation of these two stanzas, “thumping his fist on the arm of the chair”. Then he would say, referring especially to the words in terra viventium: “What a summary of Heaven: the exact reversal of the slang expression down among the dead men. There you have it – literally the land of the living. Yes, my friends, we shall see all good things in the land of the living.”

Chesterton was similarly enamored of O Salutaris Hostia, also written by Thomas Aquinas for the Feast of Corpus Christi, and he would emphasize its concluding words, in patria. “It tells you everything,” he would exclaim: “our native land”.

Since providence has seen fit to connect Chesterton to Corpus Christi, it should not surprise us that he had a great love for the Eucharist. “The word Eucharist,” he wrote after attending the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932, “is but a verbal symbol, we might say a vague verbal mask, for something so tremendous that the assertion and the denial of it have alike seemed a blasphemy; a blasphemy that has shaken the world with the earthquake of two thousand years.” For Chesterton, therefore, belief in the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament was the very touchstone of truth. “As to Transubstantiation,” he said, “I would gently suggest that, to most ordinary outsiders with any common sense, there would be a considerable practical difference between Jehovah pervading the universe and Jesus Christ coming into the room.”

Expressing a healthy fear of the Lord in His Sacramental Presence in the Sacrament, Chesterton confessed to being “frightened by that tremendous Reality”.

In response to the question of how Christ would solve modern problems if He were on earth today, Chesterton responded with the incisive wisdom of a saint. “I must answer it plainly; and for those of my faith there is only one answer. Christ is on earth today; alive on a thousand altars; and He does solve people’s problems exactly as He did when He was on earth in the more ordinary sense. That is, He solves the problems of the limited number of people who choose of their own free will to listen to Him.”

Those of us who continue to listen to the wisdom of G. K. Chesterton do so because he always leads us to the Christ who is alive on every altar in the priceless gift of Himself in the Eucharist.


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About Joseph Pearce 22 Articles
Joseph Pearce is the author of numerous literary works including Literary Converts, The Quest for Shakespeare and Shakespeare on Love,Poems Every Catholic Should Know (TAN Books) and Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know (Augustine Institute/Ignatius Press), and the editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions series. His other books include literary biographies of Oscar Wilde, J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A native of England, he is Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, editor of Faith & Culture, and is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. Visit his website at jpearce.co.

2 Comments

  1. Beautiful! For those who are questioned (or accosted!) by the Evangelical question, “Do you have a Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ?” we Catholics may answer, “Yes, I have a most personal relationship with the Lord and Savior, my Lord and Savior! For He humbles Himself on the Altar and encloses Himself in the Holy Eucharist so that He may enter into my very human body and permeate all my being!” Growing up a Baptist, I was encouraged to ask Jesus to come into my heart. As a Catholic (now a convert of 38+ years) He Invited me Into HIS! Blessings upon you and your family, Prof Pearce! Love your work! Annalicia’s mom, Debby DiLollo

  2. Wouldn’t the Feast of Corpus Christi have been celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday in 1936? Had the Church already moved the celebration of that feast from Thursday to Sunday in 1936? I thought that was a more recent change.

    Nevertheless, even without that wonderful coincidence, the Chesterton-Aquinas-Corpus Christi connection is worth meditating upon.

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