Rediscovering the Belief

The annual Corpus Christi procession in Orvieto dates all the way back to a Eucharistic miracle that took place there in the 13th century.
by Michael Maciborski LC | Source:
Trumpets blared and drums rolled as seemingly unending lines of men bearing axes, swords, and cross-bows, marched into the centuries-old cathedral. Their colorful uniforms marked them out as lords of ancient estates, notable ladies of the city, courtesans, soldiers, merchants, flag-bearers, and pages. I rubbed my eyes at first, imagining that I had somehow been transported into a forgotten medieval world. But it was all real. The place: the little town of Orvieto in central Italy; the occasion: a Eucharistic procession on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, June 10th of this year.

The annual Corpus Christi procession in Orvieto dates all the way back to a Eucharistic miracle that took place here in the 13th century, making the tradition three times older than America’s Declaration of Independence, and preceding even the discovery of the New World by more than 200 years. As an American, accustomed to seeing exclusively secular parades, mainly at Thanksgiving and on the fourth of July, this was an inspiring sight. What was most striking was seeing Christ in the Eucharist at the center and as the reason of all the pomp and display. It made an unforgettable impression on me, and is a memory I will treasure for the rest of my life.

Orvieto is about two hours outside of Rome by car. Ideally situated on a mountain-top, it commands a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. Tall, slender cypresses dot the golden fields far below, and several mountain ranges merge together in the distant and hazy horizon. The city has typically Italian small and narrow cobblestone streets, with open markets, fruit stands and all sorts of restaurants marking the winding passage to the cathedral which dominates the skyline. It’s almost unimaginable that a middle sized town like this, lost in the romantic Italian countryside, would boast one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the country. In fact, the Orvieto cathedral is world renowned for its stunningly ornate façade made up of a series of colorful pictoral reliefs and mosaics which proclaim Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God, the Son of Mary, the Savior of the human race and the goal of history. Fittingly enough, a bronze lamb, with the flag of victory, constitutes the center-point of the façade. The church stands out like a beacon of light radiating the Christian faith to the surrounding countryside, and as such, constitutes a highly appropriate starting point for the annual Eucharistic procession.

The Mass which preceeds the procession was celebrated this year by the Archbishop of Prague, Miloslav Cardinal Vlk. It was precisely a priest from that city, who, wrestling with doubts about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, traveled to this region over 700 years ago as part of a personal pilgrimage to bolster his faith. As he was celebrating Mass, the priest pronounced the words of consecration and elevated the host with his hands, only to see the Eucharist begin to shed blood in full view of those present. The blood dripped onto the white linen corporal, and as the startled priest backed away from the altar with the sacred host still in his hands, large drops of blood fell onto four marble tiles at his feet. The blood-stained corporal is still on display in the cathedral in Orvieto, while the blood-stained tiles are on display nearby, in the church of St. Christina, where the event took place.

At the end of the Mass, the Eucharist was exposed and the procession actually began with the lines of men and women from the nearby towns who had all dressed up to recreate the 13th century environment in which the miracle first took place. The uniforms, the armor and weapons, the banners, the low rumble of the drums and the trumpet blasts all worked together to sweep me into an age long past. I realized, however, that this was more than mere fan-fare. The re-creation of the original setting of the miracle powerfully drove home the fact that what was being remembered here was not just a myth or a childrens story – it was a fact anchored in history. 700 years ago, in a setting like the one unfolding before my eyes, Christ really and truly worked a miracle to help his people believe more firmly in his presence in the Eucharist.

After more than half an hour of continous lines of these medieval characters, a 100 seminarians and priests, clad in white gowns over black cassocks, finally entered the cathedral to form the last segment of the procession. The marked difference between the abundance of color and costume in the first part of the procession, and the quiet sobriety of the second part, serves to fix my attention on what, or rather who, was bringing up the rear of the procession: none other than the King of kings, Jesus Christ himself present in the Eucharist, carried in a golden monstrance by the Cardinal. Behind him, a group of eight men carried the blood-stained corporal visible in its casing of glass and precious metal. As we exited the Cathedral, throngs of tourists surged forward snapping pictures, their confused and questioning faces betraying the surprise at seeing something so altogether unexpected. Yet as we left the initial mass of tourists behind and started winding ur way through the streets of the town, the atmosphere changed dramatically. The music and babble of voices gave way to a deafening silence. But it was a silence full of reverence and meaning which articulated the invisible presence of the faith of the ordinary townsfolk who had gathered all along the path that the procession was to take. I couldn’t see or touch the faith of these people, but their silence made me think of the silence of the Eucharistic Christ. ‘They can speak to him, heart to heart, and praise him with a voice that no one else in the crowd, not even the nearest person, can hear,’ I thought to myself.

As we moved into the nearby town of Bolsena, the atmosphere of prayer and devotion only grew deeper. The townsfolk here had decorated the streets with dozens upon dozens of colorful mosaics made out of flower petals. There were portraits of the Annunciation, of Mary and the Child Jesus, of the saints and the martyrs, all looking up at me from the cobblestone streets. A voice on a loud speaker interrupted the silence every now and then to lead prayers to Christ, or to intone a Eucharistic hymn. I dropped behind in the procession, trying to get closer to the Eucharist, and as I saw the lines of seminarians pass before me, I thought of the Jews and how they must have carried the Arc of the Covenant all those years in the desert. And then suddenly a simple but profound thought penetrated my heart: ‘Something greater than the Arc is here.’ Christ was really here—Christ, the Emmanuel, ‘God with us’—He was really here, walking along the city streets and going out to meet the people just as He had two thousand years ago in Galilee.

As I contemplated the scene before me, I couldn’t help thinking about the priest to whom the miracle happened. Why did he doubt Christ’s presence in the Eucharist? Faith and history helped me think of an answer. First of all, faith is a gift, and that means it can be freely accepted or rejected. For more than the first thousand years of Christianity, Christians everywhere were practically unanimous in their belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Then, some began to question whether Christ was really ‘there’, present under the appearance of bread and wine in the consecrated host. Specifically in this context, in this troubled priest’s hands, it seems our Lord wanted to make a very positive contribution to the debate. He gave people something they could touch and see. He contributed a manifestation of his visible and tangible human blood. There’s nothing quite like blood to catch people’s attention. We can imagine the surprised priest thinking to himself: ‘But only a living body bleeds!’, only to be succeeded by another thought, as if spoken by Someone present: ‘My point exactly!’

You would have to be awfully cold to ignore warm blood running down your hands. The memory of the impressive event that took place in the hands of that priest so long ago still remains fresh in the minds of the surrounding community. The Christians in this part of Italy have not let the Blood of Christ cool in their hearts. They continue to honor his presence among them every year on the feast of his Body and Blood. They carry the Eucharist around the city, and behind it four men carry upon a litter the centuries-old blood-stained linen corporal, framed in a gold case. Seeing those who marched, and those who watched from the sidewalk, one witnesses an outpouring of faith and reverence for the Lord.

The Eucharist changes society because it changes individuals who believe. In this Sacrament, we receive the strength to live the Commandments. We find the grace to live the Beatitudes, the new way of life demanded of all those who wish to follow Christ. He desires that all people and all societies live his way of life. Eucharistic devotion must begin here, in personal conversion. Yet Christ wants to change not just our hearts, but all hearts. What better means to fulfill his desire than for Christians everywhere, including those in the United States, to organize similar processions in honor of his Body and Blood?

Pope Benedict’s words from his recent letter “The Sacrament of Charity” clarify the value that such demonstrations of faith can have. He says “Every great reform has in some way been linked to the rediscovery of belief in the Lord’s Eucharistic presence among his people.” We can safely assert that any Christian, whether priest, consecrated, or lay person, can contribute to this reform. They can help others ‘rediscover the belief’ in the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist. How? By promoting Eucharistic adoration, or helping to organize similar processions in their own parishes.

Orvieto’s style of witness to the real presence of Christ among his people is worthy of imitation. We can replicate it elsewhere without danger of overdoing the honor we can pay him who is truly present in this sacrament. The only real danger we face is that we might give little, or perhaps nothing, in our lifetime to honor the One, who, for us, gave all.

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