As we gather in this church this afternoon, there are hundreds of people on the other side of the world in the town of Orvieto, Italy, who have been out in the streets since first light. A short drive away in the smaller town of Bolsena, there are hundreds more beginning their day. They are all doing the same thing. For weeks they have been collecting flower petals of various shapes and colours. Today, they are using these petals to make natural mosaics.
On the cobblestone streets and lanes thin layers of soil have been laid, with borders made of petals and grass as though they are photo frames. This morning those frames are filled, flower petals being placed on that soil to make pictures: of the local landscape, of their own family members, of Our Lady, of the Lord. These pictures range from one metre in height and width, to seven or eight metres. It has taken them hours and indeed days of pain-staking and delicate work to create these images. They have been made with love and devotion.
In a few hours in Orvieto, and then later in the day in Bolsena, these images will be disturbed only by the priest carrying the Blessed Sacrament in the Eucharistic Processions. He will walk on those beds of flower petals, carrying our Lord through the streets, with the priests and the townsfolk following. Those images on the streets are the most elaborate red carpet prepared for the passage of Jesus through their town.
The people of Orvieto and Bolsena have been doing this for more than 750 years. In 1263 the German priest, Peter of Prague, was saying Mass at the little church in Bolsena while on pilgrimage to Rome. He was described as being a pious priest, but one who found it difficult to believe that Christ was actually present in the consecrated Host. While celebrating Holy Mass above the tomb of St. Christina, he had barely spoken the words of Consecration when blood started to seep from the consecrated Host and trickle over his hands onto the altar and the corporal.
The priest was immediately confused. At first he attempted to hide the blood, but then he interrupted the Mass and asked to be taken to the neighboring town of Orvieto, the town where Pope Urban IV was then residing. The Pope listened to the priest's account. He then sent emissaries for an immediate investigation. When all the facts were ascertained, he ordered the Bishop of the diocese to bring to Orvieto the Host and the corporal bearing the stains of blood. With the bishop, the local priests and the townsfolk, the Pope met the procession and had the relics placed in the cathedral.
And so was the first Corpus Christi Procession. The priests and people of Bolsena carried our Lord proudly through the streets from Bolsena to Orvieto. They wanted everyone along the way to see, and to know that their God was real, that He was truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, and that He had allowed this miracle to happen before their eyes to remind them and strengthen their faith.
The Holy Father instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi the following year, and commissioned St Thomas Aquinas to write the prayers of the Mass and the Divine Office that we use for the feast today.
Why all this fuss in 1263? Why are people now spending days making mosaics from flowers?
Because this sacrament we celebrate at this altar is no mere symbol. Bread and wine are brought to the altar, and by the words of consecration are changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Bread and wine cease to exist on the altar; only their appearance remains.
The Host that we place in the monstrance is Jesus. Our eyes may be deceived and tell us that we are looking at bread. But our ears are not deceived. Jesus told us that this is what He would do. And throughout history He has allowed Eucharistic Miracles to occur to remind us of that reality. Our God comes to us so quietly, so intimately.
The people of Orvieto and Bolsena don’t doubt this. That is why they show such delicate care and devotion in preparing the way for the Blessed Sacrament.
Do we do the same? Are we sufficiently aware of the miracle in our midst? Are our eyes drawn to the tabernacle as soon as we enter the Church? Do we conduct ourselves with reverence, respect and gentleness when we are in His presence? Do we receive Holy Communion with devotion? Do we perform our duties at the altar and in the sanctuary with care?
This is how we show our love for Jesus, and how we grow in love for others. If you can love Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, then you can love Him in people. It is the only way to love authentically.
Now a word for the seminarians, whose patronal feast this is, that we alumni share with you. My brothers, one day you must convince your people that Jesus is really present in the Blessed Sacrament. They deserve to know. They need to know. They need Him.
You will not convince your people simply by telling them, or by fine argument. You will do it by the love that you show for Jesus in the Sacrament. And you will convince your people by the love that you show for them. By building real relationships with your people and authentically caring for them in their greatest needs, they will be ready to believe. Life is messy. You need to get into that mess with them. Feel their pain and struggle. And bring them Jesus.
In a few moments the great miracle of Christ’s Real Presence will once again occur before our eyes. We will then take Him out into the streets. Let us enter the streets of our place with the same conviction as did the people of Bolsena 750 years ago and every year since. The conviction that our God is real, that every person in our world deserves to know that He is real, that they need Him; and that He is really here.
Fr Michael Gallacher is an alumnus of Corpus Christi College. He is currently working with the Tribunal of the Catholic Church Victoria and Tasmania as Auditor/Defender of the Bond.