The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) is celebrated on the second Sunday following Pentecost. The name, the liturgy, and the meaning of this special day have evolved and been established in the modern Church for a specific purpose. For starts, the two images of Christ have not always been celebrated on the same day. For anyone who knows even a hint of Spanish, and there are plenty in Albuquerque, the words ‘Corpus Christi,’ the original Latin name for this holy day, makes no mention of Jesus’ blood. Actually, the Spanish name for this Sunday is El Cuerpo y La Sangre de Cristo.
When Corpus Christi first appeared on the liturgical calendar, it was a feast day to commemorate the institution of the Holy Eucharist. It was not necessarily set-up to recall the events of Holy Thursday (The Last Supper), but the ongoing role of the Blessed Sacrament in the ecclesial purpose of the Catholic Church. Not coincidently, the original celebration of this day occurred on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday and is listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as one of ten Holy Days of Obligation, in which the faithful have the same Eucharistic commitment as any Sunday. (CCC #2177)
There was a two-fold purpose for moving this and some of the other dates to the nearest Sunday. First, it is the desire of the Church to have the fullest possible assembly during the commemoration of certain days, particularly Corpus Christi and the Ascension. Second, these holy days recall how Jesus fed their bodies and their hearts, and dispatched his disciples to “Do this and remember,” before he rose to the heavens with the promise of a Holy Spirit that would guide their mission. Those two things, that is, the communion of people of faith and the spreading of the Gospel, are the ecclesial purpose of the Church.
This feast day is one of three that still has a Sequence: a special, prayerful invocation that precedes the reading of the Gospel, and ‘explains’ its meaning and place in the ‘order of things’ (Ordo/Ordinary Time). In 2014 that Gospel comes from John’s Bread of Life Discourse (Chap 6), in which Jesus says time and time again that he is the Living Bread and all that his disciples will need to carry out the mission. One thing that has not changed since that night when Jesus instituted the Eucharist is the underlying message that WE are the Body of Christ.
Christian history is filled with examples of men and women who understood the ecclesial purpose of their faith. They drew on the strength of Jesus through Holy Communion to fulfill the call to love God completely and demonstrate that love by carrying for one another. This year, the day before Corpus Christi remembers one of the Church’s great examples: Aloysius Gonzaga.
From the very beginning Aloysius was consumed by prayer and scripture. Even though he was born into a royal household, rampant with corruption and treachery, during the time of the Renaissance, the boy managed to understand basic catechism before reaching the age of reason. It was designed that he would grow up in nobility and would be a great military hero. His father, who served by appointment from the King of Spain, refused to accept his son’s desire for a religious life, and he was sent away to Florence for a proper education complimentary to his station in life.
Aloysius had other ideas, and service to the poor was what he believed Jesus had called him to do. By the time he was eleven, the boy was already teaching catechism and other skills to poor youth, who otherwise would have had little or no education. Also during this time, the future saint suffered a kidney infection and hovered near death. He recovered from the terminal effects, but would labor in pain the rest of his life.
The combination of his excitement at reading holy books and the lives of saints and the disillusionment of the royal life accelerated the young man’s goals, and he returned home more determined than ever to pursue a religious life. He wanted to join the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), but his father flatly refused every one of the times Aloysius pleaded with him. After four years of begging and dedication to teaching the poor and helping out in hospices whenever possible, which was frequent because of his own ailment, his father finally gave in.
The Jesuits began Aloysius’ religious education in Milan, but during the curriculum, it was determined he was too ill to continue and may even die. He was rushed to Rome and ordained in 1587. In that same year, the eternal city was hit with the plague. What life with the Jesuits had taught the man was how to live among other, like-minded souls for the communal service of all.
When a hospital was opened quickly by the Jesuits to service the ever-increasing number of victims, Aloysius was on the front line. Even though he contracted the disease himself, he never waivered in his service to others; never did he decline in prayer or action. This was not just speaking the Gospel but teaching it by the way one lives. He died on June 21, 1591 at the age of twenty-four. His life had been a near perfect example of non-stop dedication to the call of Jesus Christ no matter what obstacle lay in the path.
Sometimes saints travel in small circles. Aloysius received First Holy Communion from St Charles Borromeo and was given the last rites by St Robert Bellarmine, who had also been his spiritual advisor. Aloysius was canonized by one pope, declared a protector of young students by another, and patron of Catholic youth by a third.
The mission of the Church has not changed. It is still the ecclesial purpose of the Body of Christ to commune in thanksgiving and in service for one another, and to spread the Gospel by word and (especially) deed. Sometimes that community’s needs may become different through our changing times, but our response to one another should not. In the twenty-first century, St Aloysius Gonzaga is the patron of those who suffer with AIDS. We are the Body of Christ.
(To be continued)