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St Thomas Aquinas and the Feast of Corpus Christi

Gregory DiPippo

Yesterday, we looked at the origin of the feast of Corpus Christi, and a legend about its origin which is edifying, but rests on very weak historical foundations. There is another legend, one which makes for a great story, but is certainly untrue, concerning the composition of the liturgical texts for the feast.

The story goes that when Pope Urban IV wanted to promulgate the feast, he asked both St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure, the minister general of the Franciscans, to compose a Divine Office and a Mass for it. They would then read their works to him, and he would personally decide which would be used. On the appointed day, St Thomas was allowed to present his first, in deference to his position as Master of the Sacred Palace, the official theologian of the Papal household. As he read it, St Bonaventure was so moved by the work that he tore his own manuscript up, and himself declared St Thomas to be the winner of the “contest.” The Pope, duly impressed by his humility, accepted his judgment, and St Thomas’ texts were chosen to become part of the Church’s liturgy.

Unfortunately, this story cannot be true, since it is very well documented that while Pope Urban and St Thomas were both in the Italian city of Orvieto, St Bonaventure was several hundreds of miles away in Paris.

Most of Thomas’ vast literary output consists of philosophical and theological works, including his extensive Biblical commentaries, but no other liturgical compositions. The first mention of him as the author of the Corpus Christi liturgy dates to the year 1317, over 40 years after his death, and for many years, these two facts lead many scholars to doubt that he actually wrote it at all. In recent years, however, the climate of opinion on this subject has now shifted; as Fr Jean Pierre Tourell OP writes in his work St Thomas Aquinas, Volume 1, The Person and His Works, “since the labors of Father Pierre Marie Gy, attribution to Saint Thomas can no longer reasonably be placed in doubt.” (Citing P.M Gy, “L’Office du Corpus Christi et S. Thomas d’Aquin. Etat d’une recherche.)

Here then is St Thomas’ own description of the feast, taken from the readings at Matins. We will present a few more excerpts of his beautiful Latin next week as well.

“Imménsa divínæ largitátis benefícia, exhíbita pópulo christiáno, inæstimábilem ei cónferunt dignitátem. ‘Neque enim est, aut fuit aliquándo tam grandis nátio, quæ hábeat deos appropinquántes sibi, sicut adest nobis Deus noster. Unigénitus síquidem Dei Fílius, suæ divinitátis volens nos esse partícipes, natúram nostram assúmpsit, ut hómines deos fáceret factus homo. Et hoc ínsuper, quod de nostro assúmpsit, totum nobis cóntulit ad salútem. Corpus namque suum pro nostra reconcilatióne in ara crucis hóstiam óbtulit Deo Patri, sánguinem suum fudit in prétium simul et lavácrum; ut redémpti a miserábili servitúte, a peccátis ómnibus mundarémur. Ut autem tanti benefícii jugis in nobis manéret memória, corpus suum in cibum, et sánguinem suum in potum, sub spécie panis et vini suméndum fidélibus derelíquit.

The immeasurable benefits of God’s goodness bestowed on the Christian people confer upon it a dignity beyond all estimation. ‘For neither is there, nor hath there ever been so great a nation that hath gods that come so nigh unto them, as our God is nigh unto us?’ (Deut. 4, 7.) For indeed, the Only-begotten Son of God, wishing to make us ‘partakers of His divine nature,’ (2 Pet. 1, 4), took up our nature, so that being made man, He might make men gods. And further, all of what is ours that He took, He applied to our salvation. For on the Altar of the Cross He offered up His body to God the Father as a sacrifice for our reconciliation, and at the same time, He shed His blood as both the price (of redemption) and the washing (of sins), so that, being redeemed from wretched servitude, we might be cleansed of all sins. And, so that the remembrance of so great a benefit might be everlasting among us, He left to the faithful His body as food, and His blood as drink, to be taken under the appearance of bread and wine.”

(St Thomas Aquinas Presents the Office of Corpus Christi to Pope Urban IV, by Taddeo di Bartolo (1362-1422); image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0.)

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