Walking with Jesus
by Ian Scott
Ian Scott says Arundel's Corpus Christi celebrations evoke the May
ceremonies of pre-Reformation England.
The unprecedented worldwide interest in the death and funeral of the late
Holy Father demonstrated in unmistakable terms that non-Catholics as well as
Catholics are interested and intrigued by the Church, its message and its
liturgy. It is therefore particularly appropriate that there has been a
revival of Corpus Christi processions over the past few years, partly due
to the encouragement of Pope John Paul II and the present Pope, and the fact
that this year had been designated the Year of the Eucharist.
The great Feast of Corpus Christi was first instituted in 1230 by the
Blessed Juliano, who had a vision of the Blessed Sacrament. The Feast was
confirmed in 1264 by a Bull of Pope Urban IV. In the 14th century the Feast
became universal and, after the horrors of the Black Death in 1314, an
increasingly richer cult of the exposed and reserved Eucharist unfolded
across western Europe, emphasising extra-liturgical eucharistic worship. In
the 14th century arose the Corpus Christi procession.
On the Corpus Christi Feast, the host was first covered up in the pyx but
later was uncovered in a "crystal-pyx" or a monstrance (ostensorium) and
paraded through towns, villages and fields. This procession, which became
one of the most popular festivities of the medieval and more modern Church,
was surrounded with even greater pomp, as well as entertainment:
mountebanks, mendicants, jesters and jongleurs thronged the streets and hung
on to the procession by its coat-tails. After all, May is the "merry month"
and associated with maypoles, dancing and general jollity.
Inevitably, this was all swept away at the Reformation, to the great
distress of the average Englishman, who, as Eamon Duffy points out in his
book The Stripping of the Altars, was devoted to all the customs,
and jollification of the Old Faith. As someone once said: "Before the
Reformation, Christianity was perceived as being enjoyable."
After Catholic Emancipation there was a significant revival of interest in
the customs of the Middle Ages. Encouraged by the spirit of 19th century
romanticism, the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the great Gothic
revivalists, the time was right once more for the restoration of the old
ceremonies and festivals. Noblemen such as the 3rd Marquess of Bute and the
15th Duke of Norfolk felt that it was their duty to reinstate the Church
festivities for the benefit and instruction of their families, retainers and
Henry, the 15th Duke, revived the Corpus Christi procession in 1883 and old
photos show the tremendous crowds that came to look and participate. In his
youth, the Duke had seen the impressive carpets of flowers laid in the naves
of continental cathedrals and he had the brilliant idea of persuading the
good women of Arundel (in England) to do the same.
This they have continued to do with even greater success than their
continental cousins, having at their disposal all the profusion of flora
that this beautiful country of ours puts forth in the month of May. The
enthusiasm for this festival continued unabated between the wars but sadly,
after Vatican II, the old habits were often actively discouraged and began
to fade away. As one wise woman in Arundel put it, "at the slightest sign
of a cloud, the Bishop clapped his hands and gleefully cancelled the
The late Holy Father had a great affection for the Feast of Corpus Christi
and this is shared by his successor, Benedict XVI.
The Feast of Corpus Christi falls on May 26 and in the charming medieval
town of Arundel, in West Sussex, a procession of the Blessed Sacrament will
take place after High Mass at 5.30pm in the Cathedral of St Philip Howard.
Each year the symbolism on the carpet of flowers changes. This year the
merry wives of Arundel have woven references to the Holy Eucharist as well
as to the 40th anniversary of the founding of the diocese. The side chapels
of the cathedral built in French decorated Gothic-style in the 19th
century by Charles Aloysius Hansom, inventor of the hansom cab are also
filled with spectacular displays of flowers.
The procession winds its way along the narrow streets, escorted by the
clergy, the Knights of Malta and the other Papal Orders. It then arrives at
the spectacular castle, seat of the Dukes of Norfolk, Earl Marshals of
England. Here, in the massive quadrangle of the castle, at an altar
specially constructed for the occasion, Benediction takes place, surrounded
by flowers and amid clouds of incense. The procession then returns to the
The name of Howard has been a constant motif in the history of England since
the 14th century. Catherine Howard, Henry VIII¹s fourth queen, was beheaded
and her step-grandson, the fourth Duke, met the same fate in the reign of
A Flower Festival bedecks the nearby Fitzalan Chapel, the necropolis of the
Fitzalan-Howard family where so many famous scions of this great family lie,
from May 25 to 30.
The Arundel Corpus Christi Festival is one of the rarest and most colourful
pageants in the Church calendar and is, by any reckoning, a unique event in
England's green and pleasant land.
This year, once again, the people of England will find that, despite the
sometimes active discouragement of those in authority, they love their
feasts and they love their processions and they are determined to maintain
this glorious piece of Old England. They used to sing an old carol, whose
words are highly symbolic as well as strangely beautiful, combining both the
drama and the mystery of the Eucharist itself. Its music makes a fitting
conclusion to a visit to this extra-ordinary occasion:
Corpus Christi Carol
Lully, lullay; lully, lullay:
The falcon hath borne my love away.
He bore him up, he bore him down;
He bore him into an orchard brown.
In that orchard there was a hall,
That was hanged with purple and pall.
And in the hall there was a bed:
It was hanged with gold so red.
And in that bed there lieth a knight,
His wounds bleeding day and night.
By that bed¹s side there kneeleth a may,
And she weepeth both night and day.
And by that bed¹s side there standeth a stone,
Corpus Christi written thereon.
This article first appeared in the May 20 2005 issue of The Catholic Herald.
Copyright ©; The Catholic Herald 2005
Version: 6th July 2005