12 August 2017

The Cult of the Blessed Sacrament (3)

Continued from the previous two posts.
The Blessed Sacrament, as the Body, not of the dead but of the living Christ, became a focus for devotion, not surprisingly, around the same time as personal devotion to Jesus became common; the revolution by which public liturgical prayer in the Latin Church continued, in the classical formulae, to be to the Father through the Son, but was accompanied by a vivid devotion of the individual directly to the Son. This is also the age in which the Elevation of the Host began its rise to the status it possessed at the end of the middle ages as the principal focus of lay devotion. And this was the age when some fashionable cosmopolitan intellectuals apparently started to view with disdain a number of features in the inherited cult of relics. The massively wealthy Avignon nominee to the See of Exeter in the 1320s, John Grandisson, appears to have suppressed there an embarrassingly crude popular hymn which was sung annually at the Exeter Procession of Relics. And in the vast lists of benefactions which he made to his Cathedral and to his collegiate foundation at Ottery and to the beneficiaries of his will, I have found not one single mention of even one single relic. But he possessed and donated monstrances of fabulous wealth and beauty; he ordered that country parsons should bear the Sacrament to the sick with proper dignity and not just carry It any old how. I have no doubt that his instinct was: relics are all very well, but the Sacrament is the living Body of our Maker and Redeemer.

Grandisson was the protege of the (undervalued) pope to whom, under God, we owe the Feast of Corpus Christi and the immense devotional riches, for Latin Christians, of the Cultus of the Blessed Sacrament. We are often told that this all started with the bull Transiturus in 1264. Forget it! That 'legislation' had not, as far as can be discerned, been followed* even in the papal chapel itself. But Transiturus was repromulgated probably* at the council Vienne in 1311 and then incorporated in the collection of decretals called the Clementines which was changed and corrected by Pope John XXII. He, in 1317, sent it to the universal Latin hierarchy, and set an example himself by instituting Corpus Christi processions (which had not in fact been envisaged in Transiturus). His initiative spread like wildfire. Nobody quite knew how to do these new things; in 1320 a Council at Sens naively gave up the attempt to legislate for appropriate ceremonial and left the arrangement of this "apparently divinely inspired innovation" to the devotion of clergy and laity.

It was clearly a devotional initiative whose day had come. We Latins can be modestly proud that it was through us that the Lord showed the richness of this wonderful treasure.

This series is now completed.

* In those days before printing, there is nothing very remarkable about a papal liturgical initiative directed at the Universal Church being pretty well universally ignored. Nor - although this will surprise and disquiet superconciliarists of all sorts - is there anything strange in the fact that we are far from sure exactly what happened at several ecumenical councils, including Vienne. Ecumenical Councils, as Joseph Ratzinger rather liked to point out, have often done more harm than good. And this is not the first time I have had occasion to point out the crucial significance of printing in the history of Liturgy and - indeed - of Theology.

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