The Latin term Corpus Christi means “body of Christ,” in reference to the bread administered by priests during holy communion. Though communion is held every Sunday during mass throughout the year, a special day to celebrate the taking of communion was instituted on the basis of visions reportedly seen by Saint Julianne in the Belgian town of Liege in 1247. The first celebrations of Corpus Christi on Polish soil took place in 1320.
The date of Corpus Christi is based on Easter, being set on the Thursday of the ninth week following Easter Sunday (60 days after Easter). In Poland, many people take off not only Corpus Christi but also the following Friday, to create a festive four-day weekend.
Corpus Christi is one of the five days of the year on which Catholic bishops are not to be away from their dioceses unless absolutely unavoidable. It is day on which special masses are held in honour of the Eucharist. However, the processions immediately after mass are the real centre of attention. Devotees dressed in traditional Polish garb, varying region by region, march through the streets holding up banners. The priest holds high a canopy-covered Eucharist, and children throw flowers in the priest’s path as he walks along. At four different altars along the way, the procession stops to allow the crowds to sing hymns and say prayers. Finally, the procession returns to the church building, where the priest pronounces a blessing upon the Eucharist.
Some Poles will decorate their homes for Corpus Christi, putting religious pictures or flower garlands in their windows. Streets along which a procession is to pass are often lined with flowers and other decorations, and in large cities, each church will have its own procession and at different times of day. Some believe that Jesus walks on the flowers strewn on the streets, and some even tear of twigs adorning the street altars to bring themselves “good luck”.
Corpus Christi in other countries
In commemoration of the Last Supper on the day before Jesus’ crucifixion, many Christians around the world receive Communion on this day. In some countries the consecrated bread (or host) is paraded throughout the streets. Priests carry the bread in a monstrance, which is a type of vessel in which the consecrated host is exposed.
In Spain and Provence the processions can be elaborate, featuring saints and characters from the Bible, following a path decorated with wreaths and flowers.