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April 24, 2002
Corpus Christi procession in Spain celebrates medieval miracle
13th century parade inaugurated eucharistic processions in Spain, author says
By Janice Bennett
Hours before, crowds gather along the processional route in Valencia to secure a good spot. Fireworks are ignited as a prelude, canons are fired, and folkloric dancers in regional costume perform. The air is electrically charged with the excitement expected at a royal event.
Finally, the boundless entourage of priests, religious orders, caballeros, magistrates, guild members, and children flows from the cathedral, greeted by the cheers, prayers and songs of the masses. It culminates with the monstrance bearing the holy Eucharist, its raison d'être.
The procession progresses through the city streets, preceded by floats that date back hundreds of years. Some proudly bear dragons, beasts and mythical animals, while others are crowned with effigies of saints. The float of honor is the Roca del Santo Grial, with a larger-than-life reproduction of the Holy Chalice of Valencia, maintained by tradition to be the very cup used by Jesus to institute the Eucharist. The float was taken to Rome in 1996 to receive the special blessing of Pope John Paul II.
The noise is never more exuberant than when the golden, jewel-encrusted tabernacle passes by, carrying the King of Kings disguised as the host. The monstrance is so large and ornate that it is accompanied by at least eight of the most important ecclesiastical dignitaries of the cathedral, guarded by rifle-carrying members of the Civil Guard. Photographers press close to record the moment. Before it, all bow and genuflect. Some toss rose petals on its base, taken from the designs crafted on the city streets.
The religious cortège, mission accomplished, reenters the cathedral where multitudes gather for the final ceremonies of hymns and prayers, offered amid clouds of incense that nearly obscure the tabernacle before it is returned to its permanent home. Many crowd against the grating of the chapel, hoping to gather a handful of the precious petals that were blessed by their proximity to the Lord.
For an American, the Spanish Corpus Christi procession is truly a foreign experience. It is not only the religious freedom of expression that is so remarkable. In spite of the fact that the festival is hundreds of years old, repetition has not led to indifference. On the contrary, it is difficult to imagine that eucharistic fervor was ever more intense than today, an age marked by violence, apathy, and a decline in church attendance.
Rays of love seem to emanate from the host that many deny contains the Real Presence, attracting as many followers as Christ did 2,000 years ago. It is the Eucharist itself that ignites the ecstasy of the masses, more than the canons, fireworks, and marching bands. Corpus Christi is a phenomenon that has its roots deep in Spanish history, born from a primitive eucharistic procession on the back of a donkey that was reminiscent of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.
What many do not know is that Corpus Christi in Spain is not merely an outgrowth of Pope Urban IV's order in 1264 that the entire Church celebrate the feast now called the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ observed annually the week after Trinity Sunday (this year on June 2). Pope Urban was formerly the archdeacon of Liège, France, whose bishop had been persuaded to initiate the feast in 1246 by Blessed Juliana after she experienced a vision. Spain's first eucharistic procession predates that event by seven years.
The festival's origin in this predominantly Catholic country is perhaps the key to understanding why it still exists. After the doctrine of transubstantiation was rejected during the Reformation, disbelief in the Real Presence led to the collapse of what had been the principal feast of the 15th-century Church, a pageant in which sovereigns and princes took part. Not so in Spain, however, where the procession has never lost its original popularity and appeal. The reason is found in medieval times.
It was the year 1239 in Daroca, a town of Aragón still noted for its Roman, Moorish, and medieval edifices, walls and plazas. Today this historic city owes its fame not to its architecture, however, but to its most priceless possession. This is the relic of the Sagrados Corporales, a cloth containing the bloodstains left when six hosts disappeared on Sunday, Feb. 23, as the chaplain was saying Mass in a nearby town.
On that memorable day, the regiments from Calatayud, Teruel, and Daroca were defending the territory of Valencia from the attack of the Moors. Knowing that his soldiers were in grave danger, the general exhorted his men to make an act of fervent contrition, followed by Mass. The six captains were to take Communion in the name of the combatants, but in the brief moments that transpired between the consecration of the hosts and the reception of Communion, the shrieks of the Moors were heard. The army was forced to take up their arms, and the priest quickly swallowed the host used for the consecration. Rather than consume the remaining six, he placed them between the corporals and hid them in a secluded cave.
The combat that ensued is considered to be one of the bloodiest and most miraculous conflicts of Spain. The Christians, after a resounding victory, gave thanks to the Lord and anxiously returned to the cave where the hosts were hidden. No one was more surprised than the priest when he unfolded the corporals. The hosts were bloodstained and so fused to the linen that they penetrate the weave even to the present day, six clearly visible shapes.
The army spent so much time in thanksgiving that they gave the enemy the opportunity to approach once again. The priest hoisted the cloth as a miraculous standard of the faith at the top of the hill, and its splendor seemed to dazzle the enemy troops. The Saracens began to kill their own men, with their armies turning against themselves. The few who survived fled to neighboring regions.
The three towns Catalayud, Teruel and Daroca all disputed which would be the custodian of the sacred corporals. They finally agreed to place the cloths in a metallic box, fastened to the back of a small, blind mule that was allowed to wander as Providence directed. The walk taken by the mule lasted 14 days, accompanied by crowds that witnessed several miracles. The animal finally collapsed at the town gates of Daroca on March 6, 1239.
This primitive journey of a mule carrying a eucharistic miracle on its back is considered to be the first Corpus Christi procession in Spain, giving rise to a fervor that manifested itself in frequent reception of Communion, Marian devotion, and the birth of Holy Week. In fact, the Miracle of Daroca became the seed of the meaning of Corpus Christi in Spain: a procession that goes out to everyone, believers or not, exhibiting the Eucharist as an expression of Jesus' love and peace for all. This is still its primary characteristic.
More about the Miracle of Daroca and the Holy Chalice of Valencia can be found in Janice Bennett's new book, "St. Laurence and the Holy Grail: The Story of the Holy Chalice of Valencia," to be published by Libri de Hispania in August. A local author, she also penned "Sacred Blood, Sacred Image: The Sudarium of Oviedo, New Evidence for the Authenticity of the Shroud of Turin" (March 2001). Visit Bennett's website at www.libridehispania.com. Bennett is leading a pilgrimage to Spain Sept. 12-29. For information, call 303-973-2541.