Pange Lingua is part of the great gift of St. Thomas Aquinas to the Church. The following is from a paper that I did on the feast of Corpus Christi. It references the background to this hymn and the Mass of Corpus Christi that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote after Pope Urban IV asked him to:
“The holy Eucharist contains the whole spiritual treasure of the Church, that is, Christ himself…. He who is the living bread, whose flesh, vivified by the Holy Spirit and vivifying, gives life to men…” – Vatican II
Throughout the history of the Church, from the first Mass at the Last Supper and on throughout the 2000 year history of the church of Christ, there has been one thing that has united Christians from every age, race, color, & gender: the Eucharist. Throughout the centuries the celebration of the Eucharist has changed many souls and many people, though because of the nature of the Eucharist; that is, the belief that it is the Body, Blood Soul & Divinity of Christ under the auspices of bread, can be hard to believe in. The early Christians were able to still have the stories and memories of when Christ was with them, so each time they celebrated the Eucharist it was quite personal for them.
There came a time in the Church when priests and the Laity began to become more and more separated from the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Such was the case as with Father Peter of Prague. He was a German priest who according to local legend stopped at the local church of St. Christina in Bolsena, Italy to celebrate Mass for a group of pilgrims. Father Peter had been having problems with belief that it was truly Christ present in the Host and had hoped that, through this pilgrimage he would be able to regain his beliefs. According to local Tradition; as Father Prague lifted the Host above the Altar and said the words of consecration: “Hoc Est Enim Corpus Meum” drops of blood began to drip from the sacred host onto the Corporal that covered the Altar. The stunned priest didn’t quite understand what was happening or what he needed to do, until the realization came to him, that the Host had turned unto actual flesh in his hands and that it had blood coming forth from it. Father Peter decided to stop the Mass, and ordered the people to take him to the near-by town of Orvieto, where the Pope Urban IV was hiding from a threatened invasion of Rome from Sicily. Fr. Peter met with the Pope & St. Thomas Aquinas who was there as well to discuss the miracle and receive forgiveness for stopping the Mass. After hearing the priest’s story, Pope Urban granted him absolution and ordered that the Host, and corporal be brought to him immediately. After his emissaries inspected the scene and the evidence, they carried it from Bolsena to Orvieto where the Pope and his Cardinals with much pomp and circumstance met them. They all proceeded to venerate the Miraculous Host and blood stained corporal, and left them enshrined in the Cathedral of Orvieto, where they are still venerated to this day.
After the procession, Pope Urban gained the re-assurance that he had wanted, to issue a proclamation declaring a feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, to the world. So in 1264 at the convening of the Lateran Council, Pope Urban issued his Transiturus de hoc mundo Papal Bull, (Vatican.va). In the Bull, Urban declared the belief of the Catholic Church, that the bread and wine become the very Body and Blood of Christ. Thus, he put out the term: transubstantiation. Urban also commissioned the later doctor of the Church, Thomas Aquinas (James Chegwidden cts.org) to write a Mass for the feast of Corpus Christi. Thomas did so eagerly and now it has become one of the most famous and well known as the songs: Pange lingua and Lauda Sion. His songs; O Salutaris and Tantum Ergo are still sung today by Catholics during Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
The Feast of Corpus Christi is famous for the Corpus Christi processions that are held by the members of the faithful and their priests, to announce the belief in the true presence to the world. “The public procession of the Eucharist should be promoted everywhere, especially in the light of the example of Pope John Paul II, who took the annual Corpus Christi procession from St. Peter’s square to the streets of Rome.” (Elliott, 2004)
The Procession is one of much planning, but one that the faithful can look forward to as an outward sign of their faith. It can also be a problematic item though, as it was to the people of Orvieto, Italy in 1950. Back when Pope Urban had first approved the miracle of Bolsena, he gave the blood stained corporal and host-flesh back to the Orvians, as he told them: the “good people of Orvieto who with much valor and sacrifice saved our person and protected us, thereby fully deserving the honor to protect the Lamb’s blood as they saved the Lamb’s vicar.” Thus the people were indeed attached to their private mystery, or miraculous event and were very upset when in 1950 their Bishop decided to give the Reliquary that they had commissioned to the people of Rome on loan to expose to the faithful during the annual Corpus Christi celebration there. The people began to become angry at the thought that they would never see their relic again and asked their Mayor to help make the Bishop stop it, but the Mayor being a communist and anti-religious didn’t do anything. The Bishop at hearing the people’s laments told them: “I beg you Orvietans … we live in dire times . . . There is so much suffering . . . in the prisons . . . hospitals . . . streets . . . homes . . . behind the Iron Curtain that has been lowered across Europe. For the sake of our brothers beyond, one of whom saw faith’s light because of our corporal, don’t be divided by quarrels. Make the sacrifice, however great it may seem, for the sake of our persecuted brothers … The Bohemian College in Rome has asked us for the honor of being the reliquary’s bearers in the papal procession. They’ve no prospect of seeing any of their own town festivals in the near future . . . Where are your hearts, Orvietans! How will you say no to these Bohemians?” (The Corporal of Orvieto) Thus, the feast of Corpus Christi is one of great significance it has been born of a miraculous miracle in a little town of Italy, but it has spread throughout the world. It has inspired Popes, Saints, and the faithful alike. It has brought about the creation of great works of music, which are still used 764 years after they were wrote. It has won countless souls to Christ and continues to be one of the great feasts of the church, one, in which we profess our faith in Him, who is the head of the church, Jesus Christ, truly present body, blood, soul, and divinity under the forms of bread and wine.