Wednesday 29 May 2024

St Philip & Corpus Christi

Today we find ourselves sandwiched between two great feasts: of Our Holy Father St Philip yesterday and of Corpus Christi tomorrow. Even by the standards of any saintly priest, St Philip’s devotion to the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament were extraordinary. God seems to have recognised this feature of his spirituality by calling him to heaven on the feast of Corpus Christi itself.

St Philip’s devotion to the Eucharist was not complicated or unique. It was simply the logical consequence of the faith we all share. We believe that when Christ said, “This is my body,” he meant it. St Philip said, “Our sweet Jesus, through the excess of his love and generosity, has left himself to us in the Most Holy Sacrament.” God has given us everything that we have, but he still wanted to give us something more.

Christ’s presence on the altar during the Mass transforms the church into a small piece of heaven on earth. If we really believe that Christ himself is present, where else could we want to be? And so St Philip taught his spiritual children, “In order to begin well, and to finish better, it is quite necessary to hear Mass every day, unless there be some lawful hindrance in the way.”

Most people at the time received Communion just once a year (which is still the all the Church asks of us). But Philip encouraged people to receive Communion more often, so that they could grow even closer to Christ. One of the most important ways that he prepared people for this was by hearing their confession first, to ensure they would welcome their Lord with a clean conscience and a pure heart.

In his later years, St Philip’s devotion grew so great that it could be seen when he was saying Mass. When he elevated the Host after the consecration, he would sometimes be lifted up off the floor. And before he received Communion, the server had to extinguish the candles for safety, and leave him alone in silent prayer. A sign would be left on the door, “Silence! The Father is saying Mass.” The server would return when Philip had come back down to earth — sometimes as much as two hours later — and the Mass would continue.

We come to share in this Eucharistic faith ourselves through our exterior actions. We may know that the Church teaches that bread becomes Christ’s body, and we may accept that teaching happily. But if we do not respond to that with our actions, we will struggle to believe it. It is only by treating Christ’s Body as the most important and most precious thing in our lives that we will actually believe this to be so. This is, after all, how the Church has taught the faithful for hundreds of years — not by explaining the theology of transubstantiation endlessly, but simply by being treating the the Blessed Sacrament with the reverence that Our Lord deserves.

That is why we genuflect and kneel, to show with our bodies what at times we may forget in our minds. That is why for most of her history, the Church has allowed only the priest to touch the Sacred Host, and asked him to handle it as little as possible. That is why we expose the Blessed Sacrament with great solemnity for holy hours, benediction, and for the Forty Hours’ Devotion. That is why we will carry the Blessed Sacrament with great honour through the streets of our city this Sunday in our Corpus Christi procession, and why hundreds of people will turn out to show the world that this is not bread. That’s why we are asked to fast before receiving Communion so that when we approach the altar rail, we are hungry and thirsty for God himself. As St Philip said, “Let all go to the Eucharistic Table with a great desire for that Sacred Food. Thirsting! Thirsting!”

If we look forward to receiving Holy Communion — however often that may be — we have a real practical way of making Christ the centre of our lives. Then we may share some of St Philip’s appreciation for the greatest gift Christ has given us — himself.