Feast day: April 6
St. Juliana, a little-known Norbertine canoness from modern-day Belgium, spent much of her life advocating for a feast to honor and celebrate Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist and all the meaning it holds for the Church. St. Juliana was prompted to advocate for the feast in response to not only her own personal devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, but also in response to private revelations.
The culture in the Church at the time was ripe for a renewal of Eucharistic theology and practice. In the 13th century, Eucharistic reception among the faithful had plummeted, owing to emphasis of personal unworthiness over the need for sacramental grace. The practices built upon this approach is what forced Church leaders at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) to require Catholics to receive Holy Communion at least once a year at Eastertide — one of the Church’s precepts even today.
The visions Juliana began receiving when she was 16 years old indicated the necessity of a liturgical feast in honor of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.
After being orphaned at age 5, Juliana grew up in the monastery in which she professed vows as a consecrated religious woman. Her intellectual formation was quite advanced for a woman of her time, as seen in her own patristic studies. She eventually became prioress of her convent. Yet her gifts for contemplation were even more impressive.
Interpreted later, in consultation with spiritual guides, the visions Juliana began receiving when she was 16 years old indicated the necessity of a liturgical feast in honor of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. Given the culture of the early 13th century, she felt there was nothing she could do about instituting such a feast. However, she had confided in two individuals, other than a few members of her monastery, about the visions — both of whom proved to be helpful in bringing its establishment to fruition. This made Juliana’ vision and resultant mission all the more vital to her time.
At first hesitant about carrying on this mission, she prayed to be released from the obligation so that others more suitable and scholarly could take up the task. She even kept this vision a secret for 20 years. Nonetheless, Juliana persevered in seeing through what the Lord called her to do. The young monk who served as Juliana’s confessor, John of Lausanne, collaborated with her to compose an office by which to celebrate this divinely inspired liturgical feast. Eventually, their diocesan bishop approved the texts and authorized its celebration in his diocese in 1246.
Blessed Eva of Liège, an anchoress attached to the parish attended by St. Juliana and one of her confidantes, was instrumental in bringing the feast beyond its provincial origins after St. Juliana’s death. Blessed Eva had contacted Pope Urban IV with the request to celebrate the feast throughout the universal Church. The future pope originally was a priest of Liège and already had been familiar with St. Juliana’s visions and their meaning. And so, it seemed, the hand of providence was behind the pope’s 1264 declaration of the solemnity of Corpus Christi — the first universal feast to be imposed obligatorily by a pope. He assigned papal theologian St. Thomas Aquinas to compose new liturgical texts for the feast. Not only did this promulgation come at a time when the Eucharistic reception and practice needed to be revived, but also when scholastics debated the corporeality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Chief among the defenders of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist was Thomas himself, who supplied the philosophical backbone of the Church’s Eucharistic doctrine by defining transubstantiation.
Noting that Juliana is “little known,” Pope Benedict XVI said in 2010 that “the Church is deeply indebted to her” for her persistence in seeing through the Lord’s desire for a yearly liturgical celebration in thanksgiving for his body and blood. And that feast itself inaugurated a new springtime of Eucharistic faith and devotion, leaving a spiritual legacy still with the Church today. Juliana was canonized in 1869.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s Simply Catholic. He writes from Indiana. Taken from the “Inspired by the Eucharist” saint booklet.