Fronleichnam: What is being celebrated in Germany on Corpus Christi?
This Thursday is another public holiday in some parts of Germany and, if you're in the right place at the right time, you will be treated to the sight of large processions of people parading through the streets in traditional clothing, chanting prayers and singing hymns, accompanied by parishioners carrying jewelled statues of the Virgin Mary and other saints. Meet Corpus Christi, known as Fronleichnam in Germany.
Celebrated at the beginning of summer, 10 days after Whitsun, Corpus Christi always falls on a Thursday and commemorates the Holy Eucharist – the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The festival – once controversial – is not celebrated as widely around the globe as other Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter.
Origins of Corpus Christi
So what exactly is Corpus Christi, and why is it celebrated?
The German name for this festival, Fronleichnam, comes from the Middle High German word "vronlicham" – "vron" meaning "lord" and "licham" meaning "body". Thus, the name literally translates to “body of God”. The English name, Corpus Christi, comes from Latin, and also holds the same meaning (Body of Christ).
The Holy Eucharist
But why do the body and blood of Christ get their own festival? On the day of the Last Supper, the day before he was crucified, Jesus gathered together his disciples to break bread and drink wine. He proclaimed the bread to be his flesh and the wine his blood, thus creating the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
On Fronleichnam, Catholics honour this and celebrate the belief that Jesus remains with them in the flesh through the bread and wine consumed during communion.
Juliana of Liège, Belgian canoness regular
Although the Holy Eucharist is honoured during Lent, on Maundy Thursday, it is also celebrated as a separate feast in the Christian calendar - and nowadays as an official public holiday in many countries - because of the actions of Juliana of Liège, a 13th century canoness from Belgium.
Orphaned at a young age, Juliana grew up in a convent in Liège, where she developed a special veneration for the Blessed Sacrament. She longed for a feast day outside of Lent in its honour and, starting in 1208, witnessed a series of visions in which Christ instructed her to plead for the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi.
After approximately 40 years of work, Juliana's petition was eventually successful and in 1264 Pope Urban IV instituted for the entire Latin Church a feast focused solely on the Holy Eucharist.
Where is Fronleichnam celebrated?
Nowadays, Corpus Christi is generally only a public holiday in areas with a predominantly Catholic population. In some countries, including Germany, the feast was suppressed in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation.
Martin Luther believed processions with consecrated elements to be blasphemous, idolatrous and conflicting with Christ’s order and establishment. He spoke out several times against Corpus Christi, referring to it as “the most shameful festival”. In fact, it is also believed that the extroverted and bombastic character of the celebrations had the political motive of showing the Protestants how great it was to be a Catholic.
Later, during the Nazi era, this was used as a means of passive resistance against the secular state rulers. This tradition carries on even today, with these parades intended to point out that religion belongs just as much to the public sphere as to the private.
How to celebrate Corpus Christi in Germany
In Germany, Fronleichnam celebrations take on different forms in different parts of the country. The most common aspect of these celebrations are the processions in which parishioners carry jewelled statues of Virgin Mary and the saints – as well as ornately decorated monstrances – through the streets. Priests and acolytes lead the procession under a canopy, bearing the blessed sacrament.
But even these processions vary between in different areas. For example, in Cologne the procession involves over 100 ships, while a much smaller procession in Bamburg sees 18 men carry a large cross across the town. In North Hesse, the celebrations commence the night before, when eight town cathedral bells are rung and a canon is fired three times – a tradition known as Katzenkoppschießen.
In some of the more rural areas of Germany, Fronleichnam is still celebrated in the traditional manner with colourful processions, children wearing white, adults wearing regional clothing and streets decorated with freshly-cut greenery. In the Black Forest and Schwäbische Alb communities, elaborate flower carpets line the route of the procession, some of them almost 1.000 metres in length.