We start early, right after morning Mass lets out at 8 a.m. There’s always the initial uncertainty as we stand around in shorts and sweatshirts, shivering slightly in the cool June dawn, waiting for someone to give a direction. But when it does come, what an explosion of activity follows. It doesn’t cease until the church’s stained-glass windows are once again dark and the police barriers come down from the street.
Catholics love an excuse for a party. But before the party tonight, there will be a procession, a beautiful, glorious one that makes its way up and down Franklin Street in downtown Dayton, Ohio, bringing song, joy, and most important, Christ, out into the world. This is the feast of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ.
It’s a fairly new tradition, by Catholic standards, begun in the 1200s thanks to Saint Juliana of Mont Cornillon, in present-day Belgium. Juliana was devoted to the Blessed Sacrament from a young age and longed for a feast day dedicated in its honor. According to Catholic Answers, “this desire is said to have been increased by a vision of the Church under the appearance of the full moon having one dark spot, which signified the absence of such a solemnity.” She took the idea to her local bishop, who embraced it. What started out as a local feast was eventually made official in 1264 by Pope Urban IV, who declared an annual celebration on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday.
The practice began at my family’s parish in Ohio thanks to Pope John Paul II and a pilgrimage. There are many powerful and moving images of the former Holy Father, but perhaps one of the most powerful is of him kneeling, deep in prayer, gazing at Christ in the monstrance on a beautifully decorated float moving slowly through the streets of Rome. My parents witnessed this moment in 2001 and were profoundly moved. In Siena, they witnessed the street decorations: yards and yards of dyed woodchips, thousands of flower petals, and countless pieces of chalk were used to transform the streets into a pathway fit for the King of Kings to pass over.
Back in the U.S., my parents convinced their parish priest to let them organize a procession, and in June 2002, seven adults worked the entire day decorating the street. Pictures show them hosing down the drawings to keep them from blowing away; the day was blisteringly hot, drying the woodchips quickly, and a crisp breeze threatened to undo hours of work. Now, however, the parish’s procession is in its 17th year, and it has exploded. Everyone is welcome, the young and the old. Entire families turn out, bringing buckets, wagons, and extra chalk. Dressed in old clothes and ready for action, teams begin to form, because it’s time for the decorating to begin.
The decorations are drawings, usually outlined in chalk and then filled in with colored woodchips, sort of like a paint-by-number. Religious symbols such as the IHS sunburst, a chalice, the Eye of God, wheat and grapes, and the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts are spaced out along the street.
Someone oversees the event, delegating jobs, making sure workers understand the dye-to-woodchip-to-water ratio, and ensuring that the designs are different. They are there to encourage, not to control, showing families and children the beauty of the Catholic faith, giving them the chance to create something for our Lord. It brings the community together in work, prayer, and fellowship (and the hot-dog luncheon!), all focused on giving back to God in thanksgiving for His countless blessings.
At 2 p.m., everyone sweaty and multicolored from toes to knees and fingers to elbows, the finishing touches go on the designs, everything is tidied, and everyone hurries home to dress for Mass.
At 4:30 p.m. people arrive back at church. The procession director scurries around, making sure everything is properly placed, and Mass begins.
Mass is nearly over but, before the final blessing, everyone kneels in silence. Then the procession begins to form, beginning with the crucifer and growing to include banner-carriers, flower girls, and first communicants. The choir is poised to sing, the priest lifts the monstrance, and the procession starts.
Outside, a canopy is lifted over the priest and monstrance. The congregation files out, and we all break into song: “At That First Eucharist,” “O Sacrament Most Holy.” The priest and the canopy process down the middle of the street on the beautiful carpet. After praying and singing our way up and down the street, we end up back in the church for the final blessing.
The eventful day finishes with a shared meal, children playing, and people admiring the art.
The next day, street cleaners have removed the woodchips, reopening the street. But the chalk outlines remain, and petals linger on the street edges. The celebration doesn’t end here. If it did, our labor on Saturday would be completely misunderstood. No, it must continue, in small and simple ways, impressing upon our hearts and memories a deep and abiding joy.