The solemnity known as Corpus Christi (in Portugal called the Body of God) or the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, only gained prominence in the Liturgy in 1246, when the Bishop of Liège (Belgium) instituted the feast in his diocese. . Pope Urban IV (formerly Bishop of Liège) extended the feast to the whole Church, as a solemnity of adoration of the Holy Eucharist.
The Corpus Christi ceremony was celebrated in Portugal in the 13th century, since the reign of King Afonso III. At the time, it was a worship party, not involving the procession through the streets.
The procession rite was instituted by Pope John XXII (1317). In the Church of the Martyrs, in Lisbon, the rite of the festival with the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, Procession, solemn Vespers and Sermon was maintained throughout the centuries.
The Procession became the most eye-catching and interesting of all, deserving the title “Procession of Processions”.
Constituted by civic and corporate procession, with floats, picturesque figures, dances, and scenes from sacramental acts, the procession took hours to walk, becoming both a religious and a social event.
The Chambers, determining royal instructions, published Regulations or Regulations of the Procession, indicating the uses and customs, the ways of dressing, the obligations of each Corporation, the dances (among them the Judenga, or dance of the Jews), the flags and banners , the choreographies (angels, sacred figures …) and the place of the Clergy. Rare were the municipal councils that had no Party Regulations, but the most expressive memories about the Procession were in Coimbra, Porto and Lisbon.
Celebrated in Lisbon, the Feast of the Body of God included the Procession, for the first time, in 1389. These were the times of consolidation of autonomy vis-à-vis Castile and of the good atmosphere created by the warlike victories of Nuno Álvares and the British cultural influence (to the point de S. Jorge – English devotion, winner of Mal, do Dragão – to be considered Patron of Portugal).
For this reason, the Corpus Christi ceremony was joined by the feast of S. Jorge. This combination resulted in the magnificence of the capital’s Procession. The party reached surprising grandeur in the time of D. João V, incorporating the Procession, it immediately included the socio-professional associations and also the delegations of the various Religious Orders of Lisbon (Augustinians, Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, Order of Christ .. .) and military. In the procession, the figure of S. Jorge on horseback and the Serpe, or infernal dragon (of the Chinese type, moved by extras), against which S. Jorge fought, loomed.
There were stops to represent the fame or glory of S. Jorge; and also for a series of dances. The traditional “stations” of the Blessed Sacrament were also represented, as is still done today in the Seville procession.
At the end of the procession, came the canopy, whose rods took the highest dignitaries of the Court and the Chamber, always represented by the entire Council. Under the pallio, the Bishop of Lisbon moved, showing custody with the Blessed Sacrament. He was flanked by the King, or Head of State, or similar dignitary.
A curious fact to note is the temptation to carry out attacks against royal figures, during the “Corpus Christi” procession. One of them, against the person of D. João IV. Surviving the monarch to the act, his wife (D. Luísa de Gusmão) promoted the construction of the Convento dos Carmelitas, in Baixa Lisboeta. Built in the exact place of the failed crime, it was called the “Corpus Christi”. Another famous attack took place against D. Manuel II, near the Church of Vitória, when the procession passed on Rua do Ouro.
But the 1910 legislation, banning the Church’s holy days (except Christmas and January 1), interrupted public worship, although solemn masses continued to be held in churches. In 2003, the Corpus Christi Procession went back to the streets of Baixa, where it was once held. The solemnity, presided over by the Cardinal-Patriarch, began with the celebration of Mass in the Largo da Igreja de São Domingos. The procession ended at Rua Garrett, in front of the Martyrs’ Basilica, with the Blessing of the Blessed Sacrament. More than five thousand faithful attended the Mass and procession – among them civil and military authorities.
Nowadays the celebration begins in the Cathedral before continuing on the streets of Baixa.