The homily preached by Fr Paul Keane on Monday 13 November 2023.
Perhaps most members of the University do not spend much time considering the names of the colleges. However, for Christians it can be edifying and encouraging to consider such dedications as Jesus, Christ’s, Emmanuel, Trinity. Yet for Catholics how thrilling it should be that on Trumpington St there is a college dedicated to Corpus Christi, to the real presence of the Lord in Holy Communion. Even Petreans like myself must accept that our house is merely dedicated to the Prince of the Apostles.
The history of this college goes back to the Black Death, which ravished Europe, killing a third of its citizens in 1349. As the plague spread from east to west, a group of Cambridge townspeople got together and raised funds to found an institution which would be both a college and a chantry – that is a place where priests would be educated and offer up Masses for those who had died. Corpus Christi remains the only college in both Cambridge and Oxford that was founded by local citizens and not kings, nobles, or bishops.
And these local citizens trusted in the grace of Holy Communion. As a recent history of this college puts it: ‘the Body of Christ, as medicine for the soul, had been much needed in 1349: it would have seemed one of the few solid realities in a collapsing world.’ Yes, on this earth what is more real than Holy Communion? Water is only water. Stone is only stone. But Holy Communion is Jesus Christ: body and blood, soul and divinity. It is the Son of God incarnate, through whom all creation was made and by whom we were saved. It is food transubstantiated into love eternal.
Someone who his risked his life for this heavenly food was St Henry Morse, member of this college and Catholic martyr. Having been educated here in the second decade of the seventeenth century, Henry was reconciled with the Catholic Church and made his way to the Continent to study for the priesthood and be ordained. He returned to England in 1633 and worked in London. From 1636-7, a dreadful plague swept the capital. Those who could fled. However, Fr Henry remained and is recorded to have spent himself supporting spiritually and materially four hundred families, one hundred of which were reconciled to the Catholic faith.
For this reason, Fr Henry Morse is known as the Plague Priest. How especially appropriate for a Corpus Christi man! Fear could have removed him from the scene, but Fr Henry knew that we are bound to care for the sick and the dying, and that there is no greater medicine for the soul than the Body of Christ. Don’t misunderstand me! We should not have an overly materialistic understanding of the effect of Holy Communion. It’s not medicine like a pill. It is greater than that. When you and I, in communion with the Church, receive Our Lord in the form of bread, and say, ‘Yes’ to Him, we allow Him to be present not only in communion but in us. And this ‘Yes’ matters. We must co-operate with the Lord, work with Him for our salvation. That is why it is huge when the priest holds the host before us and says, ‘Corpus Christi’ – ‘The Body of Christ’ – and we reply, ‘Amen.’ Our ‘amen’ should never be a mere matter of form, something said casually. We are confessing that this is the Body of Christ, and we are saying, ‘Welcome, Lord. Work in me, though me.’
Yes, work through me. Holy Communion is not a private devotion, a moment of inward looking. We receive Christ to become Christ: to look outwards, especially to those in need. One of the symbols of this College is a pelican pecking at its own breast to feed its young. How appropriately this myth of the bird fitted the truth of Christ: a saviour who feeds us with Himself. We are to do the same: feed others with ourselves. It’s why we receive Holy Communion: to become ourselves, more perfectly, the body of Christ.