Online Edition – July-August 2005
Vol. XI, No. 5
Back to the Future: Reviving Corpus Christi Processions
by Joanna Bogle
Well, it was a start. Next year it will get better. In five years we’ll have something approaching a really good Corpus Christi procession.
The past few years in Britain have seen the revival of processions for the feast of Corpus Christi. It is a faint trend, by no means widespread yet, but noticeable enough for a commentator in a national newspaper to pick it up, reporting on the “carpet of flowers” laid at Arundel cathedral (which has actually been a feature of the cathedral annually for almost 100 years), and a central London procession organized by St. Patrick’s church in Soho.
This is the Year of the Eucharist. And it has been, so far, a notable year in which to be a Catholic: massive public interest in the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI, huge TV images of Masses in Rome with Latin chant and golden vestments. All this, combined with this gentle — only just noticeable — hint of a trend in the direction of a revival of Catholic devotions generally, meant that someone, somewhere, decreed that there would be a Corpus Christi procession locally. Hearing it announced at Mass was somehow an odd experience — one felt caught up in something between a gulp of nostalgia and a sense of going on tiptoe into a new era.
For weeks beforehand, announcements were made at local parishes. There was a slightly defensive tone: don’t let’s admit that this is a revival of a Catholic tradition that has been abandoned for almost a quarter of a century — let’s just carry on as if it were all utterly normal.
I approve of this policy: it works, and is in accordance with the Catholic way of doing things. One of the biggest disasters of the 1970s was the way in which almost every Catholic event — whether it was something worthwhile (like a pro-life prayer vigil) or something fairly ghastly (a coffee-table Mass in the parish lounge with an aggressive refusal to use proper vestments or a decent chalice) seemed to center on the notion that we were doing something new, revolutionary, different, innovative. It sent out the confusing message that perhaps the Faith itself — its teachings, its doctrines — was subject to change and might at some stage be replaced with something newer.
One of the best things to emerge from the writings of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger — indeed a consistent theme throughout all of them — is that there was no essential break with the past following the Second Vatican Council: the Church does not change her teachings but sees new insights and new approaches. We should emphasize consistency, unity, an unchanged and unchangeable reality at the core of our faith.
But of course it is a fact that we haven’t had any Corpus Christi processions for a good long while, and reviving the idea meant re-establishing a tradition, pressing some memory-buttons, re-opening mental and spiritual files that had been labeled “closed”.
“First Communicants are warmly invited to come in their special clothes — and please bring flower-petals to strew before the Blessed Sacrament”. The weekly announcements appealed to families who were likely to want to celebrate this important milestone in their children’s lives. There was also an appeal to a sense of parish loyalty — this was to be a deanery event involving all the local Catholic parishes: “Do let’s make sure the turn-out from St. Joseph’s is good” (with a hint that it would be fun to outnumber our rivals in the next suburb!)
Our parish priest — a former Anglican — has done a great deal to establish a prayerful and loving revival of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament in our parish. There is a weekly time of adoration, and there have been several all-night vigils. Teenagers in the Confirmation class had one evening where adoration was a major feature, culminating in Benediction.
All of this combined to ensure reasonable numbers on the day. The weather was kind, too, and the chosen venue — the grounds of a local girls’ school — made sense, offering the option of the school hall if rain arrived.
So how did it go? Broadly, it worked. Reasonable numbers, Benediction from an outdoor altar suitably erected at a good spot in the school grounds, the monstrance raised by a priest in a golden cope, united voices responding as a priest led us in a beautiful Litany of the Blessed Sacrament — yes, it was a proper Corpus Christi procession. There were some wrinkles. The First Communion children and the altar servers chattered and giggled and evidently really needed some more preparation to help them understand what was going on.
Middle-aged and elderly ladies talked, exchanging news, gossip and greetings — some quite loudly — as they walked. There was a slight sense of awkwardness — a hint of “Is this OK? Is this what we used to do? Can anyone remember properly?”
Traditional hymns used for part of the route would have been more rousing if we had had a choir to lead us. The inevitable guitar-and-microphone effort that greeted us on arrival at the outdoor altar was well-intended but probably not the best option. And there was confusion as to whether we should kneel — a firm instruction (perhaps simply along the lines of “Now let us all kneel!”) would have been helpful.
But the main point is that the Corpus Christi procession is back on the map. It’s happening. It’s on the parish calendar. It can happen again. Next year, one hopes, and the year after, and the year after that. With double the numbers. We’re back.
Joanna Bogle, who lives in London, writes frequently for the Catholic press, and often appears on radio and television. She is a contributing editor of Voices, the publication of Women for Faith & Family, our “sister” organization. (www.wf-f. org).
Joanna Bogle has an MA in Theology and is Visiting Research Fellow at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London.