Feb 15, 2013

The Blessed Sacrament, London, and the 21st Century

Online Edition:
February 2013
Vol. XVIII, No. 10

The Blessed Sacrament, London, and the 21st Century

"Two Cathedrals" Procession Observes Beatification of Cardinal Newman

by Joanna Bogle

It was launched as a commemoration of Pope Benedict’s highly successful state visit to Britain in 2010. One year on, it was felt that we should have a celebration — maybe a big procession of the Blessed Sacrament through London?

I talked about it to my parish priest, and it was he who suggested a date in October, near the newly created feast of Blessed John Henry Newman. Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain centered on Newman’s beatification: the feast day, October 8, is a permanent reminder of the visit and of all that it meant.

The thought was that we could link together London’s two Catholic cathedrals — Westminster Cathedral in Victoria Street and St. George’s in Southwark. That would mean carrying the Blessed Sacrament through the streets of Westminster, crossing the Thames at Lambeth Bridge in full view of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, and going on past Lambeth Place and down toward St. George’s, which stands opposite the Imperial War Museum.

Teams from the two cathedrals met at St. George’s to plan things. And here a piece of history emerged: in 1912 a big Eucharistic Congress was held in London, and it was hoped that this would finish with a flourish with a Procession of the Blessed Sacrament. But in those days, it just couldn’t be done. Prejudice against such open displays of Catholicism in the capital city of the British Empire ran just a little too high, and there were threats of angry mobs and possible attacks on the Blessed Sacrament. So the procession was abandoned. But now here we were, almost exactly one hundred years later planning such a procession, in the unimaginably different Britain created following two world wars and massive social and political changes.

The 2011 procession drew a good crowd and took place in brilliant sunshine. Leaflets to London parishes, announcements at both cathedrals, and lots of internet coverage brought good numbers. We gathered at Westminster Cathedral and the Blessed Sacrament was carried out down the aisle in a great monstrance, beneath an ombrellino and surrounded by acolytes with candles and incense, followed by the large congregation, which was swollen by more people waiting on the cathedral steps and in the piazza.

Along the route, we sang well-known hymns, we prayed the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary — chosen because of their special Eucharistic theme — and we chanted litanies. Down Ambrosden Avenue and along Horseferry Road, and across the river, the Knights of St. Columba acting as stewards and ensuring that road-crossings were tackled smoothly. At St. George’s Cathedral, a beautiful Benediction, with the Tantum Ergo soaring up heavenwards from a packed congregation.

One year later — and exactly a century after that 1912 Congress — the procession took place again, and by now there was a strong sense of tradition associated with it, a feeling that this was something we’d been doing for years and would do far into the future. Again, good numbers — perhaps even a few more than the year before? — and a good spread of ages, children carried on shoulders, family groups, a team of young seminarians. As in the previous year, no signs of any disrespect as we passed shops and pubs and blocks of flats — on the contrary, some people crossed themselves, some took pictures on their mobile phones, some summoned friends to come and see. All looked on with interest.

There are things that need to be tackled: there will be problems if traffic has to be stopped for any serious length of time, although this can be avoided with good planning and stewarding. We really need to bring equipment so that the singing is more united: at present, in traditional Catholic style, one part of the procession is singing one verse, further down they are two verses behind, and further back yet they are singing a quite different hymn or have embarked on a fresh round of the Rosary. But these are all things that can be managed. As so often happens with church events, the organizing and planning has its own value in bringing people together and building up a sense of continuity and community.

We have had no problems at all with any protesters. In 2012 there were two rather angry men handing out leaflets from the Society of St. Pius X, denouncing the pope and the Church and, oh, just about everything. But that was all.

Blessed Sacrament processions are a feature of life in many parishes and deaneries in Britain now: after apparently being abolished in the 1970s they have returned in the past decade or so. Of course the month for such events is June, celebrating Corpus Christi, and processions feature First Communicants and the strewing of flowers before the Blessed Sacrament. Our “Two Cathedrals” London procession has a flavor and a message of its own.

Blessed John Henry Newman never knew Westminster Cathedral as it was built some years after his death, but he knew St. George’s (designed by Pugin and part of that great Catholic revival during Queen Victoria’s resign). The St. George’s that he knew, however, was destroyed by enemy bombing in the Second World War and rebuilt from ruins in the 1950s.

Newman’s London — horse-drawn vehicles, women in long skirts, chimneys belching smoke, lots of shipping on the crowded Thames — has vanished. Today, London is soaring tower-blocks with glittering windows, pop music blaring from shops, crowds in denim jeans, and Heathrow and Gatwick airports tackling millions of passengers annually. But the Blessed Sacrament can be carried through our streets and the beautiful prayers of the Church raised to God, and there is unity across the years. The Two Cathedrals Procession looks set to be an annual part of London life.


Joanna Bogle is a British journalist and author who appears frequently on radio and television. Her most recent article to appear in AB was “Mass and the Centuries: Pilgrimage Connects Past and Present” (October 2012). Her latest book is a biography of Blessed John Paul II for children, published by St. Paul’s Publishing, London.


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Joanna Bogle

Joanna Bogle has an MA in Theology and is Visiting Research Fellow at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London.