by Joanna Bogle
London in golden sunshine an unusually warm October day. A thousand people, walking in procession across Lambeth Bridge, with the prayers of the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary going back and forth between them as they follow a great processional Cross flanked by two acolytes. To the rear of them, surrounded by altar-servers and an incense-bearer, and carried with all the traditional honors, the Blessed Sacrament, held in a great monstrance. And behind, another prayerful surging crowd.
This was the first-ever “Two Cathedrals Walk”, linking together London’s two Catholic cathedrals Westminster Cathedral in Victoria Street, and St. George’s in Southwark.
As its name implies, Southwark is on the south bank of the Thames. It is the older of the two cathedrals. It was built in the middle of the 19th century on a site long associated with Catholicism there were Masses said and priests hidden in these South London streets in the years when these things were officially regarded as treason, which brought a sentence of death. St. George’s, designed by Pusey, a fine neo-gothic building, was an important part of the 19th-century Catholic revival and Blessed John Henry Newman was among those who celebrated Mass there.
And John Henry Newman was one major reason for this 2011 procession. His beatification by Pope Benedict XVI at Cofton Park, Birmingham, in 2010 was a source of great joy for the whole Catholic community in Britain, and one year later it was felt that the anniversary should be celebrated. So the “Two Cathedrals Walk” was planned a great procession of the Blessed Sacrament, going through London and, incidentally, following part of the route taken by the Holy Father in the Popemobile in 2010 as cheering crowds lined the streets.
Is it feasible to hold a Blessed Sacrament procession today, in a modern city with the attendant risks of traffic, noise, and disrespect? Will people take part? Will they feel able to pray and sing hymns publicly? What will happen if there is some loutish behavior or shouting by onlookers? Can the safety of the Blessed Sacrament be guaranteed?
We certainly need not have worried about the numbers attending a vast crowd thronged into Westminster Cathedral and its environs and as the procession moved off it was clear that it would be very large and very long.
Nor did we need to worry about any unpleasantness from onlookers there was absolutely none. Some people took pictures, many gawped. Some looked up briefly while enjoying a drink at a pub, some barely noticed, some asked questions of others. We had stewarding from the Knights of St. Columba and this was excellently done they had mapped out the route, checked every junction, knew how to direct the flow of people, and kept things gently moving.
The clergy carrying the Blessed Sacrament were dignified and cautious. They moved slowly, and were surrounded by servers who took great care. Everything was done beautifully even to the thurifer walking backwards, with the incense burning and scenting the air as puffs of smoke swirled around. Because of the large crowd a great mix, incidentally, of ages and races, including some young people with World Youth Day backpacks, and several nuns including some from Mother Teresa’s order and some from the new Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham there was a great sense of this being an authentic London event. The whole procession had its own sense of pace. Of course there was the usual occasional muddle with the singing one part of the procession already ahead with the next verse, while others lagged behind. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was the prayer, the presence of Christ among us, the blessing brought to the streets, the witness.
At St. George’s we had a beautiful Benediction, voices raised in “O Salutaris Hostia” and “Tantum ergo” and in the Divine Praises. The cathedral was packed. It is not quite the cathedral that Pugin knew his was bombed during the Second World War but rebuilt, as far as possible, according to his original plans. Down the years it has seen many memorable moments. After the bombing, people took part in Masses and other services in the ruins. Now, as the second decade of the 21st century rolls forward, it has seen a new chapter in its history. There is a general feeling that the Two Cathedrals procession ought to be an annual event.
In 1912 a Eucharistic Congress was held in London but at that time it was felt that a public procession of the Blessed Sacrament should not be attempted. Catholic Emancipation was not yet a hundred years old. There was still a great deal of sectarian feeling and much confused thinking about Catholicism. But the years have come and gone. 2012 marks the centenary of that Congress, and the mood is different. We have had two papal visits and there is ecumenical goodwill. The Blessed Sacrament has found its place in modern London. Deo Gratias.
Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio.
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