Processing with the Blessed Virgin Mary in England

The annual May Procession is just one of many public expressions of Catholic devotion and belief in and around London

Out into the London streets we went, praying and singing. The statue of the Blessed Virgin wobbled a bit as the four men carrying her on the big platform on their shoulders stooped to get past the lamp post and the overhanging trees. The accoustics were magnificent under the railway arch.  At the popular absolutely-the-cool-place-to-eat restaurant a long line of people waiting to eat brunch stared at us and murmured to each other. Along the High Street passengers on buses stared, and people came out of shops to stare as well.

This was the May Procession [photos] held in the parish of the Most Precious Blood at The Borough, London Bridge. It’s in the care of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and the Rector is a former Anglican who came into full communion with the Church along with a big group of his parishioners. The May Procession has been part of the parish tradition for many years and the arrival of the Ordinariate brought a whole new sense of zest, joy and dignity to it all.  

(Information for American readers: The Borough is across the river from the City.  The City is the bit that’s famous, with St Paul’s and the Bank of England. The Borough is rich in history in its own right: the ancient Clink Prison which has given its name as slang for prisons everywhere, the church where John Harvard is buried, the old Palace of the Bishops of Winchester – and more).

In The Borough High Street we went slowly by the War Memorial where we gather every November to pray for the fallen and place scarlet poppy wreaths in their memory, and on down past the pubs and shops to Union Street – so named because of the grim Union Workhouse which stood there a century ago – and back to the church.

We sang “Ave, Ave Maria”, and children of the parish walked in the front of the procession, scattering flower petals before the statue of Our Lady. The statue is brought out year on year, and is decorated with ribbons and flowers. As we re-entered the church it was brought up into the sanctuary, and things finished with the Regina Caeli – this was still the Easter season. And then, after the final blessing, there was coffee and wine and cake in the crowded Parish Room, and singing because it was some one’s birthday.

“Oh, it’s so sad that all the old traditions have gone” was a sigh often heard among Catholics in the late 1960s.  But four decades on, the noticeable thing is that so many are coming back, and with new vigour.  May processions, Blessed Sacrament processions, the Rosary in October, prayers in the cemetery in November — some of this never disappeared, some went on in a muted form, most are now coming back in full flower.

A number of things have helped. World Youth Day set a new tone in outdoor expressions of Catholicism: large crowds, shared commitment, the drama as hundreds — millions at WYD — fall to their knees in unison.  Other factors: the great revival in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament – for which we can thank St John Paul the Great and Pope Benedict XVI – which took hold, in particular, among the young. And there is a new sense, in Britain anyway, of wanting to identify as Catholics, especially when feeling somewhat under siege for holding to the Church’s commitment to defending unborn life and male/female marriage.

Curiously, not all Catholics are happy. When I wrote joyfully a couple of years ago about a Corpus Christi procession in the London suburbs, an angry commentator from America expressed great concern. As a self-described “strong traditionalist” such things in “Vatican II’s New Church” made him indignant: “It makes it look as though the Church is alive, when everyone knows it’s not”.

But he was wrong, and the good things are happening. In the diocese of Southwark (from the southern bank of the Thames down to the Kent coast), every deanery has a Blessed Sacrament procession in June. In the great Cathedral at Arundel in Sussex, the traditional “carpet of flowers” created annually for over a hundred years – with exceptions in wartime – down the central aisle to honour the Blessed Sacrament draws vast crowds of visitors, and great throngs of the faithful follow the procession through the town.

Some things have become traditions but are really quite new; for instance, in many parishes, an ecumenical  Walk of Witness through the local streets for Good Friday, a Palm Sunday procession with Cross and incense going from the school to the church. And special events make for the establishment of something to commemorate them: a great annual Procession of the Blessed Sacrament now wends its way through London, crossing the Thames at Lambeth Bridge, honouring the State Visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain in 2010. He went to both Westminster Cathedral and St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, so now each year the two cathedrals are linked in this procession, for which good numbers of people turn out and which has turned into a tradition in its own right.

We need sound doctrine, beautiful liturgy, good teaching, strong families, the example of holy priests and religious. But we also need popular devotions, processions, flowers scattered by children, hymns sung in processions, and people staring at it all from London buses.


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About Joanna Bogle 77 Articles
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom. Her book Newman’s London is published by Gracewing Books.