The feast-day of St. John Paul the Great is on October 22, and there will be a Blessed Sacrament procession through London on that day.
The procession is an annual event that gives thanks for the highly successful state visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. One year after that visit, it was decided to hold a procession in thanksgiving, and because it was popular it has been held every year since, making this the fifth successive year. The procession has so far always been in October to link with the feast of Blessed John Henry Newman (October 8), who was beatified by Pope Benedict during his visit. Next year the plan is to move it to September to link with the actual date of the pope’s visit. But this year, its last in October, the procession happens to fall on the feast of St. John Paul. Which offers an excellent opportunity to see the whole thing in its context.
Both St. John Paul and Pope Benedict visited London’s two Catholic cathedrals—Westminster Cathedral in Victoria Street not far from the Houses of Parliament, and the lesser-known St. George’s Cathedral in Southwark on the other side of the Thames. The Blessed Sacrament procession links the two—which means that it passes over Lambeth Bridge, with Parliament as a rather magnificent backdrop.
It is all rather splendid: altar servers with candles, Knights of Our Lady in white robes, and at the heart of it the Blessed Sacrament held aloft by a bishop with a great cope beneath a canopy and surrounded by candle-bearers…
As the procession wends its way this year, praying and singing, there will be a naturalness about it. Five years is long enough to establish a sort of tradition: some people have come every year, others are newcomers. Over cups of tea or pub conversations afterwards there will be reminiscing and swapping of stories.
A hundred years ago it would have been literally impossible. In 1912 a great Eucharistic Congress was held in London and a procession was planned—but public protests meant that the authorities had to ban it. Catholic adoration of the Eucharist was, back then, widely deemed to be blasphemous and offensive; allowing it in public would have brought protests from dedicated Protestants, many of whom would have seen “popery” as a deadly threat and would have believed, or felt they ought to believe, that Catholicism was in some way dangerous to their nation, homes, and families.
How things have changed. In the final decades of the 20th century, after two world wars and the social shifts of the 1960s and 70s, old-fashioned anti-Catholicism no longer held sway. In 1982 Pope John Paul II visited Britain. Protests were few and were felt to be odd and out of touch with the general mood: he was a popular figure and was cheered and applauded as he made his way to Buckingham Palace for tea with the Queen. Pope Benedict’s state visit in 2010 was at her direct invitation; there was much controversy but it didn’t emanate from old-fashioned Protestants. Rather, it came from the new-style atheists, and was directed not so much at papal authority as such but at the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. Then, when he arrived, something extraordinary happened. This gentle, white-haired, scholarly figure exuded peace, love, and wisdom, and captivated everyone. The mood changed. Crowds surged out to greet him. Suddenly, things felt joyful.
Crowds cheered him through the streets, and the BBC and other media stopped getting campaigners from homosexual lobby groups to talk about sexual matters and started broadcasting news about what was actually happening: the cheering, the people holding up babies to be blessed, the thousands—mostly young—who had gathered to pray with him in Hyde Park. When Pope Benedict led us all in silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament there was an extraordinary TV spectacle: thousands of glowing candles, young faces, the darkening sky, the glittering monstrance, and—complete silence. No comment seemed necessary. All was focused on the altar and everyone, led by the Pope, was simply linked, just for those moments, to that other Presence, beyond words.
I had been asked to take part in a TV debate with a well-known homosexualist campaigner but was not anxious to do it. No problem; the whole thing melted away, the program was cancelled. The story was now different: it was about prayer, and a country caught up in something utterly unexpected, a glimpse of something completely other than what had been imagined…
Six years on, there is no point in pretending that the country has been converted to Catholicism, or even that people are generally sympathetic to the ideas, doctrines, and message that the Church cherishes and teaches. On the contrary: in just about every aspect of everyday life—sex, money, work, social justice, reverence for life itself—the common culture seems opposed to Christianity. But something is present all the same: a recognition that the Church is still there, that God and his love still call to us, that somehow the victory of secularism hasn’t tasted as good as it should have done, that the story continues.
By all the statistics, the Church in Britain should be dead by now. Just recently I came across a book written in the 1980s by an ex-Jesuit announcing that “well before the year 2000” the Catholic Church would in any recognizable sense have ceased to exist in most of the world. But—well—here we are. It is true that, leaving aside the thriving Church of Africa and Asia, things certainly do seem bleak. But here in London we still see full churches, young people at prayer vigils such as Nightfever and Youth 2000, and—among much else—a procession of the Blessed Sacrament weaving its way from Westminster Cathedral down to Lambeth Bridge and across the Thames.
So what happens next? What does the future hold? One reason for the Blessed Sacrament procession is to continue to claim Christ’s public presence in this city as part of the natural order of things. Papal visits of recent decades have given us a sort of confidence. We make no arrogant claim: we gather in freedom and do not impose anything on anyone. We gather in friendship, and with goodwill, and intend to pass this heritage on to the next generations.
Our city needs prayer. Britain’s confused and in many ways broken social fabric needs the witness of a joyful faith. Old prejudices have gone, and we live with new realities: family break-up, sexual confusion, ugly materialism and consumerism, a sense of empty promises and vapid slogans offering unreal hopes. The Catholic Church offers something real: its survival and revival is not a tribal witness but an authentic affirmation of truth. God is real, and came to live among men in the person of Jesus Christ. A relationship with him makes sense of everything. His Church is alive and gives witness to his truth. As Pope Benedict put it: “The Church is alive and the Church is young!” Or, as St. John Paul put it, quoting the Lord himself: “Do not be afraid!”
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