We surged out of the Church of the Assumption into Warwick Street where a large crowd was waiting. It took some minutes to get the procession formed as the numbers were substantial, but it was well-organized and then we were off – at a slow, measured pace and with glorious hymns “Praise my soul the king of Heaven”, “Sweet Sacrament divine”, and “O Bread of Heaven”.
This was London’s—indeed Britain’s—first large Procession of the Blessed Sacrament in three years – the last was in 2018 at the conclusion of the great Eucharistic Congress in Liverpool. And, wow, this felt good.
Our first stop was the great Jesuit church in Farm Street – as its name implies, it stands on what was once farmland, but for well over a century now it has been at the heart of London’s busy shopping/restaurant/posh hotel area. We crossed Regent Street and made our way – still singing, led by a good amplifier and with a booklet offering a range of well-known hymns – around Berkley Square. I sneaked a look backwards. We were much larger than I had imagined. Perhaps not as big as that procession in Liverpool, where even the BBC admitted to several thousand, but still good numbers. All the trimmings – children scattering flowers, Knights of Malta and various other orders in robes, lots of clergy, and above all the Lord, in the Blessed Sacrament, held aloft and carried beneath a canopy.
The procession was organized by four central London churches, in solidarity with the international Eucharistic Congress held in Hungary. And I think it was, for many of us, a sort of celebration of public Catholicism after months and months of uncertainties and restrictions due to COVID. It was well marshaled, and the police held back traffic at relevant points as required – the whole thing had a sense of flow and purposefulness that is a credit to the organizers.
At Farm Street we were greeted by the parish priest Father Dominic on the church steps, in golden cope and flanked by altar servers. He is more usually seen in everyday clericals, supervising hot lunches served to the homeless from the parish hall – and, just recently, was in hiking boots and backpack, leading some of us along the lanes and meadows of Norfolk on a walking pilgrimage to the National Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham (12-15 miles a day, with Rosary and daily Mass: glorious!). The gothic frontage of Farm Street Church makes a good backdrop for an outdoor Benediction, and it was a powerful sight as the great procession sank to its knees. Moments like this are a lift to the heart, a morale-boost in tough times, a reminder of the reality of the unchanging reality of the Faith.
With the procession re-forming in good order, we went on to the Ukrainian Cathedral, one of London’s lesser-known gems. Here, truly exquisite chant greeted us and again there was another magnificent moment as the Blessed Sacrament was brought up the steps before a kneeling crowd. I had a sudden sense of the sweep of history – for many years this Cathedral was the centre of the Ukrainian exile community’s hopes and prayers for their country’s freedom from the cruel grip of the Soviet Union, and I remember learning from some of them the stories of the horrors of Stalin’s rule and the gulag.
And so to St James Church in Spanish Place, its name linked to its origins in the days when Catholics in London worshipped in the Embassy chapels of Catholic countries. Here, a final Benediction, with strong voices resounding in the Divine Praises: ”Blessed be God. Blessed be his holy name”. And the Prayer for England, asking Mary to “look down in mercy upon England, thy Dowry, and upon us all who greatly hope and trust in thee…”
As regular readers of Catholic World Report will know, London has been having other marches and processions in recent weeks. And there will be more – we are in many ways a troubled nation at present. But this procession brought hope. No angry insults from anyone in the busy streets through which we walked, no attacks or nastiness. Lots of photos and selfies, and a general apparent goodwill.
Singing is thirsty work. I think a lot of people headed for a well-deserved visit to a pub as the procession ended. I needed to head home, and got a large take-away cup of tea at Waterloo station. Just for a moment, standing there stirring in the sugar and checking the train departures, I had a sense of really belonging, of feeling that London was my home, as it has always been. That sense of alienation, of being a stranger in a much-loved city, had temporarily lifted. Let’s have plenty of Eucharistic processions over the next months and years.
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