A New British Tradition?

Is this the start of something that will become a London tradition? On a golden October afternoon, a great crowd of people walked along the route that links together London’s two Catholic cathedrals – Westminster Cathedral in Victoria Street not far from the Houses of Parliament, and St George’s Cathedral in Southwark on the opposite bank of the Thames.

The idea was to hold a celebratory Procession of the Blessed Sacrament to give thanks, one year on, for two things – the State Visit of the Holy Father, and the Beatification of John Henry Newman. The date of October 1st was chosen because it fell between the date of the anniversary of the State Visit and the date (Oct 9th) of Blessed John Henry’s new feast-day.

Earlier in the year, a joint meeting was held with staff from both Cathedrals, and plans were made. The idea was to keep everything very simple – the route would start at Westminster Cathedral and go down to the river, along Horseferry Road and past the gardens that lie alongside the Houses of Parliament. Then, it would cross Lambeth Bridge, and work its way down to St George’s where things would finish with Benediction. No bands, no loudspeakers, no great displays of banners. Just people walking together in prayer.

Handbills were distributed and London Catholic parishes were urged to promote the event. And London Catholics turned up in vast numbers, pouring into Westminster Cathedral and gathering on the steps and in the piazza which fronts on to Victoria Street. As the Blessed Sacrament was borne in procession, flanked by altar servers with candles, down the Cathedral’s central aisle and out into the sunshine, everyone sang Newman’s famous hymn “Praise the Holiest in the height”. At the front of the whole procession was a cross-bearer and two servers.

Everyone simply fell into line behind and moved slowly down Ambrosden Avenue, past Archbishop’s House and into Horseferry Road and Marsham Street. They sang hymns and prayed the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary. The Blessed Sacrament was some way back, towards the rear of the whole procession, and safely protected on all sides.

Carrying the Monstrance through the London streets was not a simple matter – a monstrance is heavy and the bearer wears full vestments and must move slowly and with care. The route through to Southwark is a long one, and it would be necessary to share the burden – but any changeover had to be done with great care, dignity, and caution. That this was all accomplished without any problems is due to the devotion and care shown by Bishop Alan Hopes and Canon Christopher Tuckwell and their accompanying acolytes.

Taking part in this wonderful event was a powerful experience. The stunning sight of a singing crowd walking across Lambeth Bridge past one of the most famous views in the world – Big Ben and Parliament on one side of the river and Lambeth Palace on the other – is something that will stay with me. The sound of people’s voices saying the Rosary – competing with the roar of traffic – the atmosphere of friendship and goodwill, and the silence and devotion as we knelt in adoration on arrival at St George’s – all these are memories to cherish.

During last year’s Papal Visit, Pope Benedict celebrated Mass at Westminster Cathedral, and he also visited Lambeth Palace, home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and travelled across Lambeth Bridge in the Popemobile. So our processional route was strongly linked to one that he had taken a year before. Back in 1982, Pope John Paul II also celebrated Mass at Westminster and addressed crowds in the piazza – and visited St George’s Cathedral, Southwark, for a special Blessing of the Sick. Frail, wheelchair-bound, and handicapped people were brought there in large numbers and today a beautiful stained-glass window commemorates the scene.

Our Procession contributed another chapter to London’s long Catholic history. Blessed John Henry Newman celebrated Mass at St George’s – though never at Westminster Cathedral which was not built in his day. As Benediction ended at St George’s at the end of our procession, we spilled out into the courtyard and many went into the nearby Cathedral Hall for cups of tea, served by enthusiastic volunteers coping heroically with large numbers. And the one major topic of conversation was “Can we do this every year?” “Let’s make this a tradition!”