It always starts well, with much dignity and splendour, and then goes a bit straggly towards the middle, only to finish on a rousing note.
I’m talking about the great Blessed Sacrament Procession through London, which took place this year as the media was screaming headlines about confusion in the Church and the muddle over a poorly-translated document on marriage and the family. Our prayers were clearly needed, for the Synod and for much else – as the Procession began, we were reminded of the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, and had a special prayer for them.
This Procession was begun in 2011, to mark the first anniversary of the hugely successful State Visit to Britain of Pope Benedict XVI. There had been much controversy over the visit – but it turned out to be a triumph, one of the highlights of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. One year on, we wanted to give thanks. So the “Two Cathedrals” Procession was born.
It begins at London’s Westminster Cathedral, and goes down towards the river, via Ambrosden Avenue and Horseferry Road (yes, that unusual name really does mark the fact that, long ago, this was where you used the special ferry that would take your horse across the Thames). We have to make a stop at Millbank, because of the flow of traffic – this is always handled well by the excellent Knights of St Columba, who act as stewards – and then we cross the Thames at Lambeth Bridge. From there, it is a straight walk down to St George’s Cathedral, Southwark.
London’s two Catholic cathedrals are not far apart, but while Westminster Cathedral is well known and is something of a landmark for Londoners and for tourists, St George’s is something of a forgotten gem. It was badly damaged – indeed almost destroyed – by bombing in World War II, re built in its original gothic style, and serves the diocese of Southwark, which stretches from the south bank of the Thames down into the counties of Surrey and Kent.
The Blessed Sacrament Procession was led this year by Bishop Nicholas Hudson, a priest of the diocese of Southwark who has recently been appointed auxiliary bishop in Westminster. It is quite a challenge to carry the heavy monstrance all along the route, beneath the special “ombrellino” carried by an altar server, ands flanked by acolytes. The Procession begins with prayers in Westminster Cathedral, and then the crowd follows a great processional Cross out into the Piazza. The Blessed Sacrament is carried in the middle of the procession, and it is all a fine sight as it moves off down the side of the Cathedral, past the choir school, Archbishop’s House, and the cathedral hall.
Inevitably, things get rather ragged with the singing, as the crowd is so large – one group is singing one hymn, another, unable to hear the first, strikes up with another, and meanwhile some one else begins the Rosary. There are stretches of silence. There are sudden stops because of something unexpected – this year, a series of buses parked under the railway bridge as we approached St George’s. But – thanks to many prayers that are offered up – the weather has so far always been kind, and the final Benediction in St George’s is always magnificent. The great crowd sings the Tantum Ergo and a roar of voices responds to the Divine Praises: “Blessed be God…” And things finish with a magnificent Salve Regina, honouring Mary with united voices soaring up to the gothic arches…
Every year, the crowd is substantial – and slightly larger than the year before. It is mixed-race and includes people of all ages, with some young families pushing children in strollers. It is becoming part of London’s Catholic life, and will, I hope, in a hundred years be part of its living history. Records show that, back in 1912, there were plans for a big Procession as part of the Eucharistic Congress being held in London that year. But it was too controversial, and the plan had to be dropped. Then, 99 years and two Papal visits later, the Blessed Sacrament Procession was held – and has been held annually ever since.
After the Procession, people mill about, some get a cup of tea in the Amigo Hall next to St George’s., some hurry to catch buses or trains, some stop to chat to friends. There is talk of how to improve the Procession – some amplification for the hymns, so we can all sing together? A couple of choirs, strategically places amid the big crowd? Always, one theme is constant: “It was wonderful. See you again next year!”