ROME—Pope John Paul II gave a big boost to Corpus Christi processions when he led his own through Rome on June 14.
His example—and the advice he gave during last year's Jubilee Year, which he called “intensely Eucharistic”—was followed throughout the United States when America celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi three days later.
“On this journey, Jesus precedes us with the gift of himself to the point of sacrifice and offers himself as food and sustenance,” the Pope said at Mass on the day the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ is celebrated In Rome. His procession wound from the Basilica of St. John Lateran to the Basilica of St. Mary Major.
In the procession, he said, Jesus is visible in the Eucharist held in a monstrance, but his invisible presence in people's hearts must be made evident through the way they live.
Similar processions were held in Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia, as well as cities such as Front Royal, Va., the Twin Cities, and Chicago. According to participants, the fruits of this public testimony of faith have been felt not only by those participating in the processions, but by bystanders as well.
This public profession of the Catholic teaching on the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament was first encouraged by the Council of Trent. A German eyewitness account, from 1851, mentions the custom of children dressing as angels to represent heavenly hosts and the tradition of the parish group marching together as a body.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, like so many others, is continuing this parish-wide practice on a broader level. Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua planned to celebrate Mass at St. Adalbert parish followed by a procession to four other parishes among the Port Richmond parishes of northern Philadelphia.
“A number of parishes have had a tradition of joining together with two or three others for a procession,” said Father Daniel Mackle, director of the office of worship for Philadelphia. “Last year the bishops of Pennsylvania made a commitment to continue a Corpus Christi [procession] in each of the dioceses. The Bishops hope to continue this practice each year because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.”
In Front Royal, Va., home to a host of Catholic institutions, more than 500 parishioners from St. John the Baptist marched together down Main Street for prayer and benediction at the gazebo located near the town visitors' center one-half mile away.
The procession began in 2000 under the leadership of Christendom associate librarian Stephen Pilon. “I was discussing the possibility of our Knights of Columbus council doing something spiritual for the Jubilee when someone suggested a Eucharistic procession,” recalled Pilon. Father William Ruehl of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Front Royal estimates that at least 450 people participated in the procession the first year.
This year the organizers placed an advertisement in the Arlington Catholic Herald and also invited parishioners and priests from six neighboring parishes to join the procession. They also involved the parish's first communicants and a group of young girls, known as the Little Flowers, who spread rose petals along the procession's pathway.
Father Ruehl believes that the procession is good not only for the parish but also the entire town. “It demonstrates the respect that we have for Christ in the Eucharist.”
That sentiment, says Pilon, is not lost on non-Catholics. “During the procession the entire congregation of a storefront Protestant church on Main Street came out to see what was going on,” explained Pilon. Legion of Mary members were on hand to answer their questions and let community members know what we were doing. “While they didn't believe what we believe, they were impressed that we believed in it enough to come out and do a procession,” said Pilon.
The Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis have alternated hosting a Eucharistic procession for the past five years. The inspiration for the procession came from Jennifer Speltz. “Originally she wanted to walk from St. Cloud 90 miles south to St. Paul, then the idea was whittled down to walking from Minneapolis to St. Paul. In the end, we walked four miles, from Nativity parish to the St. Paul Cathedral,” said Father Jim Livingston, one of the event's organizers. Attendance has fluctuated between 400 and 1000. This year the procession traveled 1.5 miles from the Church of St. Olaf to the Basilica of St. Mary in downtown Minneapolis.
While Father Livingston admitted that some folks get annoyed because they cannot cross the street, wonderful things happen as well. “As we passed one house a woman came out from her home, knelt down, and started crying in thanksgiving that this was taking place.”
Brother Peter Gabriel, another of the event's coordinators, said that there is a marked difference in how the residents of the two cities respond to the procession. “In St. Paul bystanders and neighbors genuflect. In Minneapolis, we travel through a park known as a homosexual hangout and through the center of downtown. In Minneapolis people give us looks as if we are a kind of cult. It's nonconfrontational. We're just bringing Christ where Christ needs to go. We are evangelizing simply by our presence.”
“We are getting in touch with the Catholic culture that so many Catholics do not have an awareness of and which in many areas has been dispensed with,” added Br. Gabriel.
Karen Atkinson agrees. She first participated when a friend asked her to play the flute as part of the 1998 procession. “Although I was raised Catholic, at first I couldn't quite fathom what they were going to do. Once it took place it very much touched my heart.” Atkinson has been involved in each procession since then.
“We're putting our lives on hold to spend time with Christ. As a result, my prayer life has increased. I am much more cognizant of being in a holy state when I receive Christ in the Eucharist, every day if I choose. I find myself more involved in youth ministry at Church. My free time is spent either with family or Church. My involvement has also opened me up to speaking about my faith with my parents and siblings,” said Atkinson.
Atkinson also tells of a friend who was profoundly moved after cantoring for the 2000 procession. “Father Benedict Groeschel spoke mid-way through last year's procession,” said Atkinson. “That talk opened many doors for my friend and it was a major turning point in his life.”