That morning, the priest in a suburban parish in London gave an uncharacteristic sermon.
Preaching on the theme of the Eucharist for the feast of Corpus Christi, he reminded his congregation how to receive Holy Communion. He talked of the need to approach the altar with a reverence befitting what was taking place. He talked of the need to walk and stand, or kneel, in a way that reminded both communicant and those around him that this moment was of great import.
The priest also, sadly, talked of abuses. Of people not consuming the Host but, instead, of some “slipping it into their pockets” and, later, of finding discarded consecrated Hosts lying around the church on benches after Mass had finished. In a tone as gentle and as matter of fact as he could muster, the priest stated simply but firmly: “Such things are wrong.”
Later that same day, I was standing outside a central London church, Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Gregory Church, on Warwick Street. The church is situated in the Soho area; it is a place not known for piety. In fact, it is a quarter noted for fashion and media, for partying and nightclubs, for excess and vice. It is good to have a church dedicated to the Immaculate One there.
The occasion for my visit was the annual Corpus Christi procession from Warwick Street to St. James’s Church in Marylebone. The distance is not far, perhaps a mile at most. The procession was billed as taking at least 90 minutes to cover the route.
After prayers in the church, the Blessed Sacrament was brought out to an awaiting group of acolytes and Knights of various Catholic orders whose task it was now to escort, under canopy and surrounded by candles, the Blessed Sacrament through the streets of central London.
As the procession moved off, it was also accompanied by hundreds of ordinary Catholics. These came from every quarter of the city and represented the vast diversity of this metropolis. All races and many nationalities were present to honor Our Lord in procession through the streets of London. It was a fitting entourage for Him given that the Church is nothing if not catholic.
So off we set. This was a walk of witness. So no talking, only prayer and hymn singing was allowed when accompanying Our Lord. Prayer was to be the witness of those who had gathered. Our focus was to be not on each other, still less on the spectators around us who gathered on the sidewalks, whatever their reaction, but upon the One whom we had come publicly to worship.
Nevertheless, it was impossible not to note the reactions of those who watched us approach and then slowly pass by. It is easy to imagine that in a city such as London the population is a great mass of heathens, indeed, worshipping “gods” far from the True One. Perhaps this is the first lie of the lord of this world. While jealously guarding his realm if knowing that his time is up sooner rather than later, he whispers to us that there is no one of faith left within the city walls.
As the procession passed what were seen upon the faces of the onlookers were looks of bewilderment. It was as if they could not believe that here, in the center of London, was a fully-fledged Eucharistic procession. Their eyes marveled at the candles, the cassocks, and the golden canopy. Their eyes widened more still at the golden monstrance, held aloft by the priest with a solemnity unknown in a quarter of London that is associated with the worst types of frivolity. The looks of the crowd then moved to those who were following in procession. Evidence of the different nations and peoples of all ages united in this act of public worship dispelled any easy prejudice about the type of person taking part. Then, and this was the most curious thing of all, another expression came upon the faces of those who stood looking. It was one of thoughtfulness. A reflective look even, one I had seen before elsewhere; it has, on occasion, been the preface to tears, or joy, or both, just prior to a conversion.
There was no doubt. This procession was a sight to behold. And so, inevitably, the onlookers reached for their cell phones and iPads and started filming what they could hardly believe was before their eyes.
As far as I could see, there was no act of sacrilege during the procession; I heard no word of blasphemy. For London, this was a miracle in itself. But, then, the thought dawned: of course it should be so, for what was taking place was no mere human endeavor. This was a supernatural event as much as an earthly one. Christ was walking the streets along with all there present. The reactions of the bystanders we encountered were similar to those He had encountered on dustier lanes.
And so, as we walked with Him, in silence largely, with hymns of praise interspersed, there came upon those taking part a strange sense of peace, as well as an unexpected sense of power. For, as the lord of this world knows all too well, we walked alongside the True King, and what was taking place in the sunshine on a summer’s evening in London was but a prefigurement of another Coming, when He shall be revealed in His Glory.