A Carpet, History and a Eucharistic Congress

In a Britain of a collapsing culture, the Church must light beacons of hope

Arundel Cathedral, West Sussex, England
Arundel Cathedral, West Sussex, England (photo: Karen Roe, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

For over a hundred years, a carpet of flowers has been laid along the aisle of Arundel Cathedral, Sussex, in the south of England, at Corpus Christi, and the Blessed Sacrament has been carried across it at the start of a great procession. This year, the tradition continued, but with a new chapter added: the flower-carpet will be re-created later this year in the north at Liverpool Cathedral as part of the national Eucharistic Congress in September.

The two cathedrals could not be more different. Arundel Cathedral was built by Henry, Duke of Norfolk, in the 19th century in Gothic-revival style, with soaring arches and glorious stained glass including a fine Rose Window over the western door. Liverpool’s Cathedral is a modern circular structure topped with a turret aimed at making an impact on the urban landscape. The two buildings represent different strands in the story of the Catholic Church in England.

I was at Arundel for the packed Mass and procession which marks Corpus Christi, always still held on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday although the feast is currently marked on the following Sunday. The carpet of flowers attracts large numbers of visitors during the preceding days – Arundel is in a beautiful part of Sussex not far from the coast and every summer brings a flow of tourists. Local people are proud of the flower tradition. At the cathedral, each generation has somehow kept the project going and embellished it - the only break was during the two wars of 20th century when the situation made it impracticable. 

Bishop Richard Moth, who has been Bishop of Arundel and Brighton since 2015, replacing Bishop Kevin Conry, concelebrated the Mass with a number of priests from the diocese. The Duke of Norfolk and other members of the Fitzalan-Howard family always attend. As Mass ends, the procession is formed, led by the robed choir, clergy and small girls — First Communicants in traditional white dresses — who carry large baskets of flowers which they will strew before the Blessed Sacrament.

In recent years the canopy over the Blessed Sacrament has been carried by young Dominican friars: the Dominican Order has been enjoying something of a vocations boom in Britain over the past decade – and then immediately behind it come the Knights and Dames of St. Gregory, of the Holy Sepulchre and of Malta, in their various robes. Banners depicting saints are carried by men wearing shoulder-sashes – the banner nearest to me was a magnificently embroidered one showing St. Joseph. Then follows the large crowd – including lots of families (the Mass had been punctuated by a good many baby shrieks and shouts). A carefully-arranged system of loudspeakers unites us all as the long procession makes its way, slowly, down the street toward the castle.

It ought to be a great act of witness: sadly, there were not many spectators this year. Those who were watching along the roadside were, I think, chiefly Catholic – most crossed themselves, bowed or genuflected as the Blessed Sacrament went by. Visitors to the cathedral for the flower-carpet – and there are great numbers during the preceding days – invariably exclaim over its beauty, and also love the other superb displays around the side-chapels and shrines. But they generally miss the point. “What a pity that the carpet will be destroyed as they walk over it!” is a common comment “The flowers are fresh and could last for much longer.”

Crossing the castle moat and entering the great gateway with the procession is always a rather grand moment. The long procession makes its way round the keep with a stop for Benediction on one of the lawns along the way. The castle has splendid grounds, and around the gardens there are also areas that have been left as meadowland with tall grass and wild flowers: it really is glorious. There is a pleasing sense of history – the ducal family singing on the lawn, the flag flying from the castle tower, Of course it’s all also very much part of today’s Church — modern hymns along with older ones, with varying degrees of success — but year on year the whole tradition continues and thrives: a sign of continuity, life and hope. 

As we slowly complete the route and return to the Cathedral, the summer evening is waning. The Blessed Sacrament is carried up the aisle over the flower-carpet to an altar glittering with candles. A final Benediction with a rousing singing of Tantum Ergo and repeating of the Divine Praises, and we all finally disperse. The flower carpet is now a trampled mess and it is swept up. 

But it will reappear later this year, as the team from Sussex joins with enthusiasts in Liverpool: “Adoremus” is the theme for the Eucharistic congress, and the word is spelled out in the flower-carpet design, along with a chalice and other eucharistic symbols, all on a bed of evergreens.

The Eucharistic congress will gather people from every diocese in England and Wales and will include a range of events featuring, among others, Bishop Robert Barron from the United States. Things will culminate in a great procession through Liverpool, bringing the Blessed Sacrament through the city streets.

In a Britain of a collapsing culture – an epidemic of street crime and stabbings in London, armed police on the streets, marriage rates at an all-time low, and a recent official report showing that large numbers of children enter school lacking basic social skills of communication and behavior – the Church must light beacons of hope. A flower carpet tradition that began in the 19th taken to a great gathering in a city center in the 21st, is one such beacon.