|Cardinal Vannutelli giving Benediction to the crowd|
after the "Hostless" Eucharistic Procession in 1908
The concept of holding Eucharistic congresses was the brainchild of Bishop Gaston de Ségur, who organised the first one at Lille, France, on 21 June 1881. This event was held as a means for clergy and laity to bear witness to the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. It was also designed as a gathering of theologians with a specific interest in Eucharistic theology. Within a few years, Bishop de Ségur's concept had received papal approval and International Eucharistic Congresses began to be held. By 1890, over 150,000 people travelled to the Eucharistic Congress held in Antwerp, whilst the following Congress was held in Jerusalem only three years later.
|Prime Minister Herbert Asquith in 1908|
As a result of his negative interfering in a peaceful religious parade, Asquith suffered politically and was also severely criticised by commentators in both the British and international press. He lost the important support of the majority of Catholic voters, too. Two members of his Cabinet even resigned over the affair. The first being the devoutly Catholic Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords, George Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon, who was angered by his Liberal government's anti-Catholic stance. The second being the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone (son of William Gladstone), whose insistence that Catholic processions involving the Eucharist were unlawful was eventually itself deemed illegal (or unjustifiable).
|Archbishop (later Cardinal) Bourne at the|
19th Eucharistic Congress in 1908
To add to the Protestant anxiety, the Papal Legate, Cardinal Vincenzo Vannutelli, had come to London with an array of other high-ranking ecclesiastics - the like of which had not been seen in England before (or many other places, come to that). In fact, it might even be true to say that no such gathering as this had been seen outside Rome for quite some time. Another six cardinals came with Vannutelli to London, witnessing with him to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. (Sadly, one of these great men, the highly respected Cardinal Francois Mathieu, died in England shortly after the Congress had finished). These cardinals were joined by fourteen archbishops, seventy bishops and an innumerable amount of priests, religious and laity. One of the priests at the gathering was Father Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII), who also met Winston Churchill for diplomatic talks in between visits to Westminster Cathedral for Eucharistic devotions. No wonder that some frightened Protestants thought that the Catholic Church had come back to reclaim what was rightfully hers!
Although the British government had effectively banned the Blessed Sacrament from the Congress's closing ceremony, a procession did take place - but without the Host. In fact, more people turned out for this procession to mark the closing of the Eucharistic Congress than had lined the route for Queen Victoria's funeral cortege a few years earlier. During the event, the Papal Legate wore his court dress, whilst many of the clergy were attired in choir dress, draping their habits and vestments over their arms in submission to the government's request that they abide by the letter of the Catholic Relief Act.
|Cardinal Vannutelli, Papal Legate to the|
19th International Eucharistic Congress in
London's Westminster Cathedral, wearing the
Eucharistic Congress medal (1908)
One of the international newspapers that was highly critical of the British government's ban on the Eucharist from the streets of London was the New York Times - which was not then as anti-Catholic as it sometimes appears to be nowadays! Here are a few paragraphs from its report on the historic "Eucharistic" Procession (minus Blessed Sacrament) that took to the streets of London in September 1908: -
LONDON, Sept 13 - The great procession of Catholic clergy, which brought the Eucharistic Congress to an end, was held this afternoon amid scenes such as the English churchmen who planned it had never anticipated. Cardinal Vannutelli, the Pope's Legate, walked at the head wearing scarlet robes and hat, but not carrying the host. He was accompanied by a bodyguard of English peers, of whom the Duke of Norfolk was the most prominent and a concourse of Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops, who were also attired in unceremonial robes instead of the vestments which it had been originally purposed they should wear.
No such throngs of people have been seen in London since Queen Victoria's funeral, if even then. The purpose of Archbishop Bourne, the head of the Westminster Diocese, and his associates, who arranged the programme, had been to have the host carried through the streets in the rear of Westminster Cathedral, so that the great body of Catholics who were unable to participate in any of the services within the cathedral should have an opportunity of joining in the Eucharistic observances and of seeing all the high ecclesiastics present in London on this memorable occasion.
The route of the procession was laid through the quiet streets adjacent to the Cathedral [Victoria Street, Horseferry Road and Vincent Square], and but for the unexpected partisan strife which a discussion of this ceremony brought on, it would probably have been solemnized quietly and in a reverent atmosphere. As it was, only a few were openly and demonstratively hostile. The Catholic element cheered heartily while the procession passed by and throughout the route, but there was heard also considerable "booing" of the sort the English people use in theatres to express displeasure at the play. [LOL!]
When the congregation poured out of the edifice they found that the crowd was already assembling. Large forces of police were assisted by some 15,000 Catholics, who had volunteered to line the route, but even this strong army of men was unable at times to prevent the participants in the parade from being shouldered by the curious. Before the procession started vespers were [sic] sung within the Cathedral, at the conclusion of which the prelates passed down the nave, singing "Faith of Our Fathers" which was taken up by the congregation and the vast crowds without.
Pontifical High Mass at the 1908 Congress
As the head of the procession appeared from the Cathedral doors a cheer went up, which was repeated as Cardinal after Cardinal came slowly out, followed by the Archbishops, Bishops, minor prelates of the Church, and a great army of white-surpliced men singing hymns. Most of the prelates carried their vestments over their arms, but the Legate was in full court dress, his scarlet robes and red hat lending distinction to his commanding figure. The hands of the Pope's representative, which were to have carried the Host, showered continual blessings upon the people, who reverently bowed the knee.
In the streets surrounding the cathedral the prelates passed through avenues of keeling adherents of their faith, the curious and any who might have come to jeer being crowded out of this vicinity. At one or two points further away, however, the processionalists had practically to force a passage through the crowds which broke through the police lines. At one place, where several streets converge [Westminster Cathedral's historian informs me that this was probably Strutton Ground], the crush was so great that the spectators broke up the procession, but the police, stationed at this point in strong force, managed eventually to clear a narrow lane, through which the Papal Legate and the others passed in single file.
On their return to the Cathedral the prelates marched around the interior of the edifice, the Legate carrying the Host as he would have done in the streets had not the Government interposed and objection.
Those who had been crowded out of the Cathedral were permitted to participate in the ceremony, as the Legate , robed in his vestments, appeared on the balcony outside the building and presented the sacred sacrament and pronounced the benediction. The vast assemblage that filled the square then sang hymns, and the members of the Catholic societies, with banners flying, marched through the streets to their halls and churches, some of them proceeding later to the stations where trains were waiting to take them back to the provincial centres whence they had come to attend the services. In the meantime the Papal Legate within the building pronounced the benediction and the congress closed. (comments in parentheses mine)
|Medal from the 1908 Eucharistic Congress|
Needless to say, some enemies of the Church have been trying their best to stop the 50th Eucharistic Congress in Dublin from being successful. They would undoubtedly prefer it if the event was stopped altogether and will do anything to try and prevent or dissuade Pope Benedict XVI from attending this significant Catholic celebration - a profoundly powerful witness to the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. For that reason, then, I urge those who advise the Pope to encourage him to visit Ireland - for if Christ's enemies are already at the gate, a joyful triumph for his Church is guaranteed.
[Images: 1 Benediction at the end of the 1908 Eucharistic Congress held at Westminster Cathedral (London); source: Solomon, I have surpassed thee. 2 Herbert Asquith; this image is in the public domain; source: Wikimedia Commons. 3 Archbishop Francis Bourne at the 1908 Congress; source: Solomon, I have surpassed thee. 4 Cardinal Vincenzo Vannutelli; source: Solomon, I have surpassed thee. 5 Pontifical High Mass at Westminster Cathedral during the 1908 Eucharistic Congress; source: Solomon, I have surpassed thee. 6 A medal struck specifically for the the occasion of the 19th International Eucharistic Congress in London; source: eBid]