We are a year away from England’s first national Eucharistic congress in more than a decade. In 12 months’ time organisers will be putting the finishing touches to the three-day event in Liverpool. Thousands are expected to attend the Congress Mass in the Echo Arena.
Next year’s congress is unlikely to generate the kind of controversy that surrounded the 1908 international Eucharistic congress in London. Back then, of course, the English establishment regarded anything Catholic as suspiciously foreign. Yes, the Catholic Relief Act had been passed some 80 years before, lifting the “restraints and disabilities” imposed on Catholics by Parliament following the Reformation. Yet the Act had not swept away all restrictions. Its 26th section said that “if any Roman Catholic ecclesiastic [shall] exercise any of the rites or ceremonies of the Roman Catholic religion or wear the habits of his order, save within the usual places of worship of the Roman Catholic religion, or in private houses, such ecclesiastic or other person shall, being thereof convicted by due courses of law, forfeit for every such offence the sum of £50.”
This provision was not wholly dissimilar to one introduced in Mexico in 1917, after the anticlerical revolution, forcing priests to dress like laymen in public. While nothing prevented English Catholics from holding a Eucharistic congress inside a church, as soon as they stepped into the street it was a different matter. Congresses typically included a public procession of the Blessed Sacrament. But anyone who took part in one in London would, in theory, face a hefty fine.
This dilemma caught the Spectator’s attention. The magazine quoted the soothing words of papal legate Cardinal Vincenzo Vannutelli: “The members of the congress are not assembling in England with any political intent. They come with an object which is exclusively religious – to affirm with all simplicity their faith in the Eucharist, recalling the time when that faith was universal in England.” The weekly conceded that this would not satisfy England’s staunchest Protestants. “It is impossible to deny,” it said, “that this assemblage of princes of the Church and of lesser members of the Roman hierarchy from all parts of the world wears the appearance of a demonstration, and almost of a challenge, which excites apprehension in respectable quarters, and has given rise to regrettable effusions of bigotry in others.”
Protestant societies had objected to the procession, even though the route was limited to “the quieter streets round Westminster Cathedral” and had police approval. “The law is the law, and we do not deny that it is on the side of the protest,” the Spectator declared. “But the Protestant position is so safe in this country, so deep-rooted in the convictions of the people, that we should deeply regret open unpleasantness in the streets, not only as a discourtesy to our visitors, but as something like a declaration of weakness – a distrust in our great tradition of toleration.”
Despite this appeal to fair-mindedness, the procession was banned. But the 1908 congress still strengthened the English Catholic spirit. It reminded the faithful that, though they were a scorned minority, they belonged to a faith that stretched to the farthest ends of the Earth, sustained everywhere by the Eucharist.
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