The next to last Sunday that I spent in Ireland was the Feast of Corpus Christi—the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ.There once was a time in Ireland not too long ago when this Feast was everywhere marked by grand, triumphant processions in which priests would carry the Blessed Sacrament in its monstrance all around the towns. A parade of people would follow joyfully behind, while others would look on expectantly from their windows, in which they also had pictures or statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on display. Young children who had just received first Holy Communion would go before the procession strewing rose petals on the ground in front of the priests, and entire roads were shut down for a few hours as entire towns mobilized to join the adoring procession.
In Ireland, the Corpus Christi procession was a way for people to step out en masse to declare jubilantly, ‘We are proud to be Catholic, and proud to follow where Christ leads as members of his Holy Church!’ Fr. Denis has explained to me that the custom even bore a strange resemblance to British military parades, and for this reason, I think that this tradition held a certain subversive subtext within it when celebrated in a nation long-dominated by a British Crown that suppressed the Catholic Faith and oppressed many of the native inhabitants. It was perhaps a way for Irish Catholics to declare without fear who their true King and Ruler has been all along.
As I have said, the time of these gallant processions is not so long past, and they are still in the memories of most adults here in Clonard. Fr. Denis has told me that over time the parade in Clonard became less and less well-attended each year, and quietly fizzled out into extinction by the turn of the millennium. Another sad chapter in the narrative of Irish Catholicism’s slow dissipation over the last couple of decades.
However, I felt extremely blessed to be a small part of a modest revival here in Clonard last Saturday night, on the Vigil of Corpus Christi. An inspired Fr. James had been eager to mark the celebration of the Body of Christ as a very special moment in the Church’s calendar, and he had pulled together many of the different lay volunteers in the parish, including us in Teach Bhríde and our Vigil Choir in order to make this happen. There was no shutting down of roads or parading past houses, but after the Corpus Christi mass on Saturday night, the parish community did get to take place in a miniature procession, just around the parking lot of our church. Many first communion families did respond to the invitation, and so about 30 or so children in their button up shirts and white dresses reverently (and adorably) led the procession with flower petals. Then came Jesus, held aloft by the priest and canopied in traditional fashion by an ornate tent that six of Clonard’s able-bodied hospitality ministers carried on poles. And right behind them was the choir, leading the singing of several old hymns. Everyone who walked behind had a hymn sheet (provided at the start of mass) to join in the chorus of praise.
The songs that Joy, Ruairi and Angela had chosen were both sweetly affectionate and reverent in their tone towards Jesus: Be Thou My Vision, Soul of My Saviour, Sweet Heart of Jesus, and the Irish Céad Míle Fáilte Romhat— “One hundred thousand welcomes to Jesus”– a song which nearly every Irish Catholic associates in memory with his or her First Communion Mass. The effect of the whole thing was not in the least militaristic; There was nothing of an outward display of power in it, especially given that the procession did not leave the Church grounds. No, I think it felt more like a big family pulling together to throw a backyard festival, to honour and celebrate one of its beloved sons. As at a family birthday celebration, there was no need to show off to the world the sheer number of supporters that rally behind the one being celebrated, in this case, Christ in the Eucharist. The main thing was showing love and tenderness to Him whom we celebrate, and Clonard got the chance to show their love to Jesus in a very beautiful way last weekend.
It will be one of the many treasures that I now hold in my memory from these last days I have in Wexford, and an especially fitting conclusion to a year in which so much of my spiritual growth has been in my love and gratitude for Christ’s bodily presence with us in the Eucharist.
This has been my sign-out for the year as both the blog and the mission of Teach Bhríde will soon be taken up by five new faithful and adventurous souls, led by Joy, come late August! I wish all the best to Angie, Sarah, Ben, Laura, and Brigid as they prepare for next year, and I’ll surely keep the Clonard community forever in my heart!