For those who find the news a gloomy place, especially the religious news, there is something to cheer with the number of Corpus Christi processions in it. When I was a child, these were an annual event, and I can remember watching them, with some puzzlement, as I had no idea what they were about, but also with a sense that here was a group of happy children and their parents and priests saying something important in public; colourful and buzzing with excitement, it added a splash of colour to a fairly drab inner-city environment still pock-marked by bomb-sites and rubble. My father, who liked neither the Irish (most of the Catholics there were of Irish stock) nor Christianity, thought the whole thing lamentable – not that he used that word. His attitude was not atypical among English people. My mother, who was a Methodist, thought the whole thing smacked of ‘idolatry’. Oddly, given the origins of Methodism, she thought religion was something best kept indoors, and for your ‘Sunday best’. I came away with the impression that ‘that sort of thing’ was the ‘sort of thing’ the ‘Irish’ did; as they were regarded with some prejudice by their English neighbours, that was no recommendation.
Then such processions, as with other forms of public witness, largely vanished. I recall asking a priest at University why, and he said it was ‘all to do with ecumenism’, explaining (to the last person who needed it) that ‘Protestants’ regarded such things as idolatry, and ‘Mary worship’, and so it was thought best to desist from such things. It was certainly true that that was how Protestant England regarded such things. As I discovered in my studies, there was a long history of that sort of thing. It is often hard to trace the beginning of any historical trend, but in this instance it was very easy – Henry VIII’s break with Rome (link to Diarmaid MacCulloch’s radio programme on this subject). From that time on, the English State, with the brief exception of Mary I’s reign, encouraged the destruction of statues and imagery. Three hundred and fifty years of that sort of thing, combined with a sense of English superiority over the Catholic Irish, more than explained what I experienced as a child.
But before that, in any English village or town, one would have seen many signs of popular devotion, including Corpus Christ processions and public veneration of images of the Blessed Virgin. It was a sign of the mark left on English culture that even nineteenth century English Catholics should have found the expressions of popular piety they saw in places like Italy too much to take; their Catholicism was under-stated and private – for reasons to obvious to need stating. But there, as in Ireland, popular piety had never been suppressed by the State, and there, one could still see what one would once have seen in England.
As I grew up on Merseyside, where, especially in the inner city parts where I lived, the Irish influence was strong, we were getting a taste of that Irish culture. It was one where tangible evidence was important, and where the Church was a community. Christ was present in the bread and wine, so it mattered how those elements were treated; the Saints were our friends in heaven, and so pictures of them were like family pictures – it was nice to see those who were praying to God for you. It was perhaps a sign of the insufferable smug sense of intellectual superiority of the iconoclast philistines, that they should have imagined that other people were more stupid than themselves, and that those others did not realise the pictures were not ‘real representations’. The Catholic world-view was one where the Divine was not in some other world, or purely in spiritual form, but where one encountered it in the daily round.
It was, I think, a shame that advocates of the ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ should have discouraged manifestations of popular piety – and it is a sign of the success of the new Evangelisation that it has survived such attempts. It is very sad that some Christians feel they have to make judgments about the way others worship, but a love of Jesus and his Mother and of the Saints will find a way to express itself – even among the buttoned-up English with their centuries of State brain-washing.