My friend Matt at the blog From the Morning saw a show on the national Catholic cable channel EWTN earlier this week, that I happened to catch, too, which showed Samoans in a humdinger of a Eucharistic Procession. Read his post and see what an outsider looking in thinks of a bunch of people dancing and worshipping and laying lengths of cloth on the ground so a priest holding a "big cross" can walk on them. How does that look from the outside? Not so good, as can be read in the comments.
I knew what I was seeing immediately, and I found it a compelling, charming and warming demonstration of faith, the people worshipping with their whole selves. It stopped me in my tracks so I wasn't surprised that it caught the attention of Matt, a thoughtful and sincere Christian. But I had the ready reference of lifelong Catholicism of one intensity of another and of my own parish's annual Corpus Christi Procession. We go around the neighborhood, acolytes with the incense censer and candles and whole families and old people, everyone singing and kids throwing rose petals and the whole holy nine yards, although it could be better attended, hundreds rather than the thousand possible, given the parish population. We do our awkward human best to cope with the outpouring of God's Grace on us, and show our love as best as we can. (Some of us have a little annual fun by speculating on widening the procession route to take in the Bible Church down the block, really torquing up the incense and belting out a new version that goes "Tantum Ergo Yoo Hoo Fellow Christians! It's your worst nightmare going on by!")
Matt, my dear brother in Christ and fellow Illinoisian, asked me to write on the subject so he could link it. And here it is, as I understand it, deliberately not doing any research, just digging out what I know. I didn't want to this to be a book report cribbed out of the encyclopedia, but instead what I've learned and remember and enjoy and believe.
Why do Catholics process with the Eucharist? Because we hold the Blessed Sacrament in such high regard. We understand that when the words of Consecration are spoken by the priest, or are spoken by Jesus through the priest, more precisely, we are present at the once-for-all-time miracle of "This is my Body, this is my Blood" and we know that unless "we eat His Body and drink His Blood, we have no life within us."
We know that the change from bread and wine into the intimate gift of Jesus physically present, feeding us, giving us life, doesn't end with the recessional and the doughnuts-and-coffee. He doesn't take the gift back. Enough is consecrated to keep in reserve, to take to the sick and the dying. The Tabernacle holds this reserved Sacrament, and we can visit Jesus in that Sacrament, to spend time with Him in that special way. Yes, yes, yes, Jesus is in our hearts, if God wasn't constantly thinking of us, creating us, we would vanish and would never have been. There isn't a time when we are outside of God's Presence, but this a focus, a place of Grace, a concentration of His Love, that we can receive in Communion or merely rest with a while in prayer and meditation.
So we have Eucharistic Adoration: time spent in a "Holy Hour" or a "Holy Five Minutes" for that matter. A "little visit," our parents and teachers would urge us to make. That's why Catholic churches are usually open all day, some all night, so we can come, sit near the lighted sanctuary lamp, near the Tabernacle, and wrench our minds and hearts more or less open to hear God's Word of Truth and Love. On Good Friday, the doors of the Tabernacle stand open and the sanctuary lamp is blown out, there is no Mass that day. How cold and empty the church seems when we come to pray through the Passion!
In Adoration, some read, some sit quietly, some say the Rosary. Our Adoration is silent, although others have special Scripture readings and quiet music. I have been a monthly Adorer for an hour on first Fridays for about two years, for more time as we've expanded our Adoration hours to weekly stretches, and I usually tell people who are interested and curious that at the beginning, the first ten minutes seemed like an hour, and the last fifty minutes felt like ten minutes. Now I am more comfortable in prayer, and can pick up where He and I left off, like a telephone call. I'm much better, by God's Grace alone, at setting down distractions in peace, or wearily picking them up and praying about them, and then putting them down. I've read many of the spiritual classics, and the Scriptures of the day and the season, it's a great time to prayerfully read and stop and look at Him and ask Him to teach me from what I've read.
But sometimes we want to celebrate that in a more public way, a moving profession of faith, a party of faith. So out we go, into the street with the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance, walking, perhaps in meditation on the painful walk on the way to Calvary, or the walk along with the Apostles to the mount to see Jesus ascend into Heaven, or to the top of the mountain to hear the Beatitudes, or to the sea, to see Him climb into a boat and teach. They're all good.
It's no wonder that FTM didn't recognize what he saw: Eucharistic Processions, along with May Crownings and other big events fell out of favor in many Catholic parishes in the 60's through the 90's, when the world demanded hipness and relevance in everything and don't trust any institution over 30 and so on. Too many in the Church got self-conscious and put aside these ancient devotions, with disastrous results. Some of the European immigrants who built and filled our churches brought fantastic Procession customs with them, but put them away with their other "foreign ways" after some time in the US.
If you compare any parish with Eucharistic Adoration to any others with "relevant" Masses, the differences are obvious, even to the unbelieving eye. The Adoring parish is full, full of young, large families; lots of vocations to religious life; generous and unstinting charity one-on-one and in large organized ways; passionate love for Jesus and an irresistable joy that draws people like, well, Jesus draws people to the Father. The "relevant" parishes tend more towards the old hippies, dissatisfied with everything, seeing Jesus as a good man (at least He's not a "groovy guy" anymore - I can't wait for the 60's to be over), the Mass as a "meal," "WE (meaning us right here, making up our own rules) are church," and all religious activity merely as social service projects for the "right" causes. I over-generalize here, because every icky parish has its sound beating heart of faith and love and every vibrant parish has its icky sticky corners of dissent. But the personalities are shaped by their love of Jesus in the Eucharist. Period.
So that's why we walk and sing. That's why we keep the doors open. It comes from what Jesus left in His Church, how He promised to "be with us until the end of time."
Have I left anything out? Any questions?