Thursday, June 07, 2007

2008: A Centenary of a Eucharistic Procession

International Eucharistic Congress: London 1908

Next year marks the centenary of a Eucharistic procession which was banned and which led to the resignations of two Cabinet ministers in the United Kngdom.

The occasion was the International Eucharistic Congress which was held in London from 9th to 13th September 1908 at the invitation of the Archbishop of Westminster, Archbishop Bourne.

It was the first Engllish speaking International Congress of the Eucharist in an English speaking country. More importantly, it was the first time that a legate of the Pope (Cardinal Vincent Vannutelli) had been in England since the Reformation. At that time, London was the centre of a huge Empire and the holding of such an event in such a location was obviously important.

At the time it was regarded as the greatest religious triumph of its generation. More than three hundred and fifty years had elapsed since a legate from the pope had been seen in England. With him were six other cardinals, fourteen archbishops, seventy bishops and a host of priests. No such gathering of ecclesiastics had ever been seen outside of Rome in modern times, and English Catholics prepared to make it locally even more memorable

Amongst the Cardinals who attended were: Cardinal Vincenzo Vannutelli, Bishop of Palestrina.,Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore., Cardinal Michael Logue, Archbishop of Armagh., Cardinal Cyriaco Maria Sancha y Hervas, Archbishop of Toledo and Patriarch of the W. Indies., Cardinal Andrea Ferrari, Archbishop of Milan.,Cardinal Francois Mathieu, in the Roman Curia, formerly Archbishop of Toulouse.(who died in England shortly after the Congress) and Cardinal Desire Mercier, Archbishop of Mechlin.

Amonngst those who also attended was a 32 year old priest from Rome, Father Eugenio Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII).

A full report of the proceedings of the Congress and the dispute over the Eucharistic procession can be found in the Report of the nineteenth Eucharistic Congress : held at Westminster from 9th to 13th September, 1908 (1909)

The Congress had been long in the planning. Archbishop Bourne had been in contact about the arrangements with the Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone (son of Wiliiam Ewart Gladstone) and the Chief of the Metropolitan Police. Neither the Home Office nor the Police had raised any objections to the Eucharistic procession at the end of the Congress. This was to be a procession through some of the streets near Westminster Cathedral.

Suddenly, like all crises, it came from nowhere and without warning.

A group of Ultra Protestants raised a furore over the Congress and in particular the procession. They claimed that the procession was illegal and unconstitutional. They cited the sixteenth clause of the Roman Catholic Relief Act (10 George IV, c. 7). ( 13 April 1829):

"And be it further Enacted, That if any Roman Catholic Ecclesiastic, or any member of any of the orders, communities or societies hereinafter mentioned, shall, after the commencement of this Act, 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 course of law, forfeit for every such offence the sum of Fifty pounds."

They claimed that the procession was a rite or ceremony.

It was a doubtful legal argument but it caused the Home Secretary to reconsider his originally benign position.

The police were of the view that there was no threat to public order even if there had been counter demonstations by the ultra Protestants.

It caused difficulties for one other Cabinet Minister: George Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon. He had served in every Liberal cabinet from 1861 until his death forty-eight years later. At the time he was Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords. He was also a devout Catholic. He was on the organising committee of the Congress.

The new Prime Minister Herbert Asquith had only taken up the office of Prime Minister in April 1908 after the death of Campbell-Bannerman.

At the last minute, due to political pressures and in particular a forthcoming bye-election, the Government decided to try to ban the Eucharistic procession. At first Asquith tried to use the Marquess of Ripon as a quiet channel to Bourne so that Bourne would call off the procession.

Bourne dug in his heels.

He insisted on a formal requirement from the Government that there should be no Eucharistic procession and that the correspondence should be publicised.

The letter from Asquith arrived. Bourne acted with dignity and complied.

However, the procession without the Blessed Sacrament went ahead. All the clerics wore Court dress (some draping their habits over their arms). The legate, attended by a guard of honour headed by the Duke of Norfolk, Earl Marshal of England, and made up of eleven English noblemen and the Duke of Orléans and the Comte d'Eu and some members of the French Chamber of Deputies, after passing over the route, gave solemn benediction from the balcony of the cathedral to the multitude below.

Cardinal Vannutelli said to the Cardinal Secretary of State: "The Congress concluded with a great triumph today when the procession passed through the streets of London packed with crowds raising continuous cheers for the cardinal legate and the other cardinals and prelates. The Sacred Host was not carried in the procession, but I gave a final benediction with the Sacrament to the crowd from three open balconies on the façade of the cathedral. Members of the House of Lords formed an escort of honour for me. Perfect order was kept."

The law was satisfied.

But the political effects went on after the Congress.

Asquith moved Gladstone out of the Cabinet.

Ripon resigned his seat in the Cabinet owing to the opposition offered to the Eucharistic Procession. Of his enforced absence from that Procession at the Eucharistic Congress he said that he had missed one of the opportunities of his life.

Reaction was critical of the Government and of its handling of the case.

On 14th September 1908, The Daily Telegraph wrote:

"It is impossible to write in terms other than those of the strongest condemnation of the conduct of the Government with respect to yesterday s Procession of the Blessed Sacrament, which was to have brought to a conclusion the proceedings of the Eucharistic Congress.

They have once more displayed their characteristic weakness and irresolution, their susceptibility to pressure, and their readiness to make concessions to the clamour of a few extremists. The result is that they will bring down upon themselves a storm of obloquy and indignation, and excite animosities which need never have been stirred out of quiescence.

London learnt with the greatest surprise yesterday morning that the Government had intervened at the eleventh hour, and placed irresistible compulsion upon the Archbishop of Westminster to change entirely the character of the procession. A procession, it is true, did take place, and without the semblance of public disorder, but it was not the solemn, stately, and magnificent Procession of the Blessed Sacrament, to which the Roman Catholics of this country had looked forward with fervour and enthusiasm as the culminating triumph of a memorable Congress.

The ecclesiastical authorities are to be congratulated upon the calmness and dignity with which they bore a disappointment that must have been exceedingly bitter, and upon the success with which they communicated their own well-disciplined self restraint to the followers who look to them for guidance. Had there been any rioting or breach of the peace in Westminster yesterday, the responsibility would have rested wholly upon the shoulders of His Majesty s Government, whose conduct throughout this lamentable business has been inexcusably weak and inconceivably foolish. The proper course for them to have taken was to make up their minds whether they meant to allow the procession to be carried out, and having once made up their minds, to abide by the decision, whatever might be said on one side or the other.

The improper and unpardonable course was first to give assent and then withdraw it a few hours before the procession was due to take place, after arrangements had been concluded which involved the inconvenience and the disappointment of thousands of persons dwelling in all parts of the land.

The Government must have known or they ought to have known that the Procession of the Blessed Sacrament is the supreme function of the Eucharistic Congress, the great act of public homage and loyalty which stirs most deeply the heart of every Roman Catholic. Therefore, when the consent of the authorities was first asked, the whole circumstances ought to have been taken into consideration.

It is clear from the official correspondence which we publish this morning that Archbishop Bourne and his coadjutors were given to understand by the Commissioner of Police that, so far as he was concerned, there was not the slightest objection to the procession taking place. No fear on the head of public danger was entertained at Scotland Yard. The police had not the faintest doubt of their power to preserve perfect order;nor did they expect any contingency to arise in the shape of organised opposition.Are we to suppose that the Commissioner gave this authorisation without consulting the Home Office,for he must have known that certain leading features of the procession were, on the face of it, technically illegal? But even if he did, the Home Secretary s responsibility is not lessened, for he let matters drift on, and gave no sign of objection.

The assumption, therefore, is that Mr Herbert Gladstone weighed the matter in his own mind, and decided that, whether technically illegal or not, there was sufficient religious tolerance in the atmosphere of London in 1908 to warrant his treating one clause of the Catholic Relief Act of 1828 as obsolete, or, at any rate, as obsolescent. London, he might reasonably have argued, is neither Belfast nor Madrid, and Protestants are sane enough and strong enough and calm enough to be able to endure without a tremor the quiet passing of a solemn procession of Roman Catholics through a few back streets in the immediate neighbourhood of their Cathedral.

That was the generous view to take ; and who will seriously deny that it was the enlightened view? If the Mohammedans and Hindoos of the same city have been forced to tolerate each other s processions, was it too much to expect Christians to do the like especially on the very day of the whole year when the Christian Church is invited to pray for unity and consider the blessings of reunion ? Of course, if the Home Secretary had been of opinion that the religious atmosphere of London was so highly charged with passion and prejudice that it would not be safe, in the interests of public order, for the procession to take place, then his course was equally clear. He had only to draw the attention of the organisers of the Eucharistic Congress to the plain prohibition of the Act of 1828 and decide that the letter of the law must not be infringed. Had that been done at first the Roman Catholic authorities would doubtless have been deeply disappointed, but the decision would not have generated bad blood, a result which now seems inevitable.

The great mass of moderate public opinion would, we believe, have accepted either ruling with general complacence. But, instead of this, the Government have done the worst possible thing in the worst possible way. The Home Secretary allowed all the arrangements for the procession to be brought to completion. And then he and his chief got frightened, and yielded to the clamour of a small section of extreme Protestant opinion. These protests have come from organisations which draw no support whatever from the great mass of educated Englishmen, who are just as true as their fathers were before them to the abiding principles of Protestantism, though they now express themselves in ways more consonant with the enlightened spirit of the age.

We cannot conceive anything more paltry and feeble than the Home Secretary s letter, dated September 10. Anyone reading it would conclude that Mr Gladstone only began to realise on Thursday the true character of the procession, and that it was the excitation of public feeling which had brought his dormant scruples into life. Yet, even so, he contented himself with the "strong hope" that the Archbishop would take every care to secure conformity with the law of the land.

From that letter no one would imagine that the Commissioner of Police had already sanctioned the procession, or that there was any avenue of communication between the Home Office and Scotland Yard. Nor was the Prime Minister s intervention better conceived than that of the Home Secretary. He began by sending a private letter "deprecating the procession". In other words, he endeavoured to induce the ecclesiastical authorities to act as though it were they, and not the Government, who had changed their minds, and to alter the fundamental significance of the procession as though it were they, and not the Government, who were quailing before the manifestoes of the Protestant Alliance.

In that case the Government would have been able to save their face, and the angry disappointment of Roman Catholics might have been diverted from themselves to the timid surrender of their own hierarchy. Naturally, the Archbishop and his advisers resolutely refused to walk blindly into so obvious a trap, and insisted that the Government should shoulder the responsibility which Mr Asquith was anxious to evade. Archbishop Bourne replied, that if the ceremonial had to be abandoned, the Prime Minister must publicly declare that it was abandoned at his request, and Mr Asquith was then compelled to commit himself to the statement that "His Majesty s Government are of opinion that it would be better in the interests of order and good feeling that the proposed ceremonial, the legality of which is open to question, should not take place"

Such an expression of opinion on the part of the Prime Minister was tantamount to a command; and the tone of the speech at the Albert Hall in which the Archbishop announced his decision did him infinite credit. The procession, shorn of its most striking features, was held yesterday afternoon in the presence of vast and perfectly orderly crowds, probably greater than have ever been concentrated into a small space of London.

To devout Catholics it was robbed of most of its religious significance by the absence of the Blessed Sacrament, and the incident is certain to leave behind it a strong sense of irritation and resentment. It is easier to bear injustice than stupidity, and everyone must feel that this affair has been stupidly and needlessly mishandled. It deals a heavy blow at the sacred cause of complete religious toleration. Every complimentary phrase recently uttered by the Pope, by the Papal Legate, and by the high ecclesiastical dignitaries from abroad now visiting England, about the large-mindedness of Englishmen, and the glorious liberty of thought and action which prevail here, is turned to irony by this blunder of the Government. The pleasant words will be retracted, and the foreign visitors to the Congress will quit these shores smarting under a sense of insult.

And for the sake of what? Assuredly not for the sake of Protestantism. We refuse to believe that that noble cause, which is dear to the heart of the great majority of English men and women, has been served by a lamentable fiasco, which they will look back upon with annoyance, not unmixed with shame. Only those who rejoice in the prolongation of religious strife can possibly find pleasure in the action of the Government, and that is why it will be unhesitatingly condemned by all who care for the peace of the realm and the peace of the Church."

The effects carried on. In 1910, Asquith`s Government introduced the Accession Declaration Act 1910. It altered the oath of the Monarch on accession as the old oath was felt to be too overtly anti-Catholic.

Gradually, the few disabilities remaining after the RomanCatholic Emancipation Act of 1829 were gradually removed in the process of statute law revision. Almost no restrictions now remain (except for obvious reasons e.g.ecclesiastical appointments) other than the succession to the throne.

Further references:

Report of the nineteenth Eucharistic Congress : held at Westminster from 9th to 13th September, 1908 (1909)

The Eucharistic Procession of 1908: The Dilemma of the Liberal Government by Carol A. Devlin
Church History, Vol. 63, No. 3 (Sep., 1994), pp. 407-425

George Robinson, 1st Marquess of Ripon


  1. What a fascinating post! Was this the visit during which Pacelli saw the Grand Fleet at Portsmouth?

  2. Thank you.

    I know that Pius XII also visited England on the occasion of the Coronation of George V. Was it during this time he saw the Fleet ?

  3. It is also my understanding that Pacelli attended the coronation of Gerorge V and not this Eucharistic congress. He did however attend a congress in Lisbon many years later (if my memory serves) for which he learnt to speak Portugese. He also spoke reasonable English and recordings of him speaking English can be found on youtube.

  4. Wikipedia`s article on Pius XII ( states:

    "He was also chosen by Pope Leo XIII to deliver condolences on behalf of the Vatican to Edward VII of the United Kingdom after the death of Queen Victoria.[8] In 1908, he served as a Vatican representative on the International Eucharistic Congress in London,[8] where he met with Winston Churchill.[9] In 1911, he represented the Holy See at the coronation of King George V.[7]."

    The footnotes 7, 8 and 9 are to
    Marchione, Sr. Margherita. (2004). Man of Peace: An Abridged Life of Pope Pius XII. Paulist Press, pages 9 and 10 (footnotes 7 and 8)

    Dalin, Rabbi David G. (2005). The Myth of Hitler's Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis., page 47 (footnote 9)

  5. Terry

    thanks! I stand corrected. What a fascinating life he had! Incredibly urbane and sophisticated. There are so many myths about this man as you further indicate by your links.

  6. It is now nearly 60 years since the death of Pope Pius XII.

    Isn`t it time that someone wrote the definitive life ? Or is he is just too controversial yet ?

  7. I have come to this page after finding among my late parents effects a little metal cross with pin and ribbon with the name of the congress on it. I had no idea what it was.
    My mother was catholic but born in 1920 so this must have been her mother'or grandmother's. The latter were Irish catholics, of a family who came to Britain in about 1850 during the potato famine.