Next week the trio of Christian meetings occurring this month at the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center will conclude with a Eucharistic Congress organized by the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama. It will mark the diocese’s fiftieth anniversary. The congress’s most public event will be a nearly mile long procession of the Blessed Sacrament on Friday evening from the BJCC to the Cathedral of St. Paul where an all night vigil will occur.
Processions of the Blessed Sacrament through the streets are perhaps most associated with the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi). The traditional day of observance is today, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, but in the United States it is observed on the following Sunday. When I discuss the solemnity of Corpus Christi in my classes, I often explain to students that late May and June is a lovely time of year for an outdoor parade in northern Europe, but not so much in the American South. Not surprisingly therefore, this procession will begin at sunset (8 p.m.) when the sun will be off Birmingham’s street and cooler temperatures setting in.
Various ethnic communities including Vietnamese, Filipino, Kenyan, and Hispanic Catholics will have a special role in the procession according to details published on the diocese’s Facebook page. There will also be three altars of benediction. These are places where the procession will stop and a clergyman will solemnly bless the assembly with the Blessed Sacrament. Full details from the diocese are below.
Since I am an historian of American religion, the phrase “Eucharistic Congress” immediately brings to my mind the great 28th International Eucharistic Congress held in Chicago in 1926 which involved upwards of one million people in the pilgrimage on its final day to the University of St. Mary on the Lake. It also brings to mind the hymn “Gift of Finest Wheat” (text by Omer Westendorf, tune by Robert Kruetz) which was written for the 41st International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia fifty years later. I’ve sung it countless times.
Turning to Birmingham’s religious history, I recently discovered that a Catholic gathering was held in Rickwood Field on the feast of Christ the King in 1965. It included a much more modest Eucharistic Procession as shown in this photograph from the collection of the Birmingham Public Library published in Historic Photos of Birmingham by James L. Baggett.
Eucharistic Processions along with Eucharistic Adoration declined in prominence in American Catholic life after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).Yet, over the past few decades has received renewed emphasis in the Birmingham diocese and elsewhere. Next Friday’s procession is a significant sign of this.