Jesus in the public square

Corpus Christi celebrated with eucharistic procession through downtown Knoxville

By Bill Brewer

The questions and comments were many, and they were spoken by people from all walks of life.

“What is that?”

“Who is this?”

“What are they doing?”

“Why are they doing this?”

“Look Mommy, it’s a parade!”

“What’s a eucharistic procession?”

Some 250 Catholics took part June 18 in a Corpus Christi eucharistic procession that weaved its way through downtown Knoxville from Holy Ghost Church to Immaculate Conception Church, through a crowded Market Square and Old City, and back to Holy Ghost.

The 3.5-mile walk incorporated Diocese of Knoxville priests, a deacon, altar servers carrying the processional cross and thurible burning incense, Knights of Columbus, volunteers holding the canopy covering the monstrance containing the Holy Eucharist, and the lay faithful, who prayed the rosary, sang hymns such as “O Jesus, We Adore Thee” and “Jesus, My Lord, My God, My All,” and recited the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Litany of the Most Precious Blood in English, Spanish, and Latin.

It was one of several Corpus Christi eucharistic processions held in the Diocese of Knoxville June 18-19 as part of the solemnity of Corpus Christi in the Catholic Church. A number of those processions were held on church grounds.

While the route for the downtown procession was crowded with vehicles and pedestrians enjoying near-perfect weather on Father’s Day weekend, there were no incidents between those processing and the public.

In fact, onlookers greeted the procession with curiosity, courtesy, respect, and even reverence.

The eucharistic procession was escorted through downtown Knoxville by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, which provided two deputies in vehicles with emergency lights flashing. An AMR ambulance followed the procession in case anyone needed medical attention along the way, and a 15-passenger van also trailed the procession for anyone needing a respite from the walk.

Father Bill McNeeley, pastor of Holy Ghost, was one of four Diocese of Knoxville priests leading the procession. He was joined by Father Michael Hendershott, associate pastor of Holy Ghost, Father Dustin Collins, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Johnson City, and Father Julian Cardona, associate pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Lenoir City. Deacon Gordy Lowery, who serves at Holy Ghost, assisted in the procession.

Father McNeeley explained that the procession with the eucharistic Lord was to celebrate the solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ and a launch of the National Eucharistic Revival, a three-year initiative sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

According to the USCCB, the Church has withstood scandal, division, disease, and doubt throughout human history: “But today we confront all of them, all at once. Our response in this moment is pivotal. In the midst of these roaring waves, Jesus is present, reminding us that He is more powerful than the storm. He desires to heal, renew, and unify the Church and the world. How will He do it? By uniting us once again around the source and summit of our faith: the Holy Eucharist. The National Eucharistic Revival is the joyful, expectant, grassroots response of the entire Catholic Church in the United States to this divine invitation.”

The procession began inside Holy Ghost, where the exposition of the Holy Eucharist took place. The priest incensed the Eucharist. The Pange Lingua and Adoro Te Devote were sung. Father McNeeley carried the monstrance at the front of the procession. Once outside the church, the canopy bearers protected the Eucharist as the procession began. The concelebrating priests and the deacon led the canopy, or baldachino. Along the route, as the priests alternated carrying the monstrance, songs were sung, and prayers were made.

The monstrance containing the Holy Eucharist was taken inside Immaculate Conception Church and placed on the altar, where adoration took place for about 30 minutes. The procession then exited Immaculate Conception and made its way through downtown and then back to Holy Ghost, where Benediction inside that church concluded the procession.

The procession took about three hours to complete.

Father McNeeley was excited about participation in the procession, how it went, and reaction to it along the way.

“It was fantastic. We had a terrific turnout,” he continued. “We filled the church three times. It was really beautiful, and it shows how our parishes and our diocese are truly evangelical. We are bearing faithful witness to Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. In all that we do, we give Him the praise and the glory, and that’s what is at the heart and soul of a eucharistic procession—to carry Jesus out into the world, and as He instructed us, to go make disciples of all nations.

“It’s been an honor to be able to do that and to have so many people step up to help that. We also thank the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, which provided us escorts. Everything just went wonderfully. I couldn’t be happier.”

Among the participants were Rose Alenius-Spencer from Abingdon, Va., and her sister and brother-in-law, Karin and Cabell Finch, of Tampa, Fla.

Ms. Alenius-Spencer, who attends the Latin Mass at St. Mary Church in Johnson City on Sundays and Christ the King Church in Abingdon during the week, explained that she drove to Knoxville to be in the procession and suggested to her sister and brother-in-law, who were traveling to Knoxville, that they take part, too.

Mr. Finch is a Knoxville native, and he and his wife often visit family in Knoxville and attend the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus while in town.

“I came down here just for this. It was beyond anything I’ve ever done. My mom is from Bogotá (Colombia), and she talks a lot about the processions they always did down in Bogotá when she was a girl. In churches I’ve been to, the procession is always around the church, but I’ve never been in a procession that actually went through town, especially a town that was so busy and so full of people,” Ms. Alenius-Spencer said.

“We witnessed so amazingly. I hope Jesus is happy with us today. I’m just full of joy and love and happiness right now,” she added.

Mrs. Finch noted that the eucharistic procession was especially poignant for her and her husband because members of her husband’s family are buried in Old Gray Cemetery in downtown Knoxville, which the eucharistic procession passed on its June 18 route.

“I thought this eucharistic procession was magnificent. I felt blessed and safe. I know there were a lot of prayers involved. We had stopped to attend Mass in Atlanta, and they were praying for the safety of everyone who was participating in a eucharistic procession this weekend. I felt lifted, and I really felt that we were proclaiming that Jesus is Lord,” Mrs. Finch said.

“People fell silent in Market Square very respectfully as we passed through. We were in a very large crowd where anything could have happened. But I felt entirely safe and blessed and lifted. This really magnifies this hour of power we should do every week to a new level,” she continued.

Mr. Finch said a eucharistic procession is something he’s only seen on television. However, participating in one was a new sensation.

“The experience was amazing. I never imagined I would be participating in one. During the procession, there was a lot of communion with deceased members of my family,” he said, adding that the procession also passed by the Episcopal church where his parents were married. “When we were singing as we processed down Gay Street and in Market Square was especially sublime as people who were watching were moved and fascinated with our group as we were evangelizing.”

As the procession traversed the streets of North Knoxville and downtown, people were watching from upper-floor windows of their residences, from their vehicles, from sidewalks and sidewalk vendor stands.

Market Square was congested with people who were shopping at the weekly farmers’ market, and the streets were bustling with traffic. At two points, the procession crossed under Interstate 40.

As the procession entered teeming Market Square, Knights of Columbus and altar servers had to courteously move the secular congregation to the side to create a path for the Real Presence and the lay faithful to get through.

And as the procession prayed and sang as it passed by a Central Street food truck park, the pop song “Walkin’ on the Sun” by the band Smash Mouth was accompa nying them on a loudspeaker. Such were the sights and sounds for Jesus in the marketplace.

Father Hendershott said parishioners suggested various routes through downtown that the procession could take, and the route chosen was one that public parades use incorporating Gay Street.

When asked if he would like to repeat the eucharistic procession through downtown Knoxville, Father Hendershott issued a resounding “YES!”

“We want to bring Our Lord in the Most Blessed Eucharist into the streets so that He might be known and loved by all people. Many who have never seen the Holy Eucharist were exposed to Our Lord’s eucharistic presence for the first time,” Father Hendershott said, indicating that a sequel may be in the offing.

“Priests and lay faithful alike are already asking for it to be an annual event and to keep the same date, the Saturday before Corpus Christi. People who could not come expressed their desire to come next year,” he noted.

Father Collins echoed the sentiments of Father McNeeley and Father Hendershott after helping take Christ into the public square.

“I thought this was a very successful, wonderful day. It’s great to see so many people out praying and spreading the Lord and bringing Him into the streets of Knoxville. Hopefully this is something we’ll see recurring year by year,” Father Collins said. “There were very crowded streets, and everything went well, and everyone was reverent.”

Father Collins is familiar with eucharistic processions, having witnessed them as a seminarian who visited Guatemala one year during Corpus Christi.

“It’s very nice to finally see such a thing here in Knoxville,” he continued.

Mary C. Weaver, a Holy Ghost parishioner who helped coordinate music and chant for the sidewalk liturgy, was energized by the procession despite the 3.5-mile trek in 85-degree temperature.

“I thought it was beautiful to be able to take Jesus into the public square and to be able to sing beautiful songs that we sang in English and Latin. It’s a form of witness. I think people could see, even if they didn’t know what we were doing, that it was something religious and that we were joyful. It was pretty swell,” Mrs. Weaver said. “I have a young friend who said that it was one of the five coolest things she’s done in her life.”

Mrs. Weaver was a bit apprehensive about negative reactions to the procession, but those didn’t happen.

“No one cursed or shouted. And it was wonderful to have such a big turnout on a hot day,” she pointed out, adding that she looks forward to another eucharistic procession.

Blayne Cowan, a Holy Ghost member who helped organize the procession, said organizers persevered in meeting logistical challenges to make the procession happen.

“It could not have gone any better. … Because traffic was flowing and Gay Street wasn’t closed down, the amount of people we were able to witness to was immensely more,” Mr. Cowan said. “I had prepared myself and others for hecklers and such, but we were gladly welcomed with respect as people got out of the way, listened to the chant, and watched.”

Mr. Cowan was moved by the reverence the procession elicited.

“I’ve been to the farmers’ market so many times, but I have never seen that many people go quiet. You could hear the singing echoing off the buildings as the procession parted the Red Sea of people and the column of incense billowed into the air,” he said.

Mr. Cowan, who assisted the procession in cassock and surplice, observed that one onlooker, who watched as incense was placed in the thurible, which prompted the thurible to begin smoking, remarked, “How is this even legal?”

“God wanted this to happen and there is zero doubt about it. I look forward to a grand revival of faith and being able to take thousands of people through downtown Knoxville in order to glorify God and witness to those who have no faith or have fallen away,” he said.

Jimmy Dee, of the Knights of Columbus and Holy Ghost, who was an organizer of the procession, said participation was more than he anticipated.

“It went beyond expectation. The number of people participating was far greater than I suspected would show up. But what was more impressive was the overall ambience of everything that happened and the way the community focused on the Eucharist,” Mr. Dee said.

“It was incredible the way the Holy Spirit planned this out for us. We were being approached by numerous people as we processed asking us what we were doing. We were getting a lot of attention, and there was a lot of love and support, with people doing the sign of the cross as we went by, and that’s the sign we are looking for,” he also said.

Mr. Dee and Father McNeeley were moved by fallen-away Catholics who were inspired by the eucharistic procession and vowed to return to the Church.

“Inscribed above the doors of Holy Ghost Church are the words, ‘Go forth therefore, and make disciples of all nations.’ That is what we did today. One couple told me how they had fallen away from the Church a few years ago. The husband said, ‘I’m taking this as a sign that the Lord is calling us back to church.’ That makes it all worthwhile,” Father McNeeley said when the procession ended.

Slideshow by Ray Chan 

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