PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) — Amid the blare of fire engine sirens, the pulse of rock music from car stereos and the curious looks of afternoon alfresco diners, Christ made his way through downtown Portland June 3.

It was a Corpus Christi procession, and the body of Christ — both the Eucharist and an estimated 1,000 faithful from diverse parishes and cultures — walked along streets and crossed intersections in order to cross into the culture, and perhaps some souls, with Jesus.

Prior to the bold witness, Archbishop Alexander K. Sample celebrated Mass in Portland’s St. Mary Cathedral.

The reality that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist at every Mass throughout time is “the heart of our faith,” the archbishop said in his homily. The procession, which included an outside rosary in five languages, concluded with Benediction.

The feast of Corpus Christi, or more precisely the solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, is the Catholic Church’s celebration of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

According to Todd Cooper, director of special projects for the Archdiocese of Portland, the June 3 event was the first time in recent history, and possibly the first time ever, that parishioners form across western Oregon had gathered for a Corpus Christi eucharistic procession in downtown Portland.

Moments before Mass began, Matthieu Bernard stood on a street-corner water fountain in front of the cathedral. He was filling up water bottles for his wife and six kids, parishioners of St. Stephen Parish in Southeast Portland. It was a warm day and the procession was 1.2 miles.

“A pilgrim’s gotta do what a pilgrim’s gotta do,” Bernard told the Catholic Sentinel, Portland’s archdiocesan newspaper.

The Mass and procession with Portland’s archbishop and the archdiocesan church “is a huge expression of unity,” he said, twisting off a cap.

Inside the cathedral, Anne Marie Delaney of Holy Redeemer Parish in Vancouver fed 6-month-old Faith Therese and prayed while waiting for Mass to begin. “I hope people will see our devotion and ask questions,” she said.

Sister Theresa Harrell, a member of the Society of Mary, who was walking toward her pew, said many onlookers might not know what the procession is all about.

“But even if they don’t know, we are still changing things by bringing Jesus to the streets,” she said. Christ’s presence in the Eucharist means “it’s as if it was Jesus walking through Jerusalem.”

During Mass, with several priests concelebrating, Archbishop Sample commissioned extraordinary ministers of holy Communion. It was part of an archdiocesewide commissioning.

“Always hold in reverence the mystery you handle,” the archbishop told the extraordinary ministers.

The same day Catholics across the archdiocese also implemented the practice of kneeling sooner, after the recitation of the “Lamb of God,” or Angus Dei,” prayers.

The shift is a return to previous practice and, together with the commissioning, is part of the archbishop’s desire to bring more reverence to the Eucharist.

The sacrifice Jesus offered “is made truly present in every Mass,” the archbishop said during his homily.

The Second Vatican Council, he said, affirmed that “in the Eucharist is contained the entire good of the church.” Within it, Jesus is “no less present than he was to those apostles” two millennia ago.

Outside waiting for the eucharistic procession to begin was a group of candle-bearing altar servers. “Now be careful of the trees,” said a seasoned server to the younger boys.

Seconds later, the monstrance emerged from the cathedral carried by Archbishop Sample. Massgoers were joined by a few hundred more Catholics, who together became a steady stream of prayerful walkers. The Knights of Columbus, seminarians and clergy were part of the procession that included the old and the young, wheelchairs and strollers.

The Knights of Columbus acted as safety patrol for the day, monitoring street crossing while wearing bright green vests. Jeff Petersen, a knight from St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton, said bystanders asked him what was going on.

“I was surprised how many non-practicing Catholics were moved,” said Petersen.

Deb Ochsner lives in Washington state but was in Portland at a gig for her husband, a musician.

“We were going along, but when I saw this I said, ‘Honey, we have to stop,'” recalled Ochsner, holding both hands over her heart. “It is tremendous and moving.”

Most but not all responses were positive: Two young men laughed a bit once they learned it was a Christian procession.

But all reactions were treated with love.

“It will offer hope to some, and some will reject it and that’s OK,” said Sister Anne Clare Keeler, a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist.

A number of religious orders participated in the procession.

“To adore Jesus in the heart of downtown, it’s great for the city,” said Damon Clute, a member of St. Boniface Parish in Sublimity. He drove more than 60 miles with his wife and six children to participate.

Several feet ahead was his wife, Heather Clute. At 31-weeks pregnant with their seventh child, she admitted she was a bit tired. “But I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” she said.

Once the group reached an area called North Park Blocks downtown, participants kneeled in the grass and prayed the rosary in a mix of English, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese and Latin. Incense mingled amid bus exhaust; joggers, walkers and a few homeless individuals stopped to observe.

“Hearing the rosary in so many languages is powerful,” said Jerry Owen, a member of St. Paul Parish in St. Paul.

“It was like all streams and rivulets of language coming together to create this multicultural Multnomah Falls,” he said, referring to the tallest waterfall in Oregon. “That is our faith.”

After the rosary, the prayerful crowd followed Archbishop Sample back to St. Mary Cathedral for the Benediction.

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Scott is special projects reporter for the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.