In the history of religion an important socio-religious ritual action or form of worship. It is found especially, but not exclusively, in the higher religions and is a worldwide custom. The procession was a marked feature of public religion, e.g., throughout the Near East and the Mediterranean world. Solemn processions were regularly held to honor a given divinity, as a part of the enthronement ceremony of a king, to celebrate the New Year and the harvest, to avert calamities, or to propitiate the god or gods when calamity had occurred. Statues or symbols of the gods were usually carried in religious processions and the ritual normally combined magical as well as religious elements. It is sufficient to mention the great religious processions connected with the enthronement of the Egyptian pharaoh, the elaborate processions of the Babylonians from the Sumerian Age to the end of the Chaldean Empire, the Athenian processions in honor of Athenae the patron goddess of Athens, and the long procession from Athens to Eleusis connected with the celebration of the Eleusinian mysteries. At Rome, procession was an essential feature of lustration ceremonies, and the Roman triumph was a solemn religious procession culminating in an act of thanksgiving to the Capitoline Jupiter for victory. The joyous pagan processions associated with bountiful harvests were usually accompanied or followed by much license, however religious their motivation. Hence, the frequent condemnation of such processions in the Old Testament and in the Fathers of the Church.
Group activity and movement spring so spontaneously from human religious psychology that the Church did not hesitate to adopt some of these rites from paganism, as in the substitution of the Rogation procession of April 25, for the Roman Robigalia, and to develop many more of her own. The Christian Church can never forget that its spiritual life has its roots in the Old Testament, when God accompanied His chosen people on their long pilgrimages out of Egypt and later back from exile. The Christian life is a continual "Passover" as we follow in the footsteps of Christ and His cross along the road leading to heaven. Processions, ordinarily led by the cross, are an expression of the fact that the Christian life is a constant movement toward God and that prayer is always a kind of "walking with God"; they are a public image of the Church in continual pilgrimage here on earth.
It is important to distinguish between strictly liturgical processions (e.g., the Palm Sunday procession), whose rite, chant and prayer are specified in liturgical books, and non-liturgical processions. There are two kinds of liturgical procession: (1) ordinary processions are those connected with certain feast days, such as the processions on candlemas, palm sunday, rogationdays, and corpus et sanguinis christi. Extraordinary processions are those enjoined or permitted by the bishop for some special occasion, e.g., the solemn transfer of relics.
Some processions, such as those of the palms and of the easter vigil, relive a special event in the history of salvation. Others are called functional because they simply solemnize a necessary movement from one place to another, as, for example, funeral processions and the first entrance of a bishop into his see. Still others have as their purpose to bless and sanctify certain places, to provide public pilgrimages to sacred shrines, or to offer supplication to God for good weather or for help in time of war, famine, epidemic, etc.
The most popular processions are those that honor the Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin. Besides the Holy Thursday procession, the best known Eucharistic processions are those of Corpus Christi. At an early date processions in honor of Mary were introduced, especially in connection with her major feasts. The one with the longest history is that of the Assumption. The present-day May processions, while not strictly liturgical, are in accord with this tradition.
See Also: pilgrimages.
Bibliography: f. louvel, "Les Processions dans la Bible," Maison-Dieu 43 (1955) 5–28. j. pinell, "La processione come componente dell'azione liturgica," in Ricerche sulla religiosit… popolare (Bologna 1979) 151–170. a. n. terrin, "Il rito della processione: appunti per una interpretazione religiosa storicocomparata," in Ricerche sulla religiosit … popolare (Bologna 1979) 225–242. j. evenou, "Processions, Pilgrimages, Popular Religion," in The Sacraments, ed. A. Martimort (Collegeville, Minn 1988) 241–262.
[b. i. mullahy/eds.]