International Eucharistic Congress, Dublin 2012

Thomas Bartsch

“For heaven’s sake, why would you want to go there?” is the reaction I get from one of my Quest friends when I suggest to attend the International Eucharistic Congress 2012 in Dublin. To be honest, I don’t quite know why I’d want to go, except that there will be scores of pilgrims from around the world. It can’t fail to be interesting. Having the event happen practically at our doorstep seems an opportunity too good to miss.

According to the organizers, participants from well over 100 countries are in Dublin. However, the gathering feels not nearly as international as the numbers suggest. During the liturgies, prayers are spoken in various languages, but such symbolic acknowledgment aside, nearly all events are held in English. Plenary meetings are translated into French and Spanish. In other events, translations are available only occasionally. Mostly, participants are expected to conduct business in English.  In fact, the majority of participants appear to be Irish. Is that the cause or a consequence of the choice of language?

In many ways, this is an Irish event, which means that the crisis of the Irish church is a recurring topic. To their credit, the Irish bishops have decided to tackle it openly and honestly. As a sign of that openness, during the opening ceremony Archbishop Martin of Dublin unveils a plaque with a prayer written by victims of abuse. It will be visible next to the main altar in the RDS Arena throughout the week, just as prayers for forgiveness and reconciliation will be with us throughout the week.

A day at the congress begins with morning prayer at nine o’clock. The main events take place in the afternoon in the RDS Arena: a catechesis on the theme of the day, a personal testimony, and the principal liturgy, usually the celebration of the Eucharist. In the morning and in the evening, a number of workshops take place in the various venues at the RDS.

The theme of the first day is “Communion in One Baptism,” so that the congress starts with a reflection of the Catholic Church in its ecumenical relations. The principal liturgy is an ecumenical liturgy of word and water, celebrated by the Anglican Archbishop Michael Jackson of Dublin and Glendalough. He is grateful for this sign of openness: “The word `Communion’ is all too often a shorthand term for the Eucharist. Beginning the International Eucharistic Congress 2012 with a celebration of Baptism instantly set Communion in a wider context.” Unfortunately, the message does not seem to play well to a Catholic audience: Attendance at this liturgy is markedly lower than at any of the other principal liturgies.

On the second day we move on to “Communion in Marriage and Family”. The morning prayer is led by Cardinal O’Brien of St Andrews and Edinburgh. It feels important that I go to pray with him, and in fact that turns out to be helpful. Afterwards, I decide to visit the Irish National Museum of Archaeology rather than risk the main catechesis of the day. Reports I hear afterwards suggest that it was all I feared and more.

In his homily at mass that day, Cardinal Vingt-Trois of Paris puts things into perspective: ‘’We often hear complaints that our society fails to respect Christianity. …. But if we are `thrown out’, as the Gospel puts it (Matthew 5:13), is it only because the others don’t like us? Is it not also because they cannot figure out what use we could be?‘’ And then: “In the field of family life, we must not rule out anything of all that can be done publicly to defend the value of the family. But the first mission of Christian families is to live concretely by these values, by `reconciliation, mutual acceptance and joy in giving one’s life for one’s loved ones’.”

If there is one message that echoes through the various events of the congress, it is this: “Everybody is welcome.’’ Adoration closes every night with the assurance, quoted from Mother Teresa, that “You do not need to change for God to love you. But allow God to love you, and you will change.” Bishop Derek Byrne’s homily at morning prayer closes with the prayer: “May every communion, every sharing in the Lord’s supper, be a sharing of our hearts with Christ and with one another, always including, never excluding!”

Before the opening mass of the congress, I notice one of the posters that are scattered across the campus in many languages. It displays a quote by the Curé of Ars: “Not receiving communion, we are like a person dying of thirst by the side of a river.’’ It seems a jarring contradiction to me that in his homily the papal legate, Cardinal Ouellet, refers to the theological preparation document of the congress to recommend spiritual communion.  Has the Cardinal read that poster? Does he agree?

Here as elsewhere, the well-known official limits to the inclusiveness of the church shine through. At the same time, unease about these limits seems to be widespread among congress participants. It is obvious in the reactions I hear to the catechesis on family life. I sense it for the first time already on Monday morning, when Bishop Brian Farrell from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity holds a dialogue with a Methodist theologian about “Vatican II and Ecumenism Today’’.  The audience raises critical questions about the current state of ecumenism. One member of the audience asks directly: “My Protestant friends used to attend Catholic masses every Sunday, because they want to help build communion between our churches. They have given that up because being excluded from receiving Communion is too painful. When will that change?” Unfortunately, the chair of the session decides to answer the question himself, rather than hand it to Bishop Farrell, for whom it was probably intended. His answer is: “Timelines are not helpful. Hope and pray.”

In spite of all the discomfort I noticed among conference participants about exclusionary church policies, I did not expect that these policies could be challenged from the podium during the congress. I was wrong. On Friday, Fr Peter McVerry SJ speaks about “Communion and Inclusion”. He presents Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God as an alternative to the oppressive kingdom of Cesar and Herod and to the many daily injustices that Jesus’ audience would have recognized in his parables. He issues a strong challenge that our celebration of the Eucharist should be a commitment to the justice of the Kingdom of God. (A recording of this talk, as of many others, is available for download from the congress website

In passing Fr McVerry notes: “The religious leaders [of Jesus’ time] identified God with their religious system. Perhaps we in our churches have done the same.” When asked about this remark, he elaborates: “I know plenty of people who have an exceptional commitment to living justice, but who are told they are not good Catholics because they happen to be gay or Lesbian or divorced.” And: “It is not the Church’s job to tell people how to love God. It is the Church’s job to tell people how much God loves them.” The audience is enthusiastic about his statement. Clearly, this is a message that is heard in the centre of the church. May we find the strength to live it!

This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 64 (Autumn 2012)