The International Eucharistic Congress will welcome over 10,000 visitors to Ireland this week. Many visitors have come from countries, especially in Asia and Africa, which welcomed Irish missionaries over the past 150 years. The Church in these continents is now a rooted indigenous Church experiencing great growth.
What impressions will these visitors take with them when they leave Ireland at the end of the week? They will find a country whose people have experienced the pain of meteoric economic growth turned to dust. They will find a Church whose proud history has been tainted by scandal and sin.
Yet I trust they will also see that the words Christ spoke to Paul in Corinth ring true – ‘there are many on my side in this city’. There are many people of faith and hope in our parishes who give daily witness to their trust in God. There are priests and religious who give themselves tirelessly to building up the Kingdom of God in their local communities. There are parents who seek to keep the flame of faith alive in their homes. There are teachers and schools that are shaping our future generations with values, respect and wisdom. There are countless volunteers involved in so many activities – religious, charitable, sporting and cultural – that enhance the lives of many and enrich their communities. They don’t make the headlines but they are a true leaven in society.
I think our visitors will find a very different Church and country than the Ireland of 1932 when the Eucharistic Congress was last celebrated here. The 1932 event was shaped in part by the confidence of the people in a newly independent State. Yet that Congress also took place on the eve on considerable turmoil in Europe, with major concerns about the rise of dictatorships and the memory of the First World War still fresh in the public mind.
I would suggest that the major difference between the Eucharistic Congresses of 1932 and 2012 can be attributed to another pivotal event in the life of the Church, namely the Second Vatican Council, which began its work fifty years ago in 1962. The Second Vatican Council has helped the Church (and therefore the Eucharistic Congress) to be much more reflective in tone as it explores and celebrates the central mysteries of faith in Christ.
The Second Vatican Council was a formative influence on my own life as, studying for the priesthood in Rome at the time, I was invited to be part of the small group, drawn from different countries, that was responsible for compiling the official record of the Council. This involved learning Latin shorthand and being present each day of the Council, recording everything that was said and that happened in the Council Hall during its four years. This record is now published in over sixty large volumes. It meant I missed many classes in University but I would always consider the Council Hall as my own true university.
Like this week’s Eucharistic Congress, the Second Vatican Council gathered bishops, priests, religious and laity from all around the world to reflect and ponder on their faith. It looked at the Church not as an institution but as an assembly of the people of God that has the Eucharist as ‘the source and summit of our Christian life’. It reflected on all the major questions that face faith in Christ in every age but with particular attention to the challenges confronting faith and indeed society in these times.
The reflections of the Second Vatican Council on the dignity of the human person are as valid today – perhaps more so – as they were fifty years ago. It is widely accepted that Blessed John Paul II was the great interpreter of the Council. Shortly after his papacy began, he visited the European Institutions in Brussels and Luxembourg. Drawing on the teachings of the Council, he dared to suggest that Europe has lost its soul and was in danger of sowing the seeds of its ultimate destruction. A cohesive society that respects the rights and dignity of all can never be built of the shifting sands of self-interest and personal fulfilment. Events in recent years have shown the prophetic nature of his words and the ever pressing need for Europe to rediscover the values which the Second Vatican Council said are necessary to protect the dignity of each human person and to promote the common good.
I believe that the Church today is a more humble community of faith because of the influence of the Second Vatican Council. The Church seeks, in spite of all the pain and sorrow, to witness to faith in Christ. It can never forget that it is a Church of sinners placing its trust and hope in an all-loving and forgiving God. Because it is a gathering of sinners, the age old challenge to the Church – ‘ecclesia semper reformanda’ (the Church is ever in need of renewal and reform) – must always be present. I hope that the celebration of the International Eucharistic Congress will remind us that growing in faith is central to any meaningful renewal, both in the life of the Church and in the society in which we live. If it helps to focus our attention on the wisdom and insights of the Second Vatican Council, it will have put the road to renewal on a sure footing.
Most Reverend Michael Smith DCL, Bishop of Meath