The 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin had a long-lasting effect on the generation that lived through that time, and it left its mark on many aspects of the life of the Church in Ireland right up to the present day.
The Church at that time used the occasion to make a statement about itself. It proclaimed itself to the world as a triumphant Church, the depository of spiritual and moral authority. This is understandable in the context of the time. The Church had come through penal laws and persecution, the campaign for emancipation, and the struggle to assert itself over and against the Established Church. Now, in an independent Ireland, the Church had an opportunity to make a bold statement about itself to an international audience. This new confidence was to find expression in an extraordinary missionary outreach.
Secondly, the Congress had a long-lasting effect on devotion to the Eucharist in Ireland, right down to our own day. Prayers, hymns, processions, devotions, etc. were introduced and taught to everybody, and many of these have stood the test of time. The hymn book produced in 1932 refers in its preface to the work of teachers in teaching the hymns to their children, and contains hymns that have been standard fare in Ireland ever since: Soul of My Saviour, Sweet Heart of Jesus, Holy God We Praise Thy Name, To Jesus’ Heart All Burning.
In addition – something which historians are increasingly willing to point out – the 1932 Congress had a healing and reconciling effect in a country that only nine years previously had been torn apart by a Civil War. The Cumann na nGaedhael government under W. T. Cosgrave had just been overturned by the new De Valera led Fianna Fáil government, but all sides across the political divide worked to ensure that the Congress would succeed. The Congress gave a new and non-political focus to a population that still suffered from the wounds and division of the Civil War.
I have heard the voices saying that this is not the moment to have a Congress in Ireland. Some say that we need to focus on the problems in the Church in Ireland: the Congress will distract us from the consequences of the clerical sex-abuse scandals and add fuel to the flames of anger that are already burning. Others point to the hostility of public, political and media opinion at the moment and fear that the Congress will become a rallying point for more anti-Catholic vitriol, etc. Many are asking if it is simply right to be spending so much money on hosting this type of event given the economic situation at the moment.
However, I have to ask: is it unreasonable to hope that this year’s Congress might have an impact similar to that of the 1932 Congress – similar in its energy but different in its content?
- Might it be possible for the Church in Ireland at this time to make a statement about itself? Can we show ourselves to be a more humble Church, conscious of the sinfulness in our ranks and of the hurt that that sinfulness has caused? Can we show ourselves to be a more authentic Church, a true community of believers, journeying together in “faith, hope and love”, calling all people into communion with Christ and with one another? Instead of trumpeting authority, can we show ourselves to be a community of people which submits itself to the authority of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
- Might it be possible that the Congress could have a long term effect on the celebration of the Eucharist? One only has to travel abroad and attend Mass in other countries to realise that, in general terms, the celebration of the Eucharist in Ireland often leaves much to be desired: poor congregational participation, poor singing, the quality of celebration sacrificed for the sake of “the short Mass”, etc. Might not this be an opportunity for us to renew our understanding and celebration of the Eucharist?
- And is it too much to hope that the Congress in Dublin might be a moment of healing after the problems and hurts of recent years? Could it be the moment when we permit ourselves to emerge from the dark tunnel of the scandal-ridden years? Perhaps a moment that will allow all of us to re-direct our focus to that place from which it should never have shifted: the mystery of the love of God made visible in Jesus Christ and made available to us in the Eucharist? Perhaps too a moment to experience forgiveness, to become fellow pilgrims on the road to God with those who have suffered?
The 2012 Congress is upon us. Let us embrace it as an opportunity to deepen our faith and to enter more deeply into this mystery that sustains us on the path of life. It is highly unlikely that we will ever have this opportunity again!
Fr Declan Hurley, Adm. St Mary’s, Navan