Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fr Roderic Crowley: 'Congress offers hope of a fresh start for church'

BY all accounts, the International Eucharistic Congress of 2012 was very different to that of 1932, which -- obviously -- I was unable to attend. 

Numbers-wise, 1932 was a clear winner, though the closing day in Croke Park showed a big increase on the opening day; and it was a day of special celebration and enthusiasm, where modern communications enabled the Pope to be "present", even if the broadcast was not of the highest quality.

Returning from a foreign posting in Africa, as I was, the forecasts for the event contained many aspects of doom and gloom, and the timeliness of the occasion was even questioned. 

This all seemed to indicate limited expectations for the congress, which the opening Mass seemed only to support due to the limited attendance.

As the week progressed, however, the empty stands filled up as the attendance gathered momentum until the final day when it was an all-Ireland presence. 

The frequent references to renewal gave the idea that perhaps a new start might be on the way, and the Gaudium et Spes (joy and hope) of Vatican II gave signs of being on the way, as referred to by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.

It was not a triumphalist celebration and it contained many acknowledgments of the tragedy of the recent scandal of abuse, which was not overlooked, even if some media reports seemed focused on this to a large extent.

Archbishop Martin's closing words pointed us to the need to give attention to "Jesus Christ himself who, in giving himself in sacrifice revealed to us that God is Love" -- and to not let the failures of the past prevent us from putting this into practice.

Two prominent themes at the congress reminded us of the need to "become what we celebrate", and that "though we are many we are one body".

The organisation of the congress was very impressive. The volunteers -- who seemed to be everywhere -- were very helpful. The special programme of the event was a mine of information. There was a timetable for each day, which was closely adhered to. 

You could tell when things would begin and when they ended. Often the problem was of choice and trying to work out which events to attend.

The talks -- one of the best features of the week -- were extremely popular and, at times, it was difficult to get into them. 

A great variety of speakers were called on, and many offered challenging and thought-provoking ideas. 

The time given to questions at the end proved particularly interesting. It was one of the elements that made it truly a "peoples' Congress". It was good to see this element of "risk" being introduced. 

Could it be fitted into the Sunday homilies on some occasions, I wonder?

Additionally, it was very useful that there was an abundant supply of CDs, containing the content for all the talks. Perhaps the insatiable hunger for both the talks and the CDs should be noted and satisfied in future. 

The variety of topics and speakers was impressive. It was almost too rich a diet for such a short time. Perhaps the recordings could enable them to be extended to parishes in the time ahead. It was good to hear the laity given a chance -- and it proved well worthwhile.

Another special feature that will be long remembered was the rich variety of stalls -- more than 200 in all. They were presented very attractively, and to wander around them reminded me of a Marrakesh souk. 

I received several invitations, which varied from the Catholic Grandparents' Association to the Parish of the Travelling People. It all indicated to me that, in so many different ways, the church here is still very much alive.

The stalls were manned by people only too anxious to answer any queries you might have. 

Overall, they portrayed a caring and concerned image of the church and, ultimately, a call to serve in one way or another. They attracted quite a lot of attention, and the official programme provides a wealth of contact information about them.

Not unexpectedly, the Mass had a central role on each day. 

On Monday, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Most Rev Dr Michael Jackson, presided over a liturgy of word and water that focused on baptism and which was proposed to replace the notion of denomination to describe one's belonging and as an expression of unity. 

It was a very colourful and unifying service.

The daily Masses had a special celebrant and focus and were very well attended. 

The singing of the choirs was very beautiful and all were urged to join in. 

It was preceded by a "catechesis" on a relevant topic which was followed by one or two personal testimonies, normally by lay people, which was very moving. 

Perhaps we should have a place for this in our gatherings. 

The Masses were very lively affairs and people were in no hurry to leave. If only a similar spirit could be found in our weekly parish Masses.

The fact that this was a world eucharistic congress -- and not just a national one -- was made clear from the start. 

On the Monday, there were Masses conducted in more than 20 languages around the city. 

This helped to give a sense of belonging to our immigrant groups.

In addition, there were prayers in the Mass said in six or seven languages. There was a special earphone with which you could hear a number of different languages when required to do so. 

Throughout the week, different national groups and their dress were encountered, so you became aware of the universality of the church to which our missionaries had contributed in various parts of the world over the years. Personally, I missed the sound of African drums to which I had grown accustomed over the years. Though many, we are one body.

Two final points: the first concerns the role of the laity. They emerged as having a substantial role to play, especially with regard to the talks and discussions. I was at one very fine talk given by a layman who obviously had great leadership qualities. Hopefully, this trend will continue.

Secondly, women were given a prominent part to play, and did so very well and competently. This source must be tapped continually in future. The use of "sisters and brothers" -- in that order -- as a form of address, was an interesting sign.

Hopefully, the congress can be seen as making a fresh start for the church here. Many problems remain. 

The congress did not try to resolve them. 

But it gave evidence of a new impetus and a new energy to face them. 

Let us hope it may be seen as a stepping stone on which many will tread in future. 

Let its voice not be silenced, let us become what we celebrate.

* Fr Roderic Crowley has recently returned to Ireland after spending 40 years on missionary work in Nigeria

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