The congress is little more than a spiritual carnival, and the problems besetting the Church require far more by way of response than an ecclesiastical version of an ard fheis.
Following a series of shocking scandals — of which the last has by no means been heard — the Church leadership is in disarray, and the levels of disenchantment among sections of the clergy and laity are such that require a radical response.
The chances of such a response, given the increasingly authoritarianism emanating from the Rome of Pope Benedict XVI and the subservience of the bishops to the Vatican, is close to zero.
Meanwhile the desire for a “people’s church” drawing on the vision and insights of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) is gathering momentum. The 1,000 Catholic laity, priests, and nuns who attended the recent seminar organised by the Association of Catholic Priests in Dublin, whose theme was “towards an assembly of the Catholic Church”, was indisputable proof of this.
This means that any parallels between next week’s event and the last such event held in Ireland 80 years ago are purely academic.
The highpoint of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress was the open-air Mass on the final day in the Phoenix Park, attended by a crowd said to have exceeded the crowd drawn to the Mass in Sept 1979 during the visit of Pope John Paul II. Radio broadcasts allowed those at home to hear John McCormack singing ‘Panis Angelicus’.
In his book Modern Ireland 1600-1972, Oxford historian Roy Foster (who was born in Waterford), saw the event as symbolising the bonding of Catholicism with Irish nationalism. “de Valera’s Ireland became a 26-county state… institutionalising a powerful Catholic ethos that was symbolically celebrated in the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, and effectively enshrined in the Constitution of 1937.”
Although one of the primary functions of a Eucharistic Congress is to provide a formal setting for the public expression of faith, a congress can also have secondary effects. Historians are in agreement that this happened in 1932. The event helped in significant ways to heal the divisions and assuage the bitterness that came after the Civil War of 1921-22.
The congress came soon after the entry of Fianna Fáil into power for the first time, the party having earlier in 1932 won the general election. And there can be no doubt that the event did much to bolster the self-confidence of the new State and to consolidate its legitimacy both at home and abroad. It was, though, unmistakably and self-consciously a Catholic State.
Next week’s event takes place against the background of a very different and much-changed Ireland. The Irish Catholic Church has been deeply traumatised by a spate of scandals. Despite the fact that 84% of the population declared themselves Catholic in the 2011 census, attendance at weekly Mass has plummeted, and many Catholics disregard the Church’s official teaching in the sphere of sexuality.
When the decision to hold the Congress in Ireland was announced in Rome in June 2008, Archbishop Martin said it would have a number of objectives, including a deepening understanding and devotion to the Eucharist, and strengthening the relationship of solidarity between Catholics who will come together from all over the world. He added that “it will also be a prophetic call for a renewal of faith”. Since we saw little of that after the 1979 papal visit, when the circumstances were far more propitious, we are unlikely to see much of it in 2012.
The congress, which opens at the RDS on Sunday and will continue until June 17, is the 50th in a series that began at Lille in France in 1881. The congress met annually until 1960, but since then, it has met every four years.
The congress usually begins with a special Mass and the highlight of the week is usually the final public open air Mass. This is due to be held in Croke Park. In between there will be a week of conferences and workshops on different themes associated with the Eucharist. The overall theme of the 2012 Congress is “The Eucharist: Communion with Christ and with one another”.
The 1932 congress was the 31st of the series and marked the 1,500th anniversary of St Patrick’s arrival in Ireland. This year’s congress marks the 80th anniversary of the 1932 event, and it has also been stressed that it commemorates the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.
The council opened in St Peter’s Basilica on Oct 11, 1962, but the irony is that during the present pontificate of Benedict XVI, the trend begun during the long pontificate of his predecessor, John Paul II, of systematically rolling back and abandoning the reforms of Vatican II, has continued and intensified.
When Pope Benedict’s decision to hold the 50th congress in Dublin was announced, Archbishop Martin predicted that “2012 will be an Olympian year for the Catholic Church in Ireland”.
If by that he meant the Church is on the threshold of a golden or even a silver era, then I fear he and his brother bishops face a long winter of discontent.
Long after the Eucharistic Congress of 2012 has passed into history, the travails of Irish Catholicism will still be with us.