2012-06-09 Vatican RadioA relentless, horizontal rain greeted international pilgrims as they stepped off their planes at Dublin airport this week, many – in fact the large majority – after long haul flights from the US and Canada. Accompanying that rain, a bitterly cold wind. They would be forgiven if – even for a fleeting second - they had wished they were anywhere else this unusually cold June. And the question on all their minds was what should they expect?
They had all heard of Ireland’s glorious past, ‘semper fidelis’ through centuries of persecution, the land of saints and scholars’. Many had been educated by the multitudes of missionary religious produced by this small island. But they had also read the recent headlines emerging from the national media of a ‘broken Church’, following the revelations of widespread abuse in the last century, of a Catholic faith in decline.
Travelling towards the city centre, one Canadian gentleman - observing the green, white and gold bunting decorating houses here and the Irish flags on the cars whipping past - said he could already feel the Congress atmosphere. I didn’t have the heart to reveal that this show of national pride had more to do with the European Championship football tournament taking place in Poland than the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, which opens Sunday in the Irish capital.
We travelled across the city from North to south, the city that was brought to a standstill 80 years ago when one million lined the banks of the River Liffey in procession behind the Eucharist, during the 1932 Congress. Comparisons are odious, but this week in Irish media they abound. “The Congress will succeed if it makes better citizens”, writes one columnist in the Irish Times, while in the very same paper the editor hopes the Congress will result the emergence of an Irish “cultural Catholicism” – whatever that may be.
Meanwhile on national radio – by far the most incisive media in the country - Archbishop Diarmuid Martin speaks about God and Jesus Christ. “Young people will not be attracted to a Church that is bickering” – he says, expressing the hope that this Congress will be an extraordinary moment of communion for Catholics, bishops, priests and laity.
Oblivious to the media’s predictions on whether the Congress will/will not be a success, in south Dublin, at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS), the hub for Congress activities this week, two thousand volunteers are quietly and contentedly occupied with building stages, welcoming tired and rain soaked pilgrims, stuffing blue pilgrim bags with guides and Gospels.
Some of them are Church ‘veterans’, those who have remained ‘semper fidelis’ through two decades of scandal, shame and public anger. They are tired and are hoping this Congress will be a “moment of grace”, or as one elderly gentleman put it “that we can just get back to praying”.
Others are young people ‘in-between jobs’ who ‘just wanted to get involved’ and ‘see what it’s all about’. One young man told me – “we don’t know what to expect, we don’t know how many people will come, but we hope for the best”.
Across the city, in pews in one of Dublin’s best known churches, Westland Row, 400 people – the homeless and poor on the margins of Irish society – share a meal with faithful, priests and bishops and are entertained by the Dublin Gospel Choir. Outside another Church, young people flag down shoppers and invite them inside for a cup of tea. Just some of the many, quiet under-the-radar initiatives to bring the theme of the Congress “The Eucharist, communion with Christ and with one another” to wider Dublin society.
On a whirlwind pilgrimage with New York pilgrims around Ireland this week, US Card. Timothy Dolan visited the site of Ballintubber Abbey in Mayo. Among the Irish, its famously known as the Abbey that refused to die. Founded in 1216, despite being suppressed and damaged during the Protestant Reformation, the roofless abbey continued to be used throughout penal times by Catholics, to present day. From there Card. Dolan tweeted: “Ballintubber Abbey where Eucharist has been celebrated for 1500 years shows the perseverance in faith " in spite of dungeon fire and sword"
Or as Archbishop Martin puts it, this Congress is not a popularity contest, “popularity is as useful as the nearest banana skin”, he says. This Congress is about the Eucharist and bringing the Irish faithful – with the help of others from around the world – to communion with the Risen Christ and wider society.