24 June 2008

Dublin's Eucharistic Congresses, 1932 and 2012

Benediction at O'Connell Bridge, Dublin
Eucharistic Congress, June 1932

There were two public events that were memorable in my father’s life. The first was the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, where both my parents were born, in June 1932 and the second was being in Wembley Stadium in 1948 to see Manchester United, captained by Dubliner Jackie Carey, defeat Blackpool in the FA Cup. No doubt he would have been happy that soon after Manchester United won the European Cup, the Holy Father announced that the next International Eucharistic Congress would be held in Dublin in 2012.

Dad was 19 in 1932. He reluctantly agreed that Pope John Paul’s visit to Dublin in 1979 was on a par with the Congress. Indeed, Mass was celebrated on both occasions in the Phoenix Park, near where my parents and I grew up.

I came across a most interesting article about the 1932 Congress in the Multitext Project in Irish History of University College, Cork (UCC). It assesses the importance of this in the early years of the Irish Free State which had come into being just ten years before, followed by a bitter civil war. Yet ten years later a new government was elected. Both the outgoing government of William Cosgrave and the incoming government of Eamon de Valera were involved in the planning of the congress. It was seen as helping to heal some of the wounds of the civil war.
At the time the population of the Irish Free State was between 90 and 95 percent Catholic. Most of the remainder were Protestants, mostly Church of Ireland. We call them Anglicans now but the C of E families who were my neighbours always described themselves as ‘Protestants’. One of them, the late Charlie Brooks, went for the priest in the middle of the night when a Catholic neighbor was dying, We had no phones where I grew up.
The UCC article has a description of the closing Mass from The Irish Times, which would have been considered the ‘Protestant’ and pro-British paper at the time. The reporter was very likely a Protestant. But he captured something of the essence of the Holy Mass in his report.

Looking out over a sea of bowed heads at one of the massive Pontifical Mass in the Phoenix Park, The Irish Times described the scene in the following terms:
“…the audition was marvellous, whether it was of the full tones of the Cardinal Legate as he spoke the Mass, the tuneful antiphon of the choir, the sharp clamour of the trumpets as they paid homage at the elevation of the Host, or the beautiful voice of John McCormack that came clear and bell like, borne without a tremor over the whole silent space, midway through the Service. It was at that moment of the Elevation of the Host, the supreme point in Catholic ritual, that one fully realised the common mind that swallowed up all individuality in the immense throng. Flung together in their hundreds of thousands, like the sands on the seashore, these people were merely parts of a great organism which was performing a great act of faith, with no more ego in them than the sands themselves.”

This report brings to mind the ‘acclamation’ we had after the Consecration in the old days – a communal cough that released the great sense of awe and worship that the people had at the Consecration at Sunday Mass. When I look back I recall it as being a far greater expression of faith than the often perfunctory ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again’, though I am blessed to know many people of faith who have grown up with the new Mass.

Maisie Ward, in her biography of G K Chesterton, has a delightful story that Chesterton loved to tell about the 1932 Congress. The weather was perfect for the whole week but looked as if it might break on the last day. Chesterton met a Dublin 'shawlie' - poor women used to wear shawls, some right up to the 1960s - who said to him, 'If it rains, He'll have brought it on Himself!'
The International Eucharistic Congress has just finished in Quebec City. Quebec was very similar to the Irish Republic forty years ago, with a vibrant Catholic faith permeating society. But in the 1970s there was a huge falling away from the faith in Quebec, as there has been in Ireland over a longer period. I do not know what long-term impact the Congress will have on Quebec or the 2012 Congress on the faith in Ireland.

In May, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin appointed a Vicar for Evangelization and has invited all 200 Dublin parishes to join in a common programme of missionary outreach and evangelization for the year 2009. May there be a renewal of faith in these coming years.

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