The 50th International Eucharistic Congress offers us Irish Catholics the chance to re-root our faith

The minute I stepped through the arrival gates at Dublin airport, volunteers for the Eucharistic Congress warmly welcomed me to Ireland. They greeted my news that I had travelled home from London with bright smiles and “that’s great!” One lady volunteer escorted me to the bus and taxi stand, and said she has been encouraged in her Catholicism because “the pilgrims who’ve just flown in from all over the world have been telling me that they got their faith from their Irish parents and that the Congress is a time when they can trace the roots of their family’s faith. It’s given me a lot to think about.”

Some 12,500 pilgrims from 120 countries attended the opening ceremonies at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) and increasing numbers are now pouring into the arena today. Yesterday was a sunny Dublin afternoon when the celebrants in radiant yellow vestments walked in a procession to the main altar to celebrate the opening Mass. The concelebrants included Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, and the Vatican’s Cardinal Edwin O’Brien. Chief celebrant was Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who made it clear that the Irish Church had “challenges” but that “we turn together to Our Lord, who renews, heals and strengthens the faith of His people”. Archbishop Martin echoed Cardinal Ouellet’s sentiments but made specific mention of the abuse victims, saying “we recall all those who suffered abuse, whose lives today bear the mark of that abuse”. A sorrowful note was struck by mention that the Church “failed” the most vulnerable.

While the opening Mass was being held, eight protesters gathered outside and hung black children’s shoes on the spiky railings of the RDS. When I asked them what the shoes represented, they said that were “reminders of crimes against children committed by the Catholic Church”. While it is their right to call people’s attention to evil acts, the protesters might acknowledge that the Irish Church is not entirely made up of criminals. This was evident from the ordinary Irish people who are here from all corners of Ireland who are bowing down in love of the Eucharist. From my first moments in the stadium, I rubbed shoulders with twenty-somethings that I knew at university to young families to young politicians as well as proud Irish Americans.

I don’t deny that grave injury has been done to the Body of Christ because of the scandals in the Irish Church. The reason why the Body as a whole has been injured and hurt so much by the Irish abuse scandals is that Irish Catholicism, in its missionary form, was directly responsible for bringing millions of people into the Body of Christ. If so many parts of the Body of Christ take their example from the Irish Church, then what happens during and after this crisis?

Archbishop Martin was keen to relate that “the Church in Ireland is on the path to renewal… We pray for renewal in priestly and religious life.” Prayer for renewal is fast becoming the signature intention. But there are definitely competing elements of darkness and light at the Congress. Indeed the Congress presents a choice for every Irish Catholic and everyone influenced by Irish Catholicism. Do we allow ourselves to be coloured by the black deeds of some clergy and let those memories muddy our vision for the Church, or do we accept that hard lessons have been learnt which will shed light on our future actions and that as people of faith, we need to pray for the grace for renewal and that this will be possible if we can turn to Jesus, the Light?

Pilgrims from all over the world rejoice that they are coming home, where their family’s faith first grew, and they are taking delight in meeting devout Irish Catholics. But the Congress is our chance to re-root our faith, not in a glorification of the Irish people who spread the faith, but in absolute respect and veneration of the actual Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord. It is time to beat our breasts, proclaim that we are all sinners and that we need the One who was like us in every way but sin. This is true Catholicism and the truth will set us free. The Congress is the long-awaited opportunity to focus on the Truth that Christianity is a Person, Jesus Christ.

Recently I chuckled when American Archbishop Wenski joked, “They say God laughs when we are referred to as an organised religion.”  The notion that Catholic events always operates in chaos has been proved wrong by the Congress. Without need for exaggeration, dozens of pilgrims are already fond of saying that it is exceptionally well organised.

There may have been thousands of people milling around the RDS, but the only queues are for coffee. I was only waiting eight seconds to be given my press pass. Every pilgrim has been given a pack with a detailed guide, The Four Gospels published by Aid to the Church in Need and a raincoat which is essential for surviving Hibernia’s moist climate. The pack comes in a neat, tightly strung waterproof sac.

The volunteers in their bright fluorescent green and yellow uniforms are key to the smooth running. They keep their eyes peeled for anyone who may need assistance, have joyful faces and at times look tired, but are ever eager to share their own journey of faith and why they believe so strongly in the Eucharist. The volunteers include members of Catholic Comment, the media response team in the mould of Catholic Voices.

Irish society is becoming more intolerant of inaccurate reporting of abuse scandals. Over the past weekend, it was front-page news that Prime Time, once a flagship show of the nation’s broadcaster RTÉ, has lost over 100,000 viewers after it defamed Fr Kevin Reynolds in the programme Mission to Prey. The chief reason for this drastic loss in viewers (100,000 is a big figure when you consider Ireland’s tiny population) is that the TV show had lost credibility and was no longer trusted to deliver facts.