At the entrance to the final Mass of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, a man and a woman in their 30s held signs saying “RTÉ is anti-Catholic” and “Abortion: thou shalt not kill”. A middle-aged man had “Arrest Cardinal Brady, Protector of Paedophiles” on four different signs which hung from his shoulders. Streams of thousands of people were unaffected by the few demonstrators and filed past them. In all 80,000 people were present for the Mass, which Cardinal Brady concelebrated.
I met some people who had given up the faith, but came yesterday and said that at the very least it was a sublime occasion to hear Ireland’s top musical talents. The Three Tenors, The Priests and soprano Celine Byrne have voices that would melt marble. One thing I found frustrating was that the RTÉ Concert Orchestra did take over and it was hard to hear the Palestrina Choir. One young pilgrim brought an enormous 1932 Eucharistic Congress flag that had been preserved by his family until now. People saw the flag’s antiquity and gathered round to hear how it had been passed down through the generations in his family.
The Congress could prove to Rome that Ireland is ready for a papal visit. It showed that despite a few objectors, thousands of Irish people can gather in loving adoration of Christ in the Eucharist, that they can engage with people from different parts of the world; that we can put aside our bitterness about the Irish Church’s mishandling of the abuse cases, and rejoice in that which unites all the 1.4 billion Catholics: Christ in the Eucharist.
The Pope perseveres through media scandals like the “Vatileaks” and tetchy negotiations with the SSPX, but never loses sight of his goal of redefining that Christianity is a Person, his name is Jesus Christ and that we can have “friendship with Jesus Christ”. Pope Benedict is not a proud, haughty figure who wants people to worship him, and relegate Our Lord to second place.
Now Benedict has seen that the tiny island of Ireland is capable of hosting a major, international event designed to lead people in adoration of the Eucharist, he may make plans to come. The Pope sees himself as being the humble servant of Jesus who was truly present on the altar in Croke Park. Now that the Pope has heard the rousing renditions of Panis Angelicus performed at Croke Park, he knows that there are some strong voices of faith in Ireland. It wasn’t incidental either that the crowd went into hysterics of clapping before and after the televised message from the Pope.
President Michael D Higgins was there with an enormous smile on his face, and Prime Minister Enda Kenny watched the proceedings with sharp eyes. If Ireland’s political class can make time to come to the Congress, and assist at Mass while sitting near holy Joes and Josephines like me, then curiosity at least will urge them to welcome Joseph Ratzinger to Ireland and get to know him a little. Books about his life invariably become international bestsellers because he is a survivor of the Nazi regime, a noted university professor, had a close friendship with Blessed John Paul II, is a best-selling author, and he is leading the Church in one of the most difficult times of her history.
The Pope is not impervious to our predicament of believing in the Church’s goodness, when so much badness has prevailed. In his message, Pope Benedict asked: “How are we to explain the fact that people who regularly received the Lord’s body and confessed their sins in the sacrament of penance, have offended in this way?”
There have been two crises in the Irish Church happening simultaneously. One: the abuse crisis where some lost their dignity at the hands of abusers. Two, the crisis of faith where Irish Catholics second-guessed themselves about their allegiance to the Church that Jesus Christ personally founded, and doubted if its doctrines were true in light of reports into sordid crimes. Were we really right to uphold the sanctity of the Church down through the centuries? The Pope explicitly made mention of this in his message that clergy guilty of abuse, “undermined the credibility of the Church’s message”.
The Pope sent Cardinal Ouellet to be his representative. At the closing Mass, Ouellet gave the sermon and referred to the parable of the little mustard seed, that while it is the smallest, it will grow to be the biggest tree. The Congress might just have sowed the tiniest seeds in some young people. If it has persuaded just a few young people to taste and see that the Lord is good, then it will have been worth all the effort.
Not wanting to be downcast or hopeless, but the fact is that a large percentage of the white-haired Irish people who attended the Congress were in the autumn or winter of their lives. The reality is that had the Congress taken place 20 years from now, there would have been much fewer Irish people present because the more elderly faithful may not have lived that long. This may sound morbid – but it also explains the absolute importance of why the Congress took place in 2012.
Timing is all. And had the Congress not taken place now, it may not have planted the seed of faith in young people who will grow stronger in the Church.
A papal visit would nurture the seed planted by the Congress. It could avert the next looming crisis which is that much faith could wither in the ground, along with the older generation of Irish Catholics. They are the greenhouses for the faith, but for how long?
Many young people and twenty-somethings were among the 1,700 volunteers. They worked day and night to help people from Portugal and Spain who couldn’t understand the thick Dublin accent, to help Japanese pilgrims who were in culture shock and to help Americans make sense of the road signs written in Gaelic. Perhaps we could turn the country over to these very volunteers and ask them to run Ireland – they’d do a grand job.