The Church in Ireland is on the path to renewal, Church leaders told pilgrims at the opening Mass of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress on Sunday.
Welcoming pilgrims from more than 120 countries at an open-air Mass, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said: “The Church in Ireland rejoices today in the presence of pilgrims from many parts of the world who witness to the universality of our Catholic faith and who show their faith-filled fellowship and solidarity with the Church in Ireland.”
Ominous-looking clouds that had threatened proceedings receded as pilgrims began to arrive for the Mass. Delegates from the four provinces of Ireland carried their county flags and symbols of Ireland’s Christian heritage which, pilgrims were reminded, goes back to St Patrick and the fifth century. The congregation clapped and cheered as a young man spoke of Ireland’s faithfulness to the Mass during centuries of persecution in which many priests and Catholics were martyred.
International visitors took an opportunity to toll the Congress bell and “ring for renewal”. The bell has been criss-crossing the country over the past two years and an estimated 250,000 people have rung it as a concrete symbol of hopes for renewal.
In his homily, the papal legate, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, prayed the Congress would “bring a special blessing to Ireland at this turbulent time”.
He noted how “the Church in Ireland is suffering and faces many new and serious challenges of the faith”.
He continued that “well aware of these challenges, we turn together to our Lord, who renews, heals and strengthens the faith of his people”.
Archbishop Martin told the 12,500 pilgrims gathered on a rugby pitch that “the Church in Ireland is on the path to renewal. It will be a lengthy journey. It requires renewed and vigorous new evangelisation, a renewal in faith and in coherent and authentic witness to that faith in the world and in the culture in which we live.
“The 50 years since the Second Vatican Council have brought many graces to the Church in Ireland. The message and teaching of the Council still constitute the blueprint for our renewal,” he said. However, he added that “those 50 years have also been marked with a darker side, of sinful and criminal abuse and neglect of those weakest in our society: children, who should have been the object of the greatest care and support and Christ-like love.
“We recall all those who suffered abuse and who still today bear the mark of that abuse and may well carry it with them for the rest of their lives. In a spirit of repentance, let us remember each of them in the silence of our hearts,” he said.
While the mood was decidedly upbeat and celebratory during the Mass, one point in the liturgy was designated to remember and seek forgiveness from those who had been abused by priests and religious.
Officials unveiled a “healing stone” engraved with a prayer originally used in the Liturgy of Lament celebrated in Dublin’s pro-cathedral in February 2011.
The prayer, which was sent to Archbishop Martin by a survivor of abuse, reads: “Lord, we are so sorry for what some of us did to your children: treated them so cruelly, especially, in their hour of need. We have left them with a lifelong suffering. This was not your plan for them or us. Please help us to help them. Guide us, Lord, Amen.”
Following consultation, including abuse survivors, it was agreed the stone would be an appropriate symbol for the Congress.
Fr Kevin Doran, secretary-general of the Congress, said: “Stone speaks of permanence. To say something is ‘carved in stone’ is to say that it is here to stay rather than just a passing thought. The stone represents the firm determination to work for healing and renewal.”
Musical performers included Ireland’s The Three Tenors and the Palestrina Choir, which sang at the open-air Mass in 1932, the last time the International Eucharistic Congress was held in Ireland.
Mary McConville, 91, attended the 1932 Congress as a child and said she was delighted to attend the 2012 event.
“I remember the excitement of it when I was 11 years old as if it was yesterday,” she said.
“It is absolutely amazing to be here today. I have as much faith in the Church now as I ever had. This is a marvellous occasion,” she said.
Referring to the Irish missionary tradition, Cardinal Ouellet said that Ireland’s “strong history of faithfulness has enriched not only these shores, but has, through her missionary sons and daughters, helped to bring the Gospel to many far-distant shores”.
The former Archbishop of Quebec said he knew from his own experience as host of the 2008 International Eucharistic Congress “that an event such as this brings many blessings to the local Church and to all the participants”.
John Walsh, who travelled with his wife and five children to the Congress from the west of Ireland, said it was “great for my children to see this beautiful celebration of faith and share their Catholicism with people from all over the world who have come to Dublin”.
Mary Ward of Dublin also noted the international attendance.
“We really are a global Church, we can learn a lot from others,” she said.
Concelebrants at the Mass included Archbishop Martin, who serves as Congress president, Archbishop Piero Marini, president of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses, Cardinal Sean Brady, primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Robert Le Gall of Toulouse, France, Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan and US Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem.