The 50th Eucharistic Congress is taking place in Dublin this year from June 10th to June 17th. For Catholics, this is an important event. For Irish Catholics it is taking place in a cultural climate very different from that of the previous Irish Eucharistic Congress in 1932.
In today’s Ireland to live as a Catholic is a hard ask. Within the public domain there has emerged over the past forty or so years a deep-seated scepticism, even hostility, towards Catholicism in all its forms. Many people feel let down by Catholicism. Others are angry at the way the Church influenced public policy in times past. Among influential elites the default position today is a harsh sceptical rationalism. Obviously, the recent Church scandals associated with child sex abuse have contributed to a hardening of anti-Church attitudes and the prevalence of a cultural atheism. But, in truth, the espousal of a cultural atheism entered the Irish cultural mainstream as people became wealthier and more culturally aligned with continental Europe. Catholicism, for many people, belongs to an earlier, rural and unenlightened, past from which Ireland has emerged and long outgrown.
Last week I signed up as a volunteer for the Eucharistic Congress, frankly to my own surprise. I was probably caught unawares. A newspaper article caught my eye and a photograph of a young volunteer prompted a questioning of prejudices within myself. LIke many contemporary Irish Catholics, I have felt that the Eucharistic Congress could be considered an expensive distraction from the pressing challenge of addressing the many problems confronting the Irish Church today. In addition, the whole idea appeared to me, and to others, as a platform for the kind of clericalism that has in no small measure undermined the spiritual and moral authority of the Irish Church. A humbler, more spiritual Church needs to emerge from the ashes of its discredited predecessor. Although sharing many of these views myself, a few weeks ago I moved quickly to my computer and filled out the application form to become a volunteer.
When I told some of my friends the next day what I had done. They were uniformly shocked. How could you, they said. It appeared like a betrayal of the liberal Catholic circle of friends to which I belong. It seemed particularly a betrayal of women for whom clericalism has been a source of hurt over the years. So, how do I explain myself. With difficulty, I have to admit. At a recent induction meeting for volunteers in the RDS on a rainy Monday evening, I almost ran out of the hall. As I entered, a young woman was kneeling to kiss what appeared to be the ring of a bishop. All my prejudicial instincts went into overdrive. Here was the evidence before my eyes that my fears and suspicions were only too obviously warranted. The Congress was going to be a re-run of 1932 all over again!
Something stopped me from turning tail and I stayed in the room. A few seconds after entering the room while still in a disturbed frame of mind, someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was a friend and female as well. We both laughed at the coincidence and incongruity of finding ourselves in ‘unfamiliar’ surroundings. Later, we discovered we were assigned to the same sharing group. John Waters, the Irish Times journalist, quotes in his book, Lapsed Agnostic, the phrase from Alcoholics Anonymous, “Coincidences are miracles where God chooses to remain anonymous”. Maybe something was going on at some other quantum level in the Universe. I had to admit that Someone other than my friend was tapping me on my shoulder, confirmed still further when on leaving the hall I ran into some people who turned out to be from my own parish and whom I had never met before. They offered me a lift home, sparing me the journey of facing the two-stage bus trip in the rain. There was clearly a ‘push-factor’ at work!
So, what’s your argument is the question you are asking. Well, to be honest, it is still a work in progress. Piety is not my scene. I’m a bit of an à la carte Catholic, to use the jargon. Like many today, I believe that God is greater than the Catholic one, a God who is more inclusive and more mysterious. That said, I believe that Catholicism is for me a viable, rational and fulfilling experience of the Christian life. I also am convinced that the renewal of Irish society is not merely an economic and political task, but also a spiritual one. The Church has to be at the heart of this renewal, and, in so doing, it can renew itself. It is important for the Christian community in Ireland, especially the Catholic one, to become visible once again. It is time for people of faith to stand up and be counted. The Eucharistic Congress is a moment when we can gather as people of faith to express who we are and to commit ourselves to the renewal of our people. We owe them that much.
That’s why I am proud to volunteer. I may even learn something from the experience!