Rome's International Eucharistic Congress: 'an unforgettable week'

Rome's International Eucharistic Congress: 'an unforgettable week'

Christine McCarthy

The central and longest event of the Jubilee Year - the 47th International Eucharistic Congress - was held in Rome from 18-25 June 2000. It was the third to be celebrated in Rome and the first of its kind to be celebrated in a Jubilee Year.

I had the privilege of attending this Congress, accompanied by sixteen other Australians - members of the Society for Eucharistic Adoration, an organisation founded in Sydney in 1993 to promote love and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament and to encourage all forms of Eucharistic devotion, particularly perpetual adoration where this is feasible.

The Eucharistic Congress was solemnly opened by Pope John Paul II with the celebration of Vespers, adoration and Benediction in the Piazza of St Peter's.

The Congress theme was "Jesus Christ, the only Saviour of the World, Bread for New Life," and throughout the week there were liturgical celebrations and public catechetical sessions. Many of the local parish churches were open for extended hours of adoration with Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.

The idea for a Congress as an international gathering of the faithful to foster devotion to the Blessed Eucharist was organised in Lisle, France, in 1881, inspired by the efforts of Mademoiselle Marie Tarsier (1834-1910). In 1928, Sydney hosted the 29th International Eucharistic Congress, while the 48th will be held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2004.

Among the speakers at this latest Congress were Archbishops from Chicago, Paris, Vienna and Mexico City. Moving personal testimonies were also given.

The opening catechesis on Tuesday, 20 June, was given by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who referred to Christ's Eucharistic presence among us as seemingly "too good to be true." He called attention to the neglect that has occurred in relation to the Eucharistic presence outside of Mass and even to irreverence during Mass. The Eucharist in the tabernacle, he said, is worthy of the same veneration as the Eucharist on the altar during Mass. The personal testimony which followed Cardinal George was given by Jean Vanier, who, in 1964, founded l'Arche, a community of handicapped men and women.

Thursday, 22 June, was the Feast of Corpus Christ. The Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Lustier, spoke about the Eucharist as the Source of Culture. Every Christian is identified personally with Christ himself in the mystery of the Eucharist and is, at the same time, he said, in communion with the other members of his Body the Church.

Personal testimony

The personal testimony which followed was one of the most moving of the whole Congress. From 1975, Archbishop Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Than, Archbishop of Ho Chi Mich, formerly Saigon, suffered imprisonment for thirteen years, nine of which were in solitary confinement in a windowless cell. He spoke of his prison as a school of faith, a school of catechesis where he learnt the lessons of love of one's enemy for the sake of Jesus. "Little by little," he said, "enemies became friends."

Thursday evening was an unforgettable experience, with Mass celebrated in the Square of the Basilica of St. John Lateran by the Holy Father, together with 38 Cardinals, over 200 Bishops and over 1,000 priests. Thousands of faithful from all over the world attended and, despite the size of the congregation, the atmosphere was deeply reverent.

The Blessed Sacrament was placed in an enormous monstrance and carried to a decorated float. The Holy Father mounted the steps of the vehicle and knelt in adoration as the Blessed Sacrament was carried in solemn procession down Via Merulana, the street that runs from the Basilica of St. John Lateran to that of St Mary Major. An estimated 80,000 people, some in wheelchairs, some with walking sticks, many just footsore, took part in the procession, carrying lighted candles, singing hymns and chanting praises in various languages.

The next day, Friday, 23 June, we returned to the Basilica of St John Lateran for another public catechesis. Cardinal Christopher Schönborn of Vienna spoke about the two precious gifts that Christ has given us: the Eucharist and the remission of sins. These two gifts are intimately connected. They are given because God wants our happiness.

The Eucharist is the remedy against sin. Strictly speaking, confession is only necessary if mortal sin separates us from God but, the Cardinal said, the closer one comes to God the more one realises one's unworthiness. Frequent confession is necessary to form conscience and grow in holiness. Without regular confession we can become accustomed to our little venial sins.

On Sunday, 25 June, the Holy Father concluded the Congress with a solemn Eucharistic Celebration, the Station Orbits, in St Peter's Square. The expression "station orbits" came into use after the Second Vatican Council and refers to the gathering of all Christians of the world (orbits) for the pause (station) around the altar of Our Lord with Peter's Successor to celebrate and adore God.

50 Cardinals, 250 Bishops, more than 1,000 priests, about 100,000 faithful - including 10,000 children who had made their First Communion during the Jubilee Year - were present. Rev Mark Withers, an Australian deacon studying in Rome and now ordained to the priesthood, chanted the Gospel in Latin.

The solemn liturgical celebrations, with their beautiful Gregorian chant and contemporary classical church music, the edifying catecheses, the opportunities to pause for nocturnal adoration in parish churches around Rome, the camaraderie with fellow Christians and lovers of our Eucharistic Lord from all nations - all this contributed to an unforgettable week.

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