This muted affair shows how prideful past of 1932 is indeed another country
For pure pageantry and grandeur there had never been a spectacle like it in the history of the fledgling Irish State.
The 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin was a mammoth event which drew a huge amount of pilgrims -- 58 ships were berthed at the city quays, and more than 700 buses and 150 special trains ferried the faithful to the final Mass in the Phoenix Park on June 26 -- over 5,000 people slept in the park to ensure they secured a place.
Grainy black-and-white images show splendid parades of opulently clad princes of the church passing hordes of cheering men, women, and rows of boys and girls beautifully clad in white suits and dresses, hats and veils. It was a week which remained vivid in the memories of all who witnessed the spellbinding scenes.
Now the Eucharistic Congress has returned to Ireland after 80 years for a week of celebration of liturgical events, seminars and workshops. But it is a chastened organisation now, still reeling from the tsunami of clerical-abuse scandals which has engulfed the Catholic Church for decades -- a storm which is still raging.
And so the 50th Congress, which opened yesterday and runs until next Sunday, June 17, is a far more low-key, decidedly more humble affair.
This week, large swathes of the Irish citizenry are gripped by another pageant -- that of the Euro 2012 finals in Poland and Ukraine, and many will be surprised to discover that there are thousands of pilgrims in their midst.
However, despite being up against a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon and the build-up to the first Ireland match in Poznan, almost 10,000 people turned up in the RDS yesterday afternoon for the first big event of the Congress -- the opening Mass.
And although this is more muted, the Catholic Church still knows how to put on a bit of pizzazz. Considerable preparations have been made.
The RDS complex has been transformed into a huge Christian village, complete with exhibitions, prayer-spaces, seminar- halls and a warren of stands where the devout can purchase everything from rosary beads to giant Eucharistic lollipops, religious statues, and (for the discerning cleric) a selection of ornate vestments and chalices.
Outside the hall, the delegates strolled about in the sunshine, pilgrims from the US, Africa and across Europe mingling with nuns, deacons, brothers and priests. Former Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Desmond Connell, who was in a wheelchair, was greeted by many pilgrims.
Father Thady Doyle, who is based in south Wicklow and who is involved with the Prayer Centre in Glendalough, was delighted with the arrival of the Congress to Ireland.
"It's an absolutely good event and a wonderful way to express my love for the church," he said. "This is all about renewal, and please God some people will find healing here."
To underline this point, the Congress arena prominently displays The Healing Stone, a large piece of Wicklow granite which is engraved with a prayer composed by a survivor of clerical abuse, which begins:
"Lord, we are so sorry for what some of us did to your children, treated them so cruelly, especially in their hour of need."
Fr Doyle agreed that it was a very different event from the massive scale of the 1932 Congress. "Ireland's in a very different place now, and also back then it was also about the celebration of Irish independence," he said.
Also soaking up the atmosphere were Deacon Arthur from France and Brother Michael from Portugal who were sporting the colourful robes of the Heralds of the Gospel -- the Brazil-based apostolic association is in over 40 countries.
"This is a very important event, and the choice of Ireland was wonderful, it sends out a very good message to this country's Catholics," said Deacon Arthur.
"There's a very nice atmosphere here, which is welcome as many people are so depressed spiritually and economically," added a cheerful Br Michael.
And there was a relaxed atmosphere in the RDS; in these troubled times for the church, a cleric in full vestments may be unsure of his reception amongst the public, but here he was amongst his own -- although there were a couple of small protests outside the building.
Two soberly dressed members of the clergy were surveying the colourful scene from a coffee shop. "We should have a best-dressed priest competition," one semi-joked.
But for all the talk of renewal, a quick glance over the pilgrims taking their seats in the arena for the Mass would confirm that the average age was closer to pensioner than teenager.
Although one family stood out -- Fintan and Emmanuelle Dunne from Durrow, Co Laois, and their six, immaculately dressed small children, Raphaelle (8), Gabriel (6), Anastatia (4), two-and-a-half year-old twins Louis and Maximillian and Michael (one-and-a-half).
"We're in our Sunday best," said Fintan. "This is our summer holiday, we're here for the week. The children have been looking forward to it for ages," he added, explaining that it was "very important" that his children are brought up in the Catholic faith.
The opening Mass, celebrated by the Papal Legate Cardinal Marc Ouellet, was a colourful and meticulously-choreographed event, with music from five choirs including the Palestrina Choir, and the Three Tenors.
The arena was a riot of vivid colours from the scarlet and pink caps of cardinals and bishops, to the diocesan flags carried into the venue by teams of people, to the jewel hues of the robes of delegates from Canada and Nigeria.
But it fell to Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin to offer the first public mea culpa of the Congress to the victims of clerical abuse.
In his opening address, he described how past decades were "marked by 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 the greatest support," he said.
"We recall all those who suffered abuse who still today bear the mark of that abuse and may 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."
And a brief but deep silence fell. The prideful past of 1932 is indeed another country.