Monday 18 November 2019

David Quinn: A secular city needs reminding that the sacred is still with us

David Quinn

THE Catholic Church this week formally launched the International Eucharistic Congress, which will take place here next year during the week of June 10-17.

It will inevitably invite unfavourable comparisons with the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, which was a massive event, drawing hundreds of thousands of people in scenes that were only repeated when Pope John Paul II came here in 1979.

The Congress of 1932 took place when Ireland was newly independent and still bursting with pride. The event combined religious fervour with nationalist fervour. People were proud to be Irish and proud to be Catholic and they wore both on their sleeves -- to an extent that sometimes makes us uncomfortable now when we look back upon it.

Of course, people never know these things at the time. Irish people in the 1930s got caught up in Catholic nationalism, just as our generation got caught up in the property boom -- and just as we are now getting caught up in an increasingly aggressive secularism that is often mindlessly anti-Catholic and anti-religion.

The aggressive secularist is the modern counterpoint to the aggressive Catholic nationalist of yore.

A brief aside regarding the new Government is in order here. Enda Kenny is patently a good man with obvious common sense. But some of his Cabinet are a worry, as are elements of the Programme for Government.

Will Enda allow his Government to further inflate an expanding secular bubble to match the property one that exploded in 2008 or, as usual, will we be wise only after the event?

Why will numbers next year be hugely down compared with 1932? First of all, we are much less Catholic. Second, we are much less nationalist. Third, nationalism and Catholicism have become disconnected, for the most part.

But fourth, we simply don't turn out in huge numbers for anything the way we used to. And when I say huge numbers, I don't mean 80,000 for a football match, I mean the million that turned out for John Paul II in 1979.

When John F Kennedy came here in 1963, enormous crowds turned out for him. No politician since then has received anything like the same greeting. If Barack Obama gives an open-air public address when he comes here, he'll attract a big crowd, but it won't be anything like the crowds that Kennedy or John Paul managed to draw.

Next year's Eucharistic Congress will actually be more important than the 1932 version. The latter took place in an Ireland that was very comfortable with it.

By contrast, next year's Congress will be held in a much more secular Ireland that will be acutely uncomfortable with it. Dublin, which is the most secular part of the country, and where the event will be centred, will be least comfortable with it and some people will undoubtedly be openly hostile towards it.

But this is precisely why it will be more important. A large-scale sacred event taking place in a very religious country is unremarkable. But a big sacred event (and it will still be big) taking place in a largely secular city is much more remarkable.

A secular city needs reminding that the sacred still exists and that there are many people who believe in the sacred and that the here and now isn't all there is -- even if they have learned to keep their heads down.

A Eucharistic Congress is centred on Jesus Christ. The theme of the event will be 'Communion with Christ and with one another'.

I would have thought that theme was especially relevant in a recession when a sense of solidarity is in short supply and many of us are doing our best to blame someone else for the mess we're in and to make someone else bear the brunt of it.

MANY of the leaders of the Irish church probably wish deep down that the event wasn't taking place at all. The church is still badly damaged by the scandals. It will cost a lot of money when money is scarce (though not as scarce as in 1932). They probably also worry that the whole thing will be a huge damp squib and the media will be hostile.

But these were also the concerns of the British hierarchies before the Pope visited the UK last year. The lead-up to the visit was so hostile that people were predicting disaster.

Of course, we know what happened in the end. Big and enthusiastic crowds turned out to greet him. By the time the Pope returned to Rome, an estimated 750,000 people had lined the streets or attended one of the events.

If Pope Benedict decides to come over for part of the Congress next year, it will be nothing like the 1979 papal visit, but it will be big nonetheless.

It will also be a shot in the arm for the church and for the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Catholics who have kept the show on the road despite everything.

Irish Independent

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