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Mary Kenny: Congress was all the better for being free of politicians

More than one commentator on the state of Ireland last week noted that football, rather than Catholicism, was now the religion of the majority: there was far more national interest in the game in Gdansk than in the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin.

What a change from 1932, when the entire nation, as one, joined in with Count John McCormack and echoed the Dublin tenements' favourite (if somewhat tautological) banner: "God Bless Christ the King".

Yet in some ways, the Eucharistic Congress of 2012 was all the better for being low key, and the sincere happiness -- even elation -- of those who attended, and who filled the social media of Facebook and Twitter with their genuinely spiritual responses to the occasion, was all the better for being unexpected.

At the beginning of the week, newspapers reported on the "empty seats" at the RDS signalling the lack of interest; but by the weekend, their columnists were noting that the workshops were full to overflowing, and even bishops had to queue to get a place. And proper democratic order, too.

And there is another aspect of this year's Eucharistic Congress that is a real improvement on the previous event. The politicians, generally, kept at arm's length from the celebration.

John Bruton appeared and made a speech supporting faith, and the President greeted the papal representative cordially, but the political focus was elsewhere, either with Leo varadkar in Poland, or on Mick Wallace in Dail Eireann.

In 1932, the politicians were all over the Eucharistic Congress like a rash. In the spring of that year, Eamon de Valera informed King George V's private secretary that he would not be able to conduct any further business with Buckingham Palace or Windsor from the month of April, as he was too busy organising the congress. (Eire was still part of the Commonwealth and De Valera would have had a regular flow of diplomatic protocols with the king and his office.)

George V accepted this news in good spirit but he also perfectly understood that Dev was a practising politician and had to keep his people happy.

Indeed, he had a sneaking regard for Dev, although he responded with some salty sailor's language when Dev requested that the king sign some papers in Irish. "Bugger that!"

But should De Valera have put aside his state papers from April until June 1932 so that he could "organise" the Eucharistic Congress? What business was it of his that an international religious event was taking place in Dublin?

Dev wasn't alone. Every politician who could get himself photographed with a bishop strove to do so -- Sean T O'Kelly (who would later be president), Sean Lemass and the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alfie Byrne, choosing to ride in the Lord Mayor's coach with the papal legate through the streets of Dublin, garlanded with banners proclaiming Ireland's "Unbroken Allegiance of People's Loyalty to the Holy See".

Cumann na nGael was by then in opposition, and so somewhat marginalised by the new Fianna Fail administration. But they attended just the same.

The politicians' enthusiasm for the Eucharistic Congress was partly sincere -- De Valera certainly was a sincere Catholic -- but partly opportunistic. Not only was the Catholic Church a great power, there were votes involved!

And since the church had excommunicated some of these ex-revolutionaries when they were carrying out their revolutionary activities, it was all the more respectable to be seen kissing a bishop's ring.

Critics of religion in Ireland often complain that the church has been apt to interfere with the political process and use its power to sway legislation. Well, there never was a power that didn't make its presence felt politically.

But what the campaigners for Atheist Ireland and their ilk didn't seem to grasp was that the boot was often on the other foot: it was the politicians who were currying favour with the church, muscling in on every conceivable church event so as to advance their own position.

The politicians were crawling all over the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 because it was in their own interest.

It is healthier where there is a proper separation of church and state, as is directed in the New Testament: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's."

The 2012 Eucharistic Congress, in which political power kept its distance, was in this respect better than the last.

To be sure, there will always be some dispute about what is the realm of Caesar, and what is the realm of the Almighty.

Is marriage primarily a state question, or is it a sacramental matter over which people of faith and their pastors, have sway? Is the education of children a state question or is it for the family and their values?

Actually, the Irish Constitution gives precedence to the family.

There will always be culture wars because people have different values: holding a nation together means reconciling, or helping to share, those values.

But to those who say we should keep religion out of politics, we might answer: keep politicians out of religion!

The Eucharistic Congress of this year owed its authenticity and sincerity to the fact that it was not a platform for political power.

Irish Independent