Even bishops couldn't jump the queues

Sat, Jun 16, 2012, 01:00

This week’s Eucharistic Congress in Dublin was a fantastic, life-giving experience for many

‘THEY HAVE brought purgatory to the International Eucharistic Congress,” my friend muttered, looking at the long queues for the various workshops. He had come along five minutes before a talk was due to start, bless him.

He had probably been lulled into a false sense of security by the headlines about empty seats at the congress. Yes, there were empty arena seats, but it holds 25,000. The 160 workshops have all been packed, and some people queued patiently for up to two hours to hear their chosen speaker.

Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, ever benign and obliging, gave his talk twice with only a 15-minute break between, in order not to disappoint pilgrims. The organisers showed his recorded talk later as well. It was amazing to see people standing on sodden grass in the pouring rain in front of a screen, just to hear him.

There was no favouritism regarding those who were turned away from full-up workshops, because they included a former taoiseach, a Senator, several bishops, and one speaker’s mother. In fact, the Senator got turned away from three different talks in a row.

I began to feel that if Pope Benedict turned up after the number mandated by health and safety regulations had taken their seats, he would have been turned away, too.

The workshops are one of the real lessons of the congress. The demand for them shows there is a real hunger for spiritual and intellectual nourishment among Catholics. Milton’s line, The hungry sheep look up and are not fed, has often run through my head regarding the Irish Catholic Church, but they were fed royally at the congress.

There was a bewildering array of topics on offer, everything from reaching lapsed Catholics to justice for the developing world. It is unfair to pick just one, but I was really moved by Dr Robert Enright’s talk. Based at the University of Wisconsin, he is the acknowledged pioneer in the scientific study of forgiveness.

One of his fascinating pieces of research concerns heart attack survivors. Practising forgiveness enhanced their cardiovascular function.

He has also worked with survivors of incest and chronic pain sufferers. His talk cannot be summarised, but take a look at www.internationalforgiveness.com.

Richard Moore, blinded by a rubber bullet, provided a living example of forgiveness in his testimony in the arena.

Brother Alois Losser from Taize, speaking in the arena, was so utterly humble and inspiring, that it explained why thousands of young people from around the world flock to France every week to visit and pray where Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox live together as monastics. More than 900 young people came to a prayer service led by the Taize monks at the congress.

The hair stood up on the back of my neck, too, at the ecumenical liturgy on Monday. Given our island’s long history of sectarianism, it felt like being present at history being made to hear a huge congregation sing One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism at a liturgy led by the Church of Ireland’s Archbishop Michael Jackson. Smiling representatives of many Christian denominations blessed the crowd with water drawn from the holy wells of Ireland. It was a privilege to be there.

It was a privilege, too, to be asked to give a personal testimony on marriage and family in the arena, although it did not feel that way for the month preceding it. Mostly, what I felt was terror and a deep sense of inadequacy. But once I got over myself, I realised that all I could do was to be honest about the messy reality of family life, and how “God is found in the bits and pieces of everyday”.

It was an unforgettable experience, standing on a stage looking out at thousands and thousands of pilgrims, from virtually every continent. Sure, there were empty seats, but I know I will probably never again address so many people, or be the beneficiary of so much warmth and kindness washing towards me.

There were 2,000 volunteers, of which a significant minority were young. The majority of the people attending the congress were a similar age profile to the 1,000 who gathered for the Association of Catholic Priests’ meeting; that is, the so-called grey brigade.

There was one difference. There were only a handful of young people at the priests’ meeting. I’m not saying it in a point-scoring way, but there were hundreds of Irish people in their late teens and early 20s at the congress. In fact, there were even several hundred who came to a youth session that included confession on the night of the Ireland v Spain match.

The 30- and 40-somethings were the biggest missing group. The reasons why would probably make for an interesting sociological study.

Survivors of child abuse were not forgotten, either. The media queried the lack of an Irish speaker on clerical abuse, but it may have been evidence of a new humility, an awareness of needing to listen to and learn from people outside the country.

My friend might have declared the queues to be purgatory, but I think for most people, the congress has been unforgettable in a good way.

Will it solve all the woes of the church, or reverse the tide of indifference? Of course not. But it has been a fantastic, life-giving experience, and the real benefits for thousands of people will be quiet but long-lasting.

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