The reductive, cynical media overlooked the real significance of the Eucharistic Congress
WHAT HAPPENED at the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin was, in human terms, sensational. I do not say “Catholic terms”, or “religious terms”, or “spiritual terms”. I say “human terms” because in excess of 100,000 Irish people came together and rediscovered something about their lives that they had for some time been disposed to doubt. The Irish media missed this completely and, moreover, couldn’t care less.
The congress began in a cloud of pessimism, arising from the current beleaguerment of the official church. The attitude of the Catholic Church’s Irish leaders since the announcement that the 50th IEC would be held in Dublin suggested this was something they would prefer not to have to undertake. The timing was wrong; there were too many unresolved issues; and it would inevitably lead to a further backlash.
This pessimism was, in worldly terms, understandable but excluded the possibility of unworldly occurrences. The fact that Pope Benedict XVI was advised against travelling to the congress was perhaps the most visible indication of this negative thinking, which infected also those who were thinking of attending.
For the first couple of days the mood among Irish pilgrims was fragile and a little subdued. The media, looking around for empty chairs to count and photograph, captured this reasonably well.
But then something happened. There occurred an encounter – then another, then another – between one frayed and bewildered Catholic and another. People gathered in the cafes and compared their tentative impressions of the congress and their views of life in general. At Masses and workshops they fell into conversation. Out of these exchanges emerged a feeling – not just “I am not alone”, but “I have not been alone after all”.
For years now, Irish Catholics have found themselves at least as beleaguered as the church’s leadership. But for many of the silent – silenced – faithful, the sense of being besieged has been worse, because they have been denied the opportunity to conduct the kind of public conversations out of which affirmation and encouragement might be gleaned. The clerical abuse scandals have provided a pretext for the enemies of Catholicism to drive virtually all such conversation from the public realm. This process has resulted in another: an isolating of the individual human person with regard to the primary questions of existence.
With increasing vehemence, this new, de-absolutised culture insinuates that human beings are defined only and completely by economic, political and technocratic means, with broader understandings categorised as outmoded, irrational and problematic.
What happens is that each person in his or her own skin becomes convinced that certain understandings about reality – inherited, adopted, arrived at or reasoned into – have, in some uncertain and unclear way, been declared obsolete and extraneous. Nobody can recall the conversations in which these decisions were arrived at but many can detect the consequences in the changed air around them.
At the RDS a fortnight ago, thousands of people awoke to the trick that has been perpetrated upon them. They discovered that others had been experiencing the same odd sensations and similarly rendered inarticulate about what was assailing them.
There is another way of putting this: Irish Catholics attending the congress had an experience of Christ’s continuing presence in their lives.
This, though, is an example of a sentence we have to be careful about in the new dispensation. The day may come when we may require a special font to indicate that such sentences are no longer approved.
However you describe it, the fact remains that thousands of people went home from the congress reinvigorated with a sense that, notwithstanding the content of the surrounding culture, they had been accompanied all the while.
That the media missed all this is unsurprising since this failure was built into the conditions I have described. Moreover, the conclusion is inescapable that the media no longer considers the reporting or analysis of such phenomena as part of its brief, so that this “failure” is not regarded as a failure but as a victory.
This represents a grave situation in democratic terms. It means that the benefits of the Irish media as a means of communication between people – as opposed to at people – has been withdrawn on a selective ideological basis by those who control the media by operating it.
Indeed, because the media has now vacated all areas of potential exploration not concerned with the most literal elements of material existence, the consequences are more serious. They include, yes, the privatisation of the greater questions confronting the human person but, more than that, the construction without consultation of a culture in which, all such questions having been hollowed out, the individual human being is left thinking such questions occur to him or her alone.
At the back of this development is what is called “pluralism”, a word which implies that every outlook in this category is being accorded equal emphasis and respect. But the only perspective that is respected and provided for in this new dispensation is that of the disgruntled sceptic, the nihilist, the cynic. His is the only absolutism now truly represented in the reconstructed conversation of our public square.