Congress will succeed if it helps make people better citizens


FEW OF the findings of the recent Irish Times MRBI/Ipsos poll on Catholicism are surprising. Take transubstantiation, or the belief that Christ is really present in the Eucharist. As a secondary teacher, for many years I have been listening to my new 12-year-old students refer to holy communion as “holy bread”.

They are usually very surprised to hear that it is not a term generally favoured by Roman Catholics. Most of them have also heard of Holy Communion, but many tend to think of it as the day when you first receive the sacrament.

Very few of them know the word “Eucharist”, and only a tiny minority would be able to tell you what a tabernacle is, or the significance of the sanctuary lamp. I don’t imagine they are particularly unusual.

There is a very beautiful tradition in the Christian Orthodox tradition of holy bread, or antidoron. It is bread that is not consecrated, but it is blessed. It is distributed after Holy Communion is finished, at the end of the liturgy.

It is distributed both to promote sharing and fellowship, and to include those who, for various reasons, cannot receive the consecrated bread, or choose not to.

I doubt very much whether that is where my students got the idea of “holy bread”. But you would probably be right if you speculated that their understanding of Holy Communion is closer to the Christian Orthodox tradition of antidoron.

The erosion of what might be called Christian general knowledge in our culture has been extraordinarily swift. To be fair, it has happened in other areas as well. For example, I suspect few younger students would be able to identify the Minister for Education, except when they are cramming for their Junior Cert civic, social and political education examination.

It is often forgotten that we now have the second generation who have received their religious education after Vatican Two. Around the late 1960s and early 1970s, not just in Catholicism but in primary education generally, there was a revolt against “meaningless” rote learning.

Learning became experiential. At the time, it was a much-needed antidote to fear-based learning, but no one guessed how fast knowledge of basic Christian beliefs would disappear. Those 1960s children now have children, and sometimes even grandchildren of their own.

But it is never safe to assume levels of knowledge correspond to a person’s self-identification as Catholic. I remember listening years ago to a radio debate about a hapless priest who had suggested parents who never attended Mass should think twice about presenting their children for first Holy Communion. He came close to being tarred and feathered. One woman declared it was her son’s human right to make his first Holy Communion, and she was damned if any priest was going to tell her otherwise.

One of the aims of the next week’s Eucharistic Congress is to refocus Catholics on the centrality of the Mass, and to help them develop a spirituality of service. The theme is Communion with Christ and with One Another.

Will it be preaching to the converted? Well, it depends on how you define converted, especially if you look at the results of the survey.

To be honest, I was amazed only 9 per cent thought the country would be better off without the Catholic Church, given the unrelenting scandals of the last 15 years.

The congress is an international event, and it will be good for us Irish Catholics, who tend to think the world revolves around us, to meet with other Catholics with very different experiences, including a stronger sense of community and belief.

For example, there are still many countries where, just as in the Penal Days here, celebrating the Eucharist involves real risk.

This is not 1932, but in many ways it is much more fascinating. There is a strong ecumenical aspect, an excellent development given Christian churches in Ireland are facing many of the same challenges.

No doubt there will be protests, but the right to peaceful protest is an important one. It is good, too, that the congress organisers have placed a stone engraved with a prayer by a survivor of clerical child abuse in a prominent spot.

There are lots of imaginative initiatives. A favourite of mine is a free exhibit called Through the Eyes of the Apostles, developed by the Icarus Foundation. I went to see it being created last week under the eye of Tom Dowling, an experienced film and stage project manager, who has worked on films such as Jim Sheridan’s In America.

It is a 1,000sq m (10,800sq ft) reconstruction of part of the village of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus lived for a while. It was also the home of Peter, Andrew, James, John and the tax collector Matthew.

I happen to like the idea of experiential learning, and this is a multi-sensory exhibit, with audio and even smells designed to evoke places where Jesus walked and taught. The crew has only 72 hours to erect it in the RDS – a mammoth undertaking worthy of its own documentary.

It is only one of literally hundreds of workshops, talks and opportunities for prayer and reflection that are going to happen. The opening and closing ceremonies will be, I think, particularly moving and beautiful. Will it be a success? If it motivates the participants to be more spiritual people and better citizens, yes, it will.

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