INTERNATIONAL EUCHARISTIC CONGRESSES
“Experiences and traditions”
At the gathering of the National Delegates in Rome in December 1980 with Members of the Permanent Committee and representatives of the local Committee, in preparation for the 42nd International Eucharistic Congress of 1981 in Lourdes, the Holy Father suggested that they should take into consideration “above all the experiences and traditions of previous eucharistic congresses with those well-tried features over the years” (Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, vol. III,2 1980, p. 1655).
Hence I will seek to bring to light, within the limits of a brief report, the varied aspects of “eucharistic experience” that have emerged in the more than century-old tradition of the International Eucharistic Congresses. This will also enable us to perceive a development in the understanding of the Eucharistic mystery over the last hundred years.
1. Experiences inspired by the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist
From the very beginning lively faith in Jesus Christ truly present and active in the Eucharist was the inspiring force of those who organisers of the International Eucharistic Congresses. They were convinced that the Eucharist contains the answer to the needs of society in the 19th century, in which the “death of God” had been announced. Thus, the watchword was: “The Eucharist saves the world”. They were convinced that the renewal of the Christian life comes about through the Eucharist.
In the preparation of the first 15 Congresses - the first of which was in 1881 at Lille in France – up to the Congress in Roma in 1905, the permanent committee (which until 1950 resided in Paris) and the local committees relied above all on the collaboration of numerous associations of “eucharistic works”; these associations were dedicated to eucharistic worship in various forms of fostering adoration, which found in the Feast of Corpus Christi the triumphal expression and proclamation of faith before the world.
The celebration of these Congresses, apart from the celebration of Mass, included reports given by the eucharistic associations and some talks on a theme related to the Eucharist. The high point always was the solemn eucharistic procession in which the people and often the civic authorities took part.
As a conclusion these Congresses drew up certain wishes (the so-called “voti”); among these the most important concerned frequent Communion and the admission of children to Communion. These no doubt had their influence on the Decrees of St Pius X on frequent Communion (Sacra Tridentina Synodus in 1905) and on the Communion of children (Quam singularis in 1910).
2. Experiences in relation to frequent Communion and First Communion
In their preparation of the Congresses following that of Rome in 1905, there was great zeal shown in making known these documents and in seeing to their implementation through catechesis regarding confession and communion of adults and children.
In the celebrations there are records of the numbers of Communions distributed during the Congresses; for example, that the Congress of Vienna in 1912, there were 1000,000 children prepared for their First Communion by eucharistic associations; at that of Buenos Aires in 1934, 100,000 Communions distributed to children, 400,000 to men and 700,000 to women.
3. Experiences in relation to the missionary dimension
After the 26th International Eucharistic Congress held at Rome in 1922, Pope Pius XI began a “new series of Congresses” involving the local churches in all five continents; they took place every two years and were focused on having a “missionary” preparation. Following up the wishes (“voti”) expressed during previous Congresses, this Pope instituted the Feast of Christ the King for the whole Church.
It should be noted that in the preparation for the33rd International Eucharistic Congress at Manila in 1937 there had been no less than 12 diocesan congresses and numerous parish congresses; this was possible because of the generous participation of lay catechists. In the Acts one reads, it seems for the first time, the word: Re-evangelisation.
In the celebrations one finds in the Congress from that at Rome in 1922 to that at Barcelona in 1952, up till the Congress of Rio de Janeiro in 1955, themes of current interest began to be treated at the Congresses, themes such as Christ’s Peace, Our Lady and the Eucharist, the Eucharistic Apostolate in the Missions, and the Practice of Eucharist in countries like Holland and Ireland. The climax was always the grandiose Eucharistic procession.
4. Experiences in relation to the Communion of the universal Church
A new period in the history of Congresses began with the preparations for the Second Vatican Council in the 37th International Eucharistic Congress, which was celebrated in 1960 at Munich (Germany). The focus of this Congress was significantly called the “Statio Orbis” because it had to manifest to the world – thus the former Professor J. Ratzinger put it – the renewed image of the universal Church as Communion.
In the preparation attention was centred on catechesis of the Mass insofar as this is a celebration of the Paschal Mystery. There was an attempt to educate the faithful to “an active and conscious participation” in the eucharistic celebration.
The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution, Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), in which the theological foundation of the Eucharist was expounded [or: set out], had the role of providing the preparation of the renewed eucharistic liturgy. The relationship between the Celebration and worship of adoration was deepened in the Instruction Eucaristicum mysterium (1967). The Roman Ritual on the Worship of the Eucharist outside of Mass (1973) deals with Eucharistic Congresses in paragraphs 109 to 112.
In the preparation for a eucharistic congress the Roman Ritual states (n.111) that careful attention should be paid to the following points:
“a) a thorough catechesis, accommodated to the capacity of different groups, concerning the Eucharist, especially as the mystery of Christ living and working in the Church;
b) more active participation in the liturgy in order to encourage a reverent hearing of the word of God and the spirit of mutual love and community;
c) research into the means and the pursuit of social action for human development and the just distribution of goods …”
As regards its celebration the congress should be planned on the basis of the following criteria (n.112):
“a) the celebration of the Eucharist should be the true centre and high point of the congress, to which all the programmes and the various devotional services should be directed;
b) celebrations of the word of God, catechetical meetings, and public conferences should be planned to investigate thoroughly the theme of the congress and to set out more clearly the ways for carrying out its practical implications;
c) there should be an opportunity for common prayers and extended adoration in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed at designated churches that are especially suited to this form of piety;
d) the regulations concerning eucharistic processions should be observed for the procession in which the Blessed Sacrament is carried through the streets of the city to the accompaniment of public hymns and prayers……(cf. nn.101-108)”
Regarding the celebration of the congress. Even though International Eucharistic Congresses have been above all Congresses of all God’s people, they have also included meetings of theologians to reflect on the Eucharist under various aspects: liturgical, biblical, theological, pastoral, anthropological, social and ecumenical.
5. Experiences in relation to the presence of Our Lady at Congresses
Already at the first Congresses Mary was addressed under the title “ Our Lady of the most Blessed Sacrament”. The theme “Our Lady and the Eucharist” was celebrated at the 29th International Eucharistic Congress held in Sydney (Australia) in 1928. At the sanctuary of Lourdes two Congresses: have been held: those of 1914 and 1981, the centenary year of International Eucharistic Congresses. At the latter Cardinal Bernardin Gantin was the Papal Legate, since the Holy Father was unable to be present due to the attempt on his life in St Peter’s square shortly before. At the Congress celebrated in Seville in 1993, which had the theme “The Eucharist and Evangelisation”, Mary was addressed under the title “The Star of Evangelisation”. Mary wants to draw us – both priests and lay-faithful – by means of a sense of both external and above all interior participation towards the Paschal Mystery of her Son, in order that our lives become transformed in a true communion with God and with our fellow human beings.
6. Experiences in relation to openness to problems of the contemporary world
For the preparation of the Congresses after the Second Vatican Council the themes chosen often referred to challenges arising from the world’s seeking for solidarity, freedom, justice and peace.
After these Congresses there were always visible signs left of charity, solidarity, and sharing with the poor: for example, houses for destitute elderly persons at Nairobi, Seville, and Wroclaw; or the movement “One heart, one body” at Seoul (which still continues sharing with poor churches) and the health clinic for the needy at Rome’s Railway Station.
The celebration of Congresses is nowadays in accordance with the criteria indicated above. The Statio Orbis, as the final celebration of the Eucharistic Congresses has come to be called, has usually been celebrated by the Pope himself.
The first Pope to preside personally at a Congress was Paul VI in 1964 at Bombay in India.
The number of nations taking part has usually been between 70 to 80; hundreds of bishops, thousands of priests and religious and hundreds of thousands of lay-faithful with their National Delegates have taken part.
7. Experiences in relation to the ecumenical dimension and inter-religious dialogue
In the preparatory phase of postconciliar Congresses representatives have often been invited from the separated Christian Churches and various ecclesial Christian communities to take part in theological meetings. Where appropriate, such as for example at Nairobi in 1985 and at Seoul in 1989, there were also representatives of the other great religions.
Most recently at the Congress during the Great Jubilee Year at Rome in 2000, Protestant Professors took part in a symposium held at the Lateran University.
8. National and Diocesan Eucharistic Congresses
The first National and Diocesan Eucharistic Congresses, born in the wake of the International Congresses, sought above all the deepen the message of the International Congresses and to pursue a pastoral effort inspired by the Eucharist.
After the Second Vatican Council they were seen to be a privileged opportunity for renewing Christian life by forming communities shaped by the Eucharist (cf. the Decree of 2nd Vatican Council Presbyterorum ordinis, n.6).
Regarding the experience of national and diocesan eucharistic congresses celebrated throughout the whole world, see the note below. Reports will be given of experiences in the preparations and celebrations of national and diocesan congresses by National Delegates who have been directly involved.
An attempt has been made here to highlight, by examples taken from a number of Congresses, significant experiences, which have manifested over the course of more than a century of history the inestimable richness of the eucharistic mystery, to which attention must be paid – as expressed in the Pope’s words quoted at the beginning – in the preparation and celebration of Eucharistic Congresses.
Pope John Paul II’s words, which were uttered during the eucharistic adoration under the majestic vault of the cathedral of Seville at the 45th International Eucharistic Congress, still ring out strongly: “Join with me in asking Jesus Christ … that after this Eucharistic Congress the whole Church may emerge strengthened to carry out that new evangelisation of which the whole world has such great need… Evangelisation through the Eucharist, in the Eucharist and by the Eucharist: here are three inseparable features of how the Church lives the mystery of Christ and fulfils its mission of communicating it to people” (L’Osservatore Romano, 13 June 1993).
Facing the great challenges of our times, the Holy Father wrote in his Apostolic
Letter Novo millennio ineunte, that it is not a matter of inventing a “new
programme” since it exists already: “it is that which exists from the
beginning, drawn from the Gospel
and living Tradition. It is centred, in the last analysis, in Christ
It is in this perspective that we are preparing and will celebrate the 48th International Eucharistic Congress in 2004 at Guadalajara in Mexico, the theme of which is: THE EUCHARIST, LIGHT AND LIFE OF THE NEW MILLENNIUM.
(Report presented on the 5th November 2002 to the plenary meeting by Fr Ferdinand Pratzner, sss, Secretary of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses)
The following is a list (to be still updated) of National Eucharistic Congresses:
AMERICA: Antille: 1 Argentina: 10, in Brazil: 14, in Bolivia: 5, in Canada: 1, in Chile: 2, Colombia: 3, Costa Rica: 3, Ecuador: 5, Guatemala: 1, Honduras:1, Mexico: 2, Paraguay: 2, Peru: 8, El Salvador: 2, Uruguay: 4, Venezuela: 2.
AFRICA: Benin:1, Ivory Coast: 1, Ghana: 2, Nigeria: 3, Sudan: 2.
ASIA AND OCEANIA: Korea: 1, Philippines: 5, Republic of China: 1, India: 6.
EUROPE: Croatia: 1, England: 1, France: 18, Ireland: 1, Italy: 23, Lithuania: 2, Poland: 2, Portugal: 3, Spain: 9.