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THEOLOGICAL-PASTORAL SYMPOSIUM
OF THE 48th INTERNATIONAL EUCHARISTIC CONGRESS

Report to the Theological Conference
of the 48th International Eucharistic Congress
on the Meaning of the Eucharist in Oceania
[*]

Guadalajara, Mexico
Wednesday 6 October 2004

 

Introductory Remarks

Oceania is geographically large consisting of many countries bound together by the mighty Pacific Ocean. Hence its name, Oceania. The area includes some large countries like Australia and New Guinea, and many small countries and islands scattered over a vast area of water. Hundreds of languages are spoken by the peoples of Oceania, representing a bewildering number of cultures, both traditional and modern.

In Oceania the cultural patterns and traditions of original populations have been influenced by successive waves of people from Europe and other countries. In Oceania the old exists with the new, the traditional with the modem, subsistence economies of fishing and hunting with technological economies of the First World.

Into this complex situation the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been brought by brave missionaries and has flourished in rich soil.

From the beginning of the evangelization of the countries of Oceania, the Blessed Eucharist, especially the Holy Mass, has been central to the life of the Church.

The Situation in Australia

In the early beginnings of Australia, when the Faith was often very strong among the early convicts transported to the colony, demands were constantly made to the colonial authorities to provide a Catholic priest to minister to them. When priests eventually came, they said Mass in prisons and in work camps on improvised altars, and were welcomed with tears by people who had hungered for the Bread of Life for a long time.

Although Australia remains today a predominantly Christian country, with Catholics making up the largest religious group, the country is strongly influenced by modem secularism. Among Catholics, attendance at Sunday Mass, Eucharistic devotion and vocations to the priesthood and religious life are all under pressure.

The fall away of Mass attendance has occurred in all age groups, but especially among young people, many of whom have not had strong parental encouragement in matters of faith nor strong catechetical instruction. Our surveys have found, alarmingly but not surprisingly, a diminution of belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and a poor appreciation of Sunday as the Day of the Lord.

Various factors have caused a fall in vocations. The secularity of society is a major factor here but not the only one. One must also consider the effect of small families, the enlarged opportunities for study and advancement and the perceived role and life of priests, as well as the diminished cohesiveness of the Catholic community and the greater numbers of nominal Catholics.

These shadows should not give rise to any sense of powerlessness in the face of creeping secularism. The same promises that Jesus made about the Eucharist are promises that will attract the modern heart as strongly as the people of past ages.

Despite the decline in numbers, those who are faithful are being drawn closer and closer to God through the Blessed Eucharist and coming to understand how the Eucharist can affect their daily lives. In the quiet hours of the morning both young and old find their way into Church, seeking the quiet of daily Mass for contemplation and communion with Jesus in the Eucharist.

Whereas Sunday Mass is a joyful community celebration with good music that lifts the heart, daily Mass has a different character, a silence and a spirit of interiority that is treasured. It is especially in those occasions that a deep awareness of the real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Eucharist is fostered. This leads to visits and adoration of the Blessed Eucharist at other times as well.

It is a source of great joy that so many people receive Holy Communion each time they attend Mass, and that they prepare themselves to do so as worthily as they can.

After some years of uncertainty the people are returning with enthusiasm to the practice of Eucharistic Adoration. In many parishes, perhaps an increasing number of parishes, some hours are set aside each week for adoration. Perpetual adoration in special chapels is also increasing.

The Situation in New Zealand

Teaching on the Eucharist in the national diocesan seminary (Holy Cross Seminary) and joint diocesan-Marist theologates (Good Shepherd College), through the national religious education curriculum in the nation’s 198 primary schools and 39 secondary colleges, through the catechetical materials prepared for pupils in State schools and for the ethnic communities’ Sunday schools, and through the general adult education, certificate, diploma and degree courses offered by the diocesan religious education centres, is wholly orthodox and in accord with “The Catechism of the Catholic Church” and the “General Catechetical Directory”.

Even so, over the six dioceses through the past two decades there has been a continuing decline both in the proportion of Catholics in the total New Zealand population (14.4% in 1981 to 13.0% in 2001), and in Mass attendance. At the same time, there has been an overall increase in week-day Mass attendance.

A very high proportion of those who do attend Mass receive Holy Communion. There is no correlation between the small numbers receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation (except during Advent and Lent) and the numbers receiving Holy Communion Sunday by Sunday.

Virtually every parish ministers Holy Communion regularly to the house-bound and those in rest homes and geriatric hospitals, through extraordinary ministers visiting after the Sunday Mass. The parish clergy visit as well to provide opportunity for Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick.

In three of the six dioceses the order of the Sacraments of Initiation has been changed, with children being confirmed some weeks or months prior to receiving their first Holy Communion.

In more recent years, parishes have been providing weekly Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and periods of Eucharistic Adoration. Some few parishes have perpetual Adoration, others have extended hours of Adoration commencing immediately after the morning Mass, with rosters to ensure that the Blessed Sacrament is never left unattended. Not many parishes have retained the Forty Hours Devotion. Many meetings, whether of clergy, religious or laity, when held on church premises or nearby, commence with a period of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.

There is a national society originating in the Archdiocese of Wellington, lay-led but with the collaboration of clergy, which has as its main aim to promote Eucharistic Adoration. It publishes a monthly newsletter distributed through parishes.

In Auckland and Wellington annual Eucharistic Conventions are held which attract at least 500 participants - and sometimes as many as 1500 to 2000 - over the events of the Convention weekend.

A number of regular gatherings held in different centres for youth are centred on the Eucharist, e.g. Hearts Aflame, Jesus-4-Real, Life Teen.

With few exceptions, Catholics hold to the guidelines provided in the Directory on Ecumenism regarding inter-Communion, despite the pressure brought about by pastors of separated Churches offering “Eucharistic hospitality” to all who present themselves for Communion.

The parish clergy are acutely aware of the numbers of Catholic men and women - and their children - who no longer practise the Faith because their marriages are irregular. Most became submerged in the ranks of the un-churched. Some move to other ecclesial communities. Despite their concern, the clergy maintain the present discipline.

Although some parishes in four of the dioceses are without resident parish priests, parishioners in every parish continue to have access every Sunday to the Sacrifice of the Mass celebrated in their parish church.

The Situation in Papua New Guinea

In relating faith to the Eucharist in a Melanesian context, it is important to consider the physical and social diversity of the people of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands (PNG/SI).

We are dealing with a people with over 848 languages and cultures, who, believe it or not, still have not seen the wheel or if they have, as Bishop Ambrose Kiapseni would imply, maybe only on an airplane! It is hardly a wonder that they face many problems that are related to a common faith, but these are problems accompanying growth and expansion.

The growth and development of the Christianity in PNG/SI is often the result of various missionary denominations claiming land and negotiating with particular headmen and clans to build their respective churches.

Consequently, there is a strong sense of religious identity between the villages, and people see themselves as one religion or another, rather than as fellow Christians.

Despite the sophistication one meets at Jackson Airport and driving around Port Moresby, it important to realize that over 80% of the country and population live in remote and rural areas, often in the mountainous ravines of the highlands or on small islands or inlets on the swampy and coral coastlines, or on larger islands threatened by active volcanoes and the rough elements of the south sea’s climate.

Writing in 1998, Bishop Kiapseni argues that it is relevant as we move into the new millennium that “models of ministry and ministering need to change.” Bishop Kiapseni recognizes his role as pastor and sees the responsibility for ensuring that the Eucharist is seen and understood to be the “source and summit from which all activities of the Church are directed . . .” (SC, 10).

Bishop Kiapseni’s concern is shared by many pastoral workers today in PNG/SI, that the inaccessibility of the Eucharist has become a norm and often people do not see the relevance of their active participation in the Eucharist each Sunday. “A community without the regular celebration of the Lord’s supper runs the risk of becoming what we might call simply an “alleluia” people, forgetting that the way to Easter is the Way of the Cross.”

In the Gizo diocese of the Solomon Islands there was a real concern that the young people were not coming to the Eucharist, so they set up sessions for the youth over a period of months, and discovered that many areas of the faith had not matured, even some not attending the sacraments. Gradually, the young people were able to participate and to understand the meaning of the faith and the value of the Eucharist in their lives and to make informed choices.

It was noted that the religious crisis facing young people today is not only from secularism but also from the confusing influence of Evangelical churches, which tend to encroach on Catholic communities. Various forms of eclectic worship that are overly attractive certainly have left their mark on the young people. Communion Services and Celebrations of the Word are not seen to be much different from what is seen in other Bible Churches.

Despite the above mentioned problems that are very real, it would be fair to say that when the people can receive the Eucharist in its fullness there is a real sense of understanding and reverence. It is a well-known fact that people walk miles, in the rain and mud, to come to Mass on Sundays. When they know a priest is there, they will come. Over the recent years, credit must be given to our people, when they still come to gather for prayer on Sundays even without the presence of an ordained minister.

The commitment of the catechists and that of the Eucharistic Ministers is remarkable. They are carefully chosen from within the community and they serve accordingly. If it weren’t for them the Eucharist certainly would be a long forgotten thing of the past in some of our remote areas and islands.

Certainly, the people’s understanding of the true meaning of the Eucharist may be very basic and based on a simple Western-styled faith, even in some cases, devotional, but there is evidence that there is a true love for the Eucharist. Much more has to be done to place the Eucharist in the midst of the Melanesian culture and to find more sustainable ways of preserving the ministry of those entrusted with the service of administering the sacraments.

One thing is clear, when the changes in culture are considered, at least in the Melanesian context; the core of culture is still intact in these two countries. This means the traditional values and beliefs are still intact, people are still very traditional. But that change is very much related to the external or exterior changes. It is like wearing western clothes but “I am still black”.

Traditional religious beliefs and practices in Melanesia are very pragmatic. Research at the Melanesian Institute found that people move and join other churches for practical reasons. The attitude is, “I will try and join that church; may be my prayers will be answered there. I have been praying in this church but no good came.” Very often you hear people saying, “traim tasol.” That means, “we shall see if it works, otherwise to go to somewhere else or try another church.”

God revealed his will through his Son, known in the scriptures, the apostolic tradition and the Church. That revelation however needs a response, and this response is expressed in the fact that God’s word has an impact on the listener’s life. It is an active response, not a passive one. In many ways this is so, many people have been influenced by faith in the Eucharist. At the same time this faith has not yet truly penetrated into people’s value and belief systems.

The following is a translation of part of a prayer at the end of a Sunday Mass at Porgera (Wabag Diocese):

... You yourself look after us but we forget about you.

We fall into rivers. Demons tempt us. Tree branches fall and kill But God, you look after us and we are able to get well.

... Now it is Sunday and we think of you and receive Christ’s body and we rejoice. The body of Jesus comes to me.

We don’t see his face.

We don’t look after you, but you look after us.

We praise your name; you are one but you have three names, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This prayer is addressed to God, yet there is a sense of participation in the sacrament, which is Jesus’ special manner of being present. So the invisible Jesus (“We don’t see his face”) is the presence of the powerful and protective power of God.

Another image of the protective power of God is revealed in a prayer of intercession at Sunday mass at Yampu (Wabag Diocese) during a period of tribal fighting. The person prays, God you are our Lord for ever and ever.”

Many people, particularly older people have a very deep faith in the Eucharistic presence. On an outstation of Bundi (Madang Diocese) at least one hard day’s walk from the main station, the people were left without a visit from a priest for almost two years. They had a tabernacle in their small bush chapel and used to worship there every Sunday. At first their communion minister was able to distribute communion from the ciborium reserved in the tabernacle. But eventually all the consecrated hosts had been received - except for one. They left that one host in the ciborium and each Sunday would open the door of the tabernacle while they prayed as best they could using the Sunday readings and their own prayers. Eventually, after two years a new priest came to the parish, he took time to go around all the many isolated outstations, and discovered the people still gathering on Sunday in the presence of the tabernacle containing the one consecrated host. They were very happy that he came and they could join in the celebration of the Eucharist once more.

In various dioceses in PNG the percentage of Catholics who have the chance to be present at the celebration of the Eucharist is not high. In Wabag diocese, for example, there are approximately 60,000 Catholics. Approximately 10,000 people attend Sunday Mass at the main parishes and the outstations where a priest celebrates. This suggests that only 1 in 6 Catholics has a reasonable chance to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist on every Sunday. For many of them (in remote places like Maramuni, Paiela, Keman) they might only have the opportunity twice or three times a year. So, what an amazing faith people have to continue on in the Church with that state of malnourishment.

The Situation in the Pacific

In the early years of evangelisation in the Pacific, missionaries travelled constantly  forming Christian communities and saying Mass for them. They left behind  catechists to continue the instruction of the people and their formation in prayer and Christian living, looking forward to the eventual return of the priests so they could participate again in the Sacrament that brought them into personal contact with Jesus Christ, their Saviour, their Shepherd and their spiritual nourishment.

While faith in the Eucharist has been slowly diminishing in recent decades, in latter years it has revived and progressed anew. This is evidenced by a renewed practice of Benediction and processions of the Most Blessed Sacrament, in prolonged Adoration in a liturgical atmosphere, in the decoration of places of worship, and in the attention to the Ministry of Communion of the Sick. 

This renewed sense of faith in the Eucharist is evident amongst both the faithful as well as Priests and Religious in those islands where evangelization was begun by the Missionaries of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (Picpus Fathers).  These places are the Diocese of Papeete, the Marquesas Islands and Rarotonga. The Picpus Fathers’ own spiritual tradition makes Eucharistic devotion central to its work.

The Church’s relations with Protestant churches in the region have sometimes affected this change in a positive way and sometimes in a negative fashion. Many factors are involved in this, of course, and it is not always easy to interpret the general movement of the pendulum.

The insistence on the Word, at first glance, seems to weaken the faith in the Eucharist amongst the Catholic faithful.  However, when this emphasis is well-directed, it ends up in reinforcing the sense of faith in the Eucharist for the totality of Christians. 

In fact, it has been frequently observed that Protestants, above all those of Oceanian origin, love to join their Catholic brethren for Eucharistic Adoration even outside Mass - and in fact it is sometimes even necessary to guide their participation in Adoration. In the same way, Protestants from our Islands willingly join Catholics for celebrations and processions in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

The rediscovery of the daily celebration of Mass in the spiritual life of the Priest himself must continue to be encouraged (e.g. the Holy Father’s Holy Thursday messages to Priests each year).  By contrast, the practice of multiplication of celebrations of Mass each weekend by certain Priests actually poses specific problems for a celebrant who finds himself more and more stretched and jumping from one celebration to another – as well as for the Faithful who no longer have the time to meet him.

In the same vein, balance is difficult to find at present between the necessity to regularly organise the Sunday Assemblies without a Priest (due to the small number of available Priests) and the other necessity of conserving in respective Catholic Communities a healthy hunger for the Eucharistic Celebration itself.

George Cardinal Pell
Archbishop of Sydney


 


[*] I am most grateful for the assistance provided in preparing this report by Most Rev. Barry Hickey, Archbishop of Perth; His Eminence Thomas Cardinal Williams, Archbishop of Wellington; Most Rev. Brian Barnes, Archbishop of Port Moresby; and Most Rev. Michel Marie Calvert, Archbishop of Noumea. 

 

 

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