Eucharistic congress Ireland
Young people hold a Vatican flag during the closing Mass of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin’s Croke Park June 17. CNS photo/John Mc Elroy

For some, the lazy story about the International Eucharistic Congress was too tempting to resist. It began with a picture of the last IEC to take place in Dublin, in 1932, when the new-born Irish Free State used the occasion to show the world its competence, and a confident Church the fire-proof faith of the loyal Irish people. G.K. Chesterton, who later published a book about it, “Christendom in Dublin,” described the papal flags fluttering from even the poorest houses and the million people who turned out for the final ceremony to hear the great tenor John McCormack sing “Panis Angelicus”: he had “never seen anything like it in my life.” The story then turns to the 2012 edition, and draws the pitiful contrast: a Church lacking confidence, broken by scandals, spurned by the Irish people, managed to summon only 11,000 for the first day’s ceremony, which opened a week of forgettable rain-sodden events that made no impact on the media.

It is true that Ireland was a very different place in 1932, and this IEC was never going to be like the previous one. But it misses out three more important, and surprising stories, which point to the Irish Church reaching, if not a rebirth, then at least a turn in the road.

Making progress

First, the numbers were greater than expected, rising during the week to close to 15,000 on the last three days, with some 70,000 attending the final ceremony, the Statio Orbis, at Croke Park stadium. Midweek, attendance was around twice that of the previous IEC, in Quebec, in 2008 — a more realistic point of comparison than Ireland in 1932. There were about 7,500 international pilgrims and 1,700 volunteers, while 380 priests heard confessions. It was an operational and logistical feat, with a €12 million ($15.2 million) budget met entirely by the Church.

Second, the IEC revealed a great thirst for catechesis. Long lines of pilgrims in the rain, waiting patiently to be allowed into talks, testimonies and workshops will be perhaps the abiding image of this Congress. The 200 sessions were quickly filled up, and several bishops and a former Taoiseach among those turned away; a number of speakers agreed to repeat sessions to meet demand. The popularity of the workshops, said Father Kevin Doran, IEC general secretary, contained “an important message for the Church: it shows the demand for faith formation.”

The third story is the hardest to capture but will have the greatest impact over time. As the first national gathering of Catholics in Ireland since the papal visit of 1979, the IEC was an opportunity to forge and renew bonds of communion, creating a tangible new self-confidence and self-assurance after a seemingly interminable series of scandals and crises. Rain-soaked and often wind-battered, cheerful pilgrims gathered for prayer and food, chatted and joked with their bishops, and clapped and cheered at the homilies. It was as if, for the first time in many years, Catholics were given permission to be proud of their Church.

The theme of abuse was addressed, as a matter for healing rather than hand-wringing. At the opening ceremony, a large granite “healing stone” engraved with words of contrition, was blessed; addressing abuse survivors in his homily on June 14, Cardinal Seán Brady of Armagh spoke of his shame that “some of us were blind to your fear, deaf to your cries and silent in response to your pain” and prayed that the stone would “become a symbol of a Church that has learned from the mistakes of the past and strives to become a model for the care and wellbeing of children.” The next day, after the papal legate, Canadian cardinal Marc Ouellet went to the place of penitential pilgrimage at Lough Derg, it was agreed that the stone would be moved there permanently.

Telling stories

The healing effect of the congress was evident in other ways. Michael Kelly, deputy editor of Ireland’s leading Church weekly, The Irish Catholic, said the bishops’ grins told their own story. “This Congress has been a weight off their shoulders, seeing that people are basically on their side, and have a lot of affection for them.”

One of them was Thomasina Pradden, a retired Catholic teacher with seven children and 11 grandchildren, who has for decades helped organize liturgies in the Diocese of Ardagh & Clonmacnois. Angry and disillusioned with Church leadership, she supported women’s ordination and a married clergy, and believed Cardinal Brady should resign over allegations he had silenced victims in the 1970s. Yet in the course of the congress she had begun to feel reconnected to the Church and healed of her anger. Impressed by Cardinal Brady’s humility and approachability, she told Our Sunday Visitor on the last day of the Congress: “I now see him as human. He’s doing a good job.” She still believed in Church reform, she said, but had been “surprised by how I feel. I feel happy to be a Catholic.”

The Church in Ireland must win back people like Pradden while at the same time challenging Catholics to be true to their name. An Irish Times poll on the eve of the Congress revealed Mass attendance down to 34 percent, and widespread ignorance about basics (62 percent of Irish people think the Eucharist “represents” the body and blood of Christ, while only 24 percent believe in the Real Presence).

A new phase

Given that the Church continues to control 93 percent of the nation’s schools, these statistics show the damage caused by a complacent assumption that Catholicism could be absorbed by osmosis. In fact, says Kelly, the Church “can no longer rely on the culture to catechize people.” It is this realization — that Ireland has joined the secular cultures of western Europe — that will profoundly affect the decisions and policies of the Church in the coming years. It is certainly the view of Pope Benedict XVI, who ordered a two-year in-depth inspection of the Church, before appointing a close colleague, Archbishop Charles Brown, as his official representative. One of the nuncio’s most important tasks is to appoint to seven vacant Irish dioceses (a third of the total) bishops who understand the challenge of the “new evangelization.”

A centerpiece of that challenge is education. The Church has begun handing over — “divesting” — schools that are Catholic in name only, while challenging those that remain to have a stronger identity, a policy known as “fewer but truer.” Kelly said the policy will encounter strong resistance from Irish people who do not go to Mass yet consider themselves Catholic and want their children educated by the Church. “But the Church has to ask, ‘are these places fit for mission? Is this a Catholic school based on the fact that a majority are children of nominal Catholics, or is this actually a Christian community which is passing on the faith?’”

The IEC was a moment for the Irish Catholics to gather, with the support of the universal Church, and strengthen bonds in preparation for a new, challenging phase in which the Church will be smaller but more faithful. The Church back in 1932 was not as strong as it seemed; the Church of 2012, humbler and smaller, may turn out to be stronger than it looks.

Austen Ivereigh is author of “How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot Button Issues” (OSV, $13.95).