Spirituality for Today – July 2008 – Volume 12, Issue 12
Gift of God for the Life of the World
This past week, about 30 pilgrims from the Diocese of Bridgeport (pictured above) attended the 49th International Eucharistic Congress held in Quebec City, Canada. I was able to join them for part of that event – enough to be inspired to write about what I witnessed during these days of praise, thanksgiving, reflection, and union with thousands of other Catholic Christians throughout the world.
Its theme was "The Eucharist: Gift of God for the Life of the World." It was a moving demonstration of the power of the Eucharist to transform us and thus to make us agents in building a true civilization of love.
Before I proceed any further, let me offer a word of thanks to Cardinal Marc Oulette, the Archbishop of Quebec, under whose leadership the Congress was organized. Before he became a bishop, I used to read his articles in various journals. I also came to know him through the Knights of Columbus. His Eminence is a world-class theologian and a wonderful shepherd. In hosting the Eucharistic Congress, he has done a great service to the Church throughout the world.
Next, I'd like to thank Father Peter Towsley, pastor of Saint Ann Parish in Bridgeport, who headed our local pilgrimage effort. Not only did he tirelessly promote the Congress, he also scouted out accommodations and made other necessary arrangements. He was assisted by Sister Alejandra Keen and Betty Anne Casaretti. The diocesan pilgrims were not merely traveling companions but, indeed, a family of faith that represented the whole diocese at an important event in the life of the Church, including priests, religious, seminarians, and laity. All pilgrimages require sacrifice, and this one was no exception. If you watched the concluding Mass on television, you might have spied our pilgrims getting drenched in the pouring rain.
As I spoke with our pilgrims, it became clear that not everyone knew what to expect from something called a Eucharistic Congress. Would it be a great body of people deliberating on propositions about the Eucharist – a sort of "Eucharistic parliament"? Would it be an endless lineup of speakers, each one dry as dust? Or would it be a throwback to an earlier form of piety and theology, unmindful of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council? I think our pilgrims, as well as the vast majority of those who attended the Congress, would agree that it was none of the above!
So what was it really like?
Well, first, about 25,000 people from all over the world attended. It was easy to see the Church in her universality and diversity in that Convention Center which was transformed in what was called "A Eucharistic City." On Wednesday night the Eucharistic City spilled out into the streets of Quebec as thousands marched in a beautiful candlelight Eucharistic procession. Many residents were on-lookers, some peering from their windows at the spectacle, and I have no doubt that many were won over to the Lord. I should also mention that, the previous day, the Eucharistic City became "the City of Forgiveness" as nearly all the participants in the Congress shared in the Sacrament of Penance.
The participants in the Congress spoke many languages, so the organizers provided us with little FM radios by which we could tune to a station to hear the talks in one's choice of language. Most of the talks were given in French, English, or Spanish. The days began with sung Morning Prayer followed by two talks. The first talk was an instruction, often given by bishops from around the world. They were really excellent. One bishop from the Philippines caught everyone's attention when he held up, in turn, a frozen steak to illustrate how a mind, frozen in indifference, may hear the Gospel but fail to respond since it lacks the fire of the Holy Spirit; a diet soft drink to show how we often imbibe the Gospel message but without gaining from it (I'll never look at my lunchtime Diet Pepsi in quite the same way); and a map to demonstrate how we ask God to show us the way and then point out to Him the map we've drawn for our lives, a map that shows where we want to go. Again and again, he brought the house down and had people on their feet applauding the truth.
Cardinal Christian Tumi from the Cameroon – a gentle, humorous, and strong churchman - spoke about the social effect of the Eucharist from the perspective of the continent of Africa, especially in oppressive regimes. The Cardinal also told the story of a well-educated woman who told him that she would become a Catholic except for the fact that she cannot see how any intelligent person could agree that a piece of bread can become someone – let alone the Lord. The Cardinal replied, "Let me tell you a secret: I don't understand any more than you do!" He went on to give witness to his faith in the Lord Jesus, the Bread of Life, who gave us the gift of the Eucharist even as He revealed to us the mystery of the Trinity. Humorously, the Cardinal spoke of the "mathematics of the Trinity": 1 + 1 + 1 = 1!
With God all things are possible!
The fast-paced and enlightening catechetical talks were followed by witness talks given by the likes of Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche. This man, whom I truly believe to be holy, is the founder of communities for the disabled. They are places where people whose gifts are often overlooked by the world are appreciated – especially the extraordinary capacity of the disabled to communicate with God, to share friendship, and to appreciate the wonder of this life and the life to come. Jean Vanier's soul reflected all these qualities as, without any notes, he spoke from the heart about the Eucharist. In doing so he touched the hearts of everyone who was listening.
A final witness talk was given by an African woman from Burundi, Marguerite Barankitse, who founded "The House of Shalom." In a place of longstanding civil strife between the Tutsis and the Hutus, she opened a house where all victims of war, whether Tutsi or Hutu, live in peace. Over the years she has assisted more than 50,000 such people. She told two humorous stories. First, she was on a train bound for Brussels when she saw a newspaper article about "a crazy woman from Burundi." As soon as she turned to the article, she realized it was about herself, and so did the man in the next seat! Second, she told about being held hostage by a young man with a gun but also with a Rosary around his neck. The young man ordered her to kneel down. She replied, "I only kneel for God." She realized he was inexperienced and pressed into service for a cause that he could not really make his own. So she told him that if she would kneel down, she would have to borrow his Rosary and that, in fact, they would both have to kneel down. They began to talk. The young man was won over to the Lord and today works with her. What emerged from her talk was a passionate love for the Lord in the Eucharist that gives her courage and strength for a work of mercy the world considers improbable.
In his concluding homily, Pope Benedict XVI, who addressed the participants via live television, returned to the most fundamental point of the whole Congress: the need we have to prepare ourselves properly to share in the Eucharist – our need to approach it with living faith and deep gratitude, with our sins forgiven – so that we might share in this gift worthily. The Holy Father taught us, as did the Congress by word and witness, how the worthy celebration of the Eucharist can bear abundant fruit in our personal lives, in the community of the Church, and in a world that hungers and thirsts for truth and love. The Congress demonstrated how Eucharistic Adoration points to the centrality of the celebration of the Eucharist in our lives, our homes, our churches, and in the carrying out the Church's social mission. And certainly all the participants left with a much better understanding of the many forms that mission takes around the world.
Although the Congress has concluded, it is possible to participate vicariously by reading and reflecting on the talks which are available online. It is also an opportunity for each of us to renew our love for the Eucharist.
Let me add that it will not do for us merely to complain about those who absent themselves from Sunday Eucharist or merely to express our dissatisfaction with the state of the world. No, we must allow the Holy Spirit to inflame our hearts – to bear witness to our hearts about the truth, beauty, and power of the Eucharist – so that we, in turn, can bear convincing witness to the wonder of the Eucharist to others.
May this Congress bear abundant fruit in our lives, in our Diocese, and in the world!
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