By Alex Kubik, Mission & Discipleship Coordinator
The first time I heard the term Eucharistic Congress was in the mid-1990’s. Someone was trying to refer to a commonly sung hymn, and he referenced it saying, “You know, the one from the Eucharistic Congress.” Well, I knew the hymn, but I certainly did NOT know the Eucharistic Congress. The phrase called to my mind an image of some strange mix of a PBS special about the signing of the Declaration of Independence with a meeting of the Papal Conclave. I was confused, and I wanted to know more about this mysterious event.
The story really begins in the 16th Century in Spain. St. Paschal Baylon, a Franciscan Friar, grew up a shepherd boy with an intense devotion to the Most Blessed Sacrament. After joining the Friars, he was sent to France and spent much of his religious life debating French Calvinists regarding Jesus’ true presence in the Eucharist. Fray Paschal drew his strength to face dangerous, angry mobs and threats from his unwavering love of the Eucharistic Presence of Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament. This devotion was deepened by countless hours spent in Adoration. In the late 17th Century Fray Paschal Baylon was canonized a saint, and Pope Leo the XIII later declared him the “Seraph of the Eucharist” and the patron of all Eucharistic Congresses and Associations. Between his canonization in 1690 and Pope Leo’s declaration, we find the first International Eucharistic Congress.
During this time, the Church was deeply entrenched in battles on two ideological fronts: preserving the dignity of the human person in the recently industrialized world, and Modernism. The secular world seemed to be attempting to “move beyond” faith in God and the moral values it brought, and the effects on the poor and underprivileged were devastating. Bishop Gaston de Ségur saw in the devotion to Jesus’ sublime yet humble presence in the Eucharist a source of focus, clarity, and strength during troubled times. For ten years, a lay woman named Marie-Marthe-Baptistine Tamisier had been lobbying the Bishop and his clergy to establish the event. Bishop Ségur convened the first ever International Eucharistic Congress on June 21, 1881, in Lille, France. Tamisier went on to organize many of the following Congresses over the next twenty years. If their Marie-Mathe was anything like our own Martha Maria Morales in the Office of Hispanic Ministries, I am sure she was known as a woman you could go to when you wanted things to really get done.
The International Eucharistic Congresses continued annually until the outbreak of World War II, across France, Germany, Belgium, and even in Jerusalem. In 1910 the Congress came to Montreal, and then to the United States in 1926, when George Cardinal Mundelein brought it to his Archdiocese of Chicago. For this event, a new train station had to be built, as well as what is now the campus of Mundelein Seminary and the Marytown Shrine. In 1932, the Congress was convened in Dublin, Ireland, and solidified the Catholic and social identity of the newly independent Irish nation. Everywhere International Eucharistic Congresses were held, great graces abounded, and Catholics grew in their presence in the public sphere and participation in their communities at-large. Following World War II, they have continued every 5 years or so, with the next one being held in 2020 in Budapest.
Now we know some of the history of the Eucharistic Congress. But what exactly is a Eucharistic Congress, and what happens there? All of the Eucharistic Congresses have been marked by very large, public gatherings of Catholics. The events are typically too large to be held in a single church, so they are most often held outdoors or in a public arena. Common elements include a procession with the Eucharist in a public setting, a significant amount of time for Eucharistic Adoration, significant availability of the sacrament of reconciliation, talks and catechesis on important matters of faith, and a Holy Mass with the bishop or bishops with all in attendance. It is an opportunity for Catholics to bring those things which usually happen behind closed doors, in our small communities, out into the wide open with the larger community.
In addition to these International Congresses, it has become customary for national, regional, or diocesan Eucharistic Congresses to be called by local bishops and their conferences. Our nearby neighbors in New Orleans hosted the first National Congress, and the dioceses of St Augustine, Atlanta, and Knoxville all have Diocesan Eucharistic Congresses with some regularity.
Bishop Baker has asked that we begin to prepare for our own Eucharistic Congress to be held on June 28-29, 2019 at the BJCC. He has chosen the theme: The Eucharist and Missionary Discipleship. Over the course of the next year and a half, we should be considering our own personal discipleship, and how we can bring others to become disciples of Jesus, too. In the coming weeks, we will have several articles describing our upcoming Eucharistic Congress and how we can all prepare for this exciting event marking our 50th Anniversary as the Diocese of Birmingham.