Sunday was the finale for the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, with events shifting to Croke Park, an historic stadium in Dublin, most accustomed to hosting Gaelic football sporting matches. For one day, the stadium was converted into a global parish, with advertisements around the structure replaced with the names of Irish parishes.
Presiding at the closing Mass of the IEC was Papal Legate, Marc Cardinal Ouellet. Some will recall the final Eucharistic celebration in Quebec City four years ago at the end of the IEC there, with one of the most rain-drenched celebrations in recent memory. Given the on/off rain experienced throughout the week in Dublin, many of our Archdiocese of Toronto pilgrims quickly reminded others, "the weather can't be worse than Quebec City."
They were right. While there was an intermittent sprinkle here and there, the sun did peek out from time to time and everyone made it through without a soaking.
An estimated 80,000 were in attendance for the final Mass, a great showing by the local Irish church as many weren't exactly sure what kind of turnout to expect given the difficult last few years for the Catholic community in the country. It seems that the momentum and positive spirit from the days leading up to the final Mass prompted many to make the trek.
As it was throughout the week and again on Sunday, music continues to shine and will likely be one of the lasting memories from Dublin's IEC. A closing ceremony televised throughout the country and around the world consisted of numerous musical acts including the Irish Tenors and recording artists "The Priests" among others singing classics like How Great Thou Art, Panis Angelicus and King of Kings to name a few.
The closing ceremonies also featured a number of short interviews, essentially personal witness stories with young adults speaking about their faith. One particularly powerful reflection was given by a young Irish woman who was struck by a car while attending World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain last summer. The driver went through a red light, seriously injuring her and leaving her wheelchair bound for the past year. She spoke of the accident being a "blessing" and how it had provided the opportunity to reflect on the important things in life, share her faith through her story and re-energize her commitment to the church.
In his homily, Cardinal Ouellet reflected on how we can extend the experience of a week of meditation on the Eucharist into our own communities:
"After this week of Eucharistic reflection, celebration and adoration, we are certainly more aware of God’s call to communion with Him and with one another.
Let us bear witness to this grace by calling others to faith in this communion. The Irish bell, which resounds from Lough Derg, from Knock and Dublin, must resound in the whole world. Let’s ring the bell further through our personal testimony of renewed faith in the Holy Eucharist.
Faith is the most precious gift we have received with Baptism. Let’s not keep it private and fearful! Let it grow as a splendid tree through sharing everywhere!"
The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, also offered a pre-recorded message to pilgrims before the final blessing, encouraging more active participation in both the liturgy and life outside the church in evangelizing those we encounter.
"The Eucharist is the worship of the whole Church, but it also requires the full engagement of each individual Christian in the Church’s mission; it contains a call to be the holy people of God, but also one to individual holiness; it is to be celebrated with great joy and simplicity, but also as worthily and reverently as possible; it invites us to repent of our sins, but also to forgive our brothers and sisters; it binds us together in the Spirit, but it also commands us in the same Spirit to bring the good news of salvation to others."
The full text and video of the Holy Father's message can be found via the Salt + Light blog here.
The Pope also announced that the next International Eucharistic Congress will take place in 2016 in the Philippines. While the country was not a surprise, the diocese was. The event will be moving to the Archdiocese of Cebu, not Manilla which had been predicted by many. Either way, get ready as no doubt the Philippines will have all hands on deck in preparing for the next IEC and there will be plenty of local participation. If anyone recalls 4 million pilgrims in Manila for World Youth Day 1995, that should serve as a reminder that the community is engaged and ready to go.
The Archdiocese of Cebu has 3.8 million Catholics and 144 parishes so plenty of resources to draw on as they prepare for 2016.
80,000 pilgrims making their way out of Mass was actually quite civilized with our contingent walking collectively back to our buses in about 45 minutes, a far cry from World Youth Day like crowds that can turn into a nightmare when one wants to stay connected to a group of 100 or so.
We wrapped up the day with a final meal together, Archdiocesan pilgrims sharing the fruits and blessings of the week. We were joined by some special guests, including Fr. Kevin Doran, Secretary General of the IEC 2012, who could have been anywhere after years of planning the culmination of his team's efforts - we were blessed to have him with us for our final banquet.
We also welcomed Archbishop Albert Legatt, National Delegate from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as Canadian Ambassador to Ireland, Loyola Hearn, who shared some kind words of welcome and gratitude for the large Canadian delegation at the IEC this week.
Finally, Cardinal Collins also had the chance to break bread with about 6 relatives from his hometown of Drogheda, a short ride from Dublin and a wonderful opportunity to connect to his roots while in Ireland.
Monday morning, half the delegation departed for their post-congress tour while the other half will return to Toronto on Tuesday.
These days in Dublin have been blessed for many reasons: the chance to grow with one another in community, reflect on the Eucharist and its role in our own life and also to stand in solidarity with Ireland, a country going through a renewal of sorts as it relates to faith.
Whether it's emotional, physical or spiritual struggles, it's one thing to hear about the challenges but another to walk together with one suffering. We heard a lot of stories this week. Yet one of the stark reminders a Eucharistic Congress can offer is that it's about relationship: with God, ourselves and one another. The most precious gift we can give to others and even, at times, ourselves is time. To be truly present to a friend suffering, to listen to a complete stranger tell their story, to offer time to God in prayer and thanksgiving - yet in a world that suggests our success may lie more in what we can accumulate - riches, possessions, status, etc. giving time to one another tends to go against the grain.
So yes, it went against the grain to carry a sign saying "Archdiocese of Toronto" all week and advertise our faith on the bus, train and in our conversations and interactions. It may have gone against the grain to chat with strangers that we'll never see again, to say thank you to people for showing you the way, to smile and wave as a horn honked to acknowledge the Canadian flag. It went against the grain to pray publicly at an airport before boarding yet somehow all of these made us happier, more fulfilled, more human, more church.
We don't need a Eucharistic Congress to adopt this attitude of gratitude. As we pledged four years ago in Quebec City, we start anew with our personal renewal, we recharge the batteries and we remind ourselves, that in these blessed days of pilgrimage, God is calling us to be that public witness not just for a week in Ireland but every day.
When we return to Canada, disembark from our flights and have a custom officer ask, "What do you have to declare?", we will probably say "some clothes, a few souvenirs, etc." But what we really should be saying is, "We declare that God is good, we are blessed and that we're here to change the world."