Congress a celebration of eternal life

  • June 24, 2008

{mosimage}QUEBEC CITY - It seemed fitting that the week-long International Eucharistic Congress ended on a battle field. Some 55,000 people celebrated “God's gift for the life of the world” in a Mass where, almost 250 years ago, British and French soldiers shot each other down.

Instead of a memorial to death, the high plateau known as the Plains of Abraham became a celebration of eternal life.

The entire 49th Congress, which ran July 15-22, continually posed such contrasting images.

Through the 400-year-old streets of one of North America's most secularized societies, about 25,000 pilgrims paraded with the Blessed Sacrament in an evening, candle-lit procession on June 19. It was one of the most vivid displays of religious fervour seen in Quebec in half a century.

At a time when the Catholic Church is lamenting an aging and declining priesthood, 12 young men were ordained on July 20 in a three-hour liturgy marked by tears, cheers and standing ovations.

{mosimage}Cardinal Marc Ouellet, archbishop of Quebec City and chair of the Congress, described the ordination as “the turning point” in a renewal of the church in Quebec.

In the safety of a coliseum on the Expo City site where the events of the Congress unfolded, the 12,000 or so pilgrims heard harrowing stories of courage in the face of death. They listened to Burundian woman Marguerite Barankitse, who almost lost her life trying to save Hutus people from her own tribesmen, the Tutsis, during a civil war.

"It was on Oct. 24, 1993, that my vocation was born," said Barankitse, in her late 30s at the time. Tutsi rebels raided the building and ordered her to hand over the Hutus in her care at a refuge she had established for war victims. She refused, saying: "I am a Christian before I am a Tutsi." The Tutsi rebels tied her up, set the building ablaze, and proceeded to execute 72 Hutus.

She managed to free herself and save 25 children from the burning building.

And they listened to Pope Benedict XVI, in a live satellite homily from the Vatican to the closing Mass, urge them to deepen their understanding of the Eucharist “so as to bear witness courageously to the mystery.”

The Pope said the Eucharist does not separate Catholics from their contemporaries, but, as the supreme gift of God’s love, calls them to make the world a better place.

“We must not cease to fight so that every person is respected from conception to natural death, that our rich societies welcome the poorest and restore their dignity, that every person can live and feed his family, and that peace and justice radiate on all continents,” he said.

The Congress offered a rich cornucopia of spiritual food throughout the week.

There were the daily catecheses, each featuring teachings from prominent cardinals or prelates from around the world.

These were followed by powerful witness talks from notable Catholics. Besides Barankitse, there was Canada's Jean Vanier, who noted that the poor and the marginalized are crying out for love and relationships, not just generosity and ideas.

{mosimage}The founder of l'Arche, a global network of communities for people with developmental disabilities, said June 16 that Christians are called to be like Jesus, with their hearts open to all the poor and disadvantaged.

There were chapels and churches throughout the city where continual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament took place. Pilgrims knelt before the sacrament at all hours of the day and night, keeping silent vigil.

The Congress was the latest in a series that began in France in 1881. They take place every four years and bring together laity and clergy from around the world to worship, pray and learn about their faith with a focus on the Eucharist.

The next Congress will take place in 2012 in Dublin, Ireland, the Pope announced in his homily at the closing Mass.

A Eucharistic Congress "allows us to encounter" questions about modern existence and "examine the meaning of our life and death," said Cardinal Jozef Tomko, papal legate to the Congress, at the opening ceremonies June 15.

"What does it mean to be the gift of God" and what is the Eucharist, he asked, referring to the theme of the Congress, "The Eucharist, Gift of God for the Life of the World."

Jesus is the gift of God, He "is the food that feeds us and fulfils us and allows us life in eternity," said Tomko.

{mosimage}"The Eucharist is a person, not an object, not a dead gift. Maybe we should ask not what is the Eucharist, but who is the Eucharist?"

In Quebec City, among the pilgrims from 80 countries were 1,500 priests, 250 bishops and 40 cardinals. Their presence gave the event a decidedly Roman flavour, especially as almost every liturgy mixed in a generous dollop of Latin with the vernacular of the day - either French, English or Spanish.

This congress also had a youthful atmosphere. There was a special hall to highlight the contributions and needs of youth - “Espace jeunesse,” it was called. And on June 21, there was a youth vigil featuring high-energy music and testimonials.

Cardinal Ouellet, noting the ordinations the night before, told the gathered youth that, “young people are rising to rebuild a Eucharistic culture for youth and for the culture of Quebec.”

A Eucharistic culture includes love, fraternity, respect and openness to life and hope, he explained.

“I call you to stand up and to promote this culture for Quebec and Canada,” he said, also followed by roaring applause.

The youth rally included a taped message from Pope Benedict. He assured the pilgrims of his prayers and encouraged them to meditate on this great mystery of faith (the Eucharist). The Eucharist allows believers to relive the sacrifice of Jesus through which He saves the world. It is also nourishment for everyday life.

“Allow yourselves to be transformed and to be bearers of peace and of his message of love,” the Pope said.

{mosimage}To prepare their souls for receiving the Eucharist, on June 19, the exposition grounds for the Congress were turned into a “City of Forgiveness.” A special prayer liturgy, led by Cardinal Claudio Hummes, prefect for the Congregation for the Clergy, included a moving dramatization of the story of the Prodigal Son, written and directed by Montreal Fr. Robert Gendron.

Afterwards, hundreds of priests heard Confessions and gave absolution for sins at various locations.

There was even an ecumenical dimension to the Congress. On June 18, a group of other Christian leaders were invited to address the Congress at a small session.

The Rev. James Christie, a minister for the United Church of Canada with years of experience in ecumenism, said he was humbled to be invited to the congress to offer a Protestant perspective of shared Communion. Cardinal Peter Turkson of Cape Coast, Ghana, provided the Catholic perspective, while Anglicans and the Greek Orthodox Church were also represented.

But despite their agreement in many areas, Christians "are hardly yet able to speak of a common table" when it comes to Communion, said Christie, who is also the Canadian Council of Churches president.

{mosimage}The Congress also bore concrete fruit for those in need. The Congress donated $162,000 to the Cardinal Marc Ouellet Foundation, which helps immigrants and refugees to make their way in Canadian society. This was accompanied by another $50,000 anonymous donation.

While there was some criticism in mainstream media of the convention, especially over its emphasis on piety, most pilgrims were pleased with the week.

“To be honest with you, I didn't want to come,” said Georgette Helen of St. Dunstan's parish in Toronto. “But since I've been here it's touched me, it's moved me.”

Victoria Coyle of Brantford, Ont., was impressed by the diversity of languages and races represented.

“Seeing different parishes from all over the world come together to share our faith - it's like a new light is shining,” she said.

Cody Gabrielson, a 23-year-old from Winnipeg, Man., said he was drawn to the Congress because he has a “really deep love for the Eucharist.”

Gabrielson said he the Congress impressed upon him “that there's a deeper unity among Catholics” than he originally thought.

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