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THE EUCHARISTIC CONGRESS 1932.
Eucharistic Congresses have been taking place since the late nineteenth century. The 1910 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia describes a Eucharistic congress as gatherings of ecclesiastics and laymen for the purpose of celebrating and glorifying the Holy Eucharist and of seeking the best means to spread its knowledge and love throughout the world.
The first took place in Lille in France and was the inspiration of a devout French woman, Marie Tamisier. Originally the format consisted of public meetings in honour of the Blessed Sacrament that later took the form of pilgrimages to Eucharistic shrines. By 1874 the movement had taken shape in the form of international gatherings and received approval from Pope Leo XIII in 1878. Increasingly international, the first held in an English speaking country was in London in 1908. This congress was marred by the decision to dispense with the procession through the streets of London as a result of pressure from the British government who feared the ire of ultra Protestant groups. The congresses were suspended during World War One but resumed in Rome in 1922. The first discussions about the hosting of a Congress in Ireland took place during the Chicago Congress in 1926. At a meeting later that year in Ireland the Irish bishops decided to forward a bid to the International Committee. They announced their acceptance of the proposal in 1929. This was a significant date in Irish Catholic history as it marked one hundred years since Catholic Emancipation in 1829. The celebrations for this event proved to be a dress rehearsal in some ways for the Congress. Events were held over several days, including public lectures, a garden party in Blackrock College, a Mass attended by half a million people in the Phoenix Park and a procession of the Blessed Sacrament from the Phoenix Park to the city centre. Whereas the emancipation celebrations commemorated a political act secured by the Irish people under the great Daniel O’ Connell, the Congress was seen as a mainly spiritual occasion designed to increase devotion among Irish Catholics. It was also very much seen as an opportunity for Irish Catholics to proudly show the world its religious and national identity. The Congress envisioned was to be the largest one to date. It was an extraordinary undertaking for such a small and impoverished country. As with the case of this year’s congress the Archbishop of Dublin was its official sponsor. The archbishop, Edward Byrne, appointed Fr. David Molony as its secretary and Frank O’ Reilly, a native of Drogheda, as Director of Organisation. O’ Reilly had shown his incredible organizational skills in the emancipation celebrations and it was he who co-ordinated everything on a practical level. The Cumann na nGaedheal government and its Fianna Fail successor were sympathetic but neither were particularly generous with financial aid. O’ Reilly’s request that the government should pay for the amplification in the Phoenix Park was turned down and the government demanded that the organizing committee pay for the dye used for the commemoration stamp. Their request was refused!
The Cumann na nGaedheal government was adamant that other than providing the army for stewarding the furthest it would go would be to receive the Papal Legate with full honours and provide him with a state reception. The new Fianna Fail government did extend this by deciding to provide the legate with a new honor guard of army horsemen known as the Blue Hussars
and charter a special boat and train to convey him to London after the congress. The Blue Hussars
were to prove immensely popular and continued in existence until 1948 when horses were replaced with motorcyclists. They also decided to fast track the building of the new radio station in Athlone that would enable the broadcasting of the congress across Europe. This was a expression of Irish independence in the sense that otherwise the broadcasting would have to be done through a radio station in Daventry, England. A striking feature of the Congress celebrations was the decorations erected in every street in Dublin. All the great buildings were floodlit and decorated with flowers. Every street, laneway and tenement vied to erect the finest bunting, garlands, banners, floral arrangements grottos, shrines and religious iconography. This was mirrored throughout every town and village in the country. As Dublin was ostensibly chosen to mark the 1500th anniversary of St. Patrick’s evangelizing mission, early Christian Ireland was a recurring proud theme of the decorations. A replica round tower for example was erected at College Green. The official crest and medal of the Congress was based on the Cross of Cong, considered to be the perfect example of Irish ecclesiastical art. Preparations for the Congress were nationwide in extent. A huge prayer drive was organized with thousand participating in special retreats and services for the success of the Congress. Archbishop’s house in Dublin estimated that over 20 million Masses were said; forty million visits to the Blessed Sacrament were made, eleven and a half million Stations of the Cross; thirty eight million acts of self denial and one hundred and fourteen million other spiritual acts were performed! At the request of the committee various business firms gave generously to the Congress including £1000 by Arthur Guinness and Co. and national collections were held to defray the costs. The cost of organizing the Congress came to some £77,926 and it eventually made a surplus of £5500, not including the costs borne by the State. It did impact very positively on the economy as it was estimated that some £5 million was spent in the country during the Congress. The Congress served to highlight the remarkable number of Irish bishops serving the church throughout the world at the time. Among those who participated in the Congress was Michael Kelly the archbishop of Sydney, who was born in Waterford. Cardinal Hayes, the archbishop of New York visited his mother’s birthplace of Killarney during his visit. Cardinal O Connell of Boston visited Virginia, the birthplace of his parents. Both of the parents of Cardinal Dougherty, archbishop of Philadelphia were from Mayo and the archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Bourne also had an Irish mother. John Glennon, archbishop of St. Louis and a future cardinal was a native of Kinnegad, Co. Westmeath and Michael Curley, the archbishop of Baltimore was from Athlone. Irish missionary bishops working in Africa attended,
including Joseph Shanahan and Thomas Broderick. Another, John Heffernan was consecrated as a bishop for modern Tanzania just three days before the Congress in Blackrock College, which he had attended along with his school friend, Eamon de Valera. Non Irish ecclesiastical visitors along with the Papal Legate Cardinal Lauri, included the primate of Poland, Cardinal Hlond; the archbishop of Malines in Belgium, Cardinal Van Roey; the archbishop of Palermo, Cardianl Lavitrano; the archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Verdier; and the primate of Holland, archbishop Jansen. In total, the Congress was attended by nine Cardinals; thirty-seven archbishops; almost one hundred and fifty bishops; eighteen abbots; and four congregational superior generals. One of the most striking visitors was Fr. Philip Gordon of the Chippewa Tribe in Wisconsin who travelled everywhere wearing his ceremonial Indian headdress. Other exotic-looking churchmen included clergy of the Eastern Rite who came from Greece, Cyprus and elsewhere with their elaborate Orthodox and Coptic vestments. Although the Congress officially took place over five days it was legally designated as commencing on 20 June and ending on 3 July, the length of the Papal Legate’s visit, by a special Act passed in the Dail. This was a remarkable piece of legislation that introduced special traffic control arrangements, and exemptions for hotels and restaurants in Dublin. It permitted the use of unlicensed vehicles on public roads and permitted persons to drive without driving licenses during the Congress period as it was designated. To cater for the huge number of visitors from the country as a whole a huge increase in trains and buses was organized. Large camps were erected in Cabra and Artane to accommodate visitors from the country, along with emergency shelters in national schools, town halls and even libraries. Dubliners were encouraged to put up as many people as possible from the country. Leaflets were printed with a picture of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in Bethlehem with the caption You will not refuse.
Mattresses were produced on a large scale for Dublin homes giving shelter to relatives and friends. For many of the foreign visitors, the twelve liners on which they arrived became floating hotels. In all fifty five ships were berthed at the quays during the Congress. The Papal Legate Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri arrived in Ireland along with a Pontifical mission on 20 June. He was greeted by the Archbishop of Dublin and President de Valera amid full state honours and given a huge enthusiastic welcome by immense crowds in Dun Laoghaire, the Pro-Cathedral and at a garden party in Blackrock College. The four main public events of the Congress took place in the Phoenix Park. There was a gathering of men, some 250,000 of them – the Mass Meeting of Men on 23 June. The women had a similar gathering on the next day. Both occasions consisted of hymn singing, prayers, lectures and finally benediction performed by the Papal Legate. On Saturday 25 June there was a special Mass for over 100,000 children, mostly dressed in white, many of the girls in wreaths and veils. The highlight of the Congress was the Pontifical High Mass on Sunday 26 June. The Mass was celebrated by Archbishop Curley of Baltimore and
presided over by the Papal Legate. Pope Pius XI made a live radio address just before the final blessing. The choir was some 2000 strong and the internationally renowned Irish tenor, John McCormack, a papal count since 1928, sang Panis Angelicus.
It was said that he never sang more soulfully or with more beauty of tone. The public address system used was the largest ever installed anywhere in the world up to that time. It covered not only the park but also fifteen miles of Dublin’s streets. After an interval of a half hour, the Mass was followed by a procession of the Blessed Sacrament from the park to the city centre. It was borne on a movable platform with a chair and kneeler for the Legate. Distinguished laymen, including President de Valera, William Cosgrave, the Lord Mayors of Dublin and Cork, and the Chief Justice acted as canopy bearers. The altar of benediction was located on O’ Connell Bridge and was relocated to the grounds of Cappagh hospital after the Congress where it is still today. The whole ceremony concluded with the singing of the hymns Faith of our Fathers
and God bless our Pope.
After the Congress was officially over the Papal Legate undertook a tour of many parts of the country before leaving on a government commissioned boat and train for London on 3 July. On his departure he wrote the following to the Archbishop of Dublin, Edward Byrne. I shall never forget the unforgettably glorious days of this Eucharistic Congress…all have participated, all have co-operated to make this Congress a triumph, government and civic leaders, as well as ecclesiastical authorities, priests members of religious communities, men, women and children, have all united to make the Eucharistic Congress a plebiscite of love for the Blessed Eucharist, a plebiscite of devotion to the vicar of Christ.
The above article was written drawing on a number of sources but especially the following book: The Eucharistic Congress, Dublin, 1932 by Rory O’Dwyer.
Nonsuch Publishing, (Dublin, 2009). Beautifully illustrated with many contemporary photographs, it is well worth reading. Fr. Paul Connell, May 2012.
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