What is a Eucharistic Congress?

Poster from Chica­go IEC

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.

This arti­cle first appeared in the One Voice

More info on history:

From the Vatican 

From the IEC 2020 Hun­gary Site

His­tor­i­cal Images from IEC’s:

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