By Dr Gillian Doherty
The 31st Eucharistic Congress held in Dublin (22- 26 June 1932) was one of the largest of the twentieth century and a defining moment in Irish history. The inaugural congress was in Lille, France, in 1881, and subsequent congresses were held biannually, typically attracting hundreds of thousands of people from the host countries, and drawing distinguished clergy from across the world, as well as the attention of the national and international media. The Dublin congress marked the 1500th anniversary of St Patrick’s arrival in Ireland, and was a jubilant celebration of its Christian heritage. It was a moment of immense pride in national identity, and loyal identification with the universal Catholic Church. Among the visiting dignitaries were an impressive number of Bishops and Archbishops serving in dioceses in America, Australia and elsewhere who were either Irish-born or of Irish descent.
The planning and organisation of the Irish congress were a resounding success and demonstrated strikingly how the newly-independent state had come of age on the world stage. Preparations on the spiritual side were equally noteworthy, and included retreats, special services, and a ‘Crusade of Prayer’. More than 20,000 volunteers and 4,000 Boy Scouts worked tirelessly to ensure that events ran smoothly and that pilgrims were looked after. Schools, town halls and libraries were commandeered to provide accommodation to visitors. In spite of widespread unemployment and poverty, people throughout Dublin and beyond bedecked their houses and streets beautifully with flowers, banners and flags, and participated with such profound joy and reverence that it left an unforgettable impression on those who participated.
International visitors described the scenes of mass participation as unparalleled. Free State airplanes flying in the form of the Cross greeted the Papal Legate Cardinal Lauri on his arrival in Dún Laoghaire, and a squadron of specially-uniformed cavalry escorted him to the to the Pro Cathedral where he opened the congress. 36,000 school children lined the 9-mile route, waving and cheering. Cardinal Lauri was formally welcomed at a state reception in Dublin Castle but the Congress very much belonged to the ordinary people who participated in their tens of thousands. Those who had fought on opposite sides in the Civil War less than 10 years earlier worked together to make the congress a success, and it was widely seen as helping to heal divisions.
Modern technology was used to great effect to add to the ceremonies. Skywriting over Dublin on the opening night projected the words in light — Laudamus, Glorificamus Adoramus (we praise, we glorify, we adore) – on the night sky. A public-address system (the largest in the world) was installed to ensure that the population of Dublin could hear Mass and Benediction wherever they were: one commentator compared the city to an open-air Cathedral. The national radio service broadcast the ceremonies so that people throughout the country could also hear the proceedings.
The highlight of the congress was the Pontifical High Mass in the Phoenix Park, attended by more than one million people (one quarter of the population), which featured a live broadcast from the Vatican by Pope Pius XI. Count John McCormack, the world-renowned Irish tenor, sang Panis Angelicus, an incredibly poignant memory for those who attended or listened to the radio broadcast. During the Consecration, army officers raised their ceremonial swords, followed by the tolling of an ancient bell associated with St Patrick (borrowed from the National Museum). After Holy Mass, half a million people processed to O’Connell Bridge for the final blessing. Cardinal Lauri later described the congress as the most moving experience of his life, witnessing an entire nation offering “a plebiscite of love for the Blessed Eucharist, a plebiscite of devotion to the vicar of Christ.” In reflecting on the legacy of the Eucharistic Congress of 1932, and looking forward to the forthcoming World Meeting of Families, we pray that the gathering will afford similar blessings on those who attend, and will be remembered fondly for generations to come.