Lessons from History – the Eucharistic Congress
It has been 80 years of tumultuous change since the last Eucharistic Congress was held on these shores, way back in 1932. Ireland has a different visage, a new one with which to face the 21st century. The hegemonic power of the Catholic Church has been broken in Ireland, as has that of its bedfellow, Fianna Fáil. Secularism rather than religiosity is beginning to determine our course, as people look to themselves and others to guide their lives rather than to a higher power.
The Eucharistic Congress is a week-long event, organised by the Vatican every four years, sort of like an Olympics for the Catholic Church and its people, a gathering of clergy and the religious laity to celebrate the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. 12,000 devotees gathered at the opening ceremony at the RDS last Sunday, where events have been held over the course of the week, around 80,000 attending the conclusion at Croke Park. Of course this Congress has been somewhat tainted by the allegations and revelations concerning the priesthood and child sex abuse over the past number of years and amidst a general decline in faith among its once devoted members. Attendants come from all over the world to participate in the air of unity that the Congress brings to those who join; old and young, male and female, come to renew and strengthen their faith. The week-long celebration is over for another four years, and already the talk concerns the legacy of this year’s Congress; whether it is a new beginning for the Church in Ireland, moving towards the inclusion of a young population who feel alienated by the ceremony and rigour of Catholicism, and the disillusion over the scandals which have rocked the Church and its people.
Today, in the 21st century, outside of the Catholic Church at least, the proceedings are met with (outside of interested Catholics) either a polite interest of complete indifference. But roll back the clock 80 years and you would find a country practically quivering with anticipation, and for many different reasons. For in the life of the infant Free State and in particular the newly ruling Fianna Fáil party, the Eucharistic Congress had an indelible effect. Before Ireland’s independence came in 1922, the Catholic Church had grown quite powerful throughout Ireland. And, when the power and influence of the landlord class finally began to wane, the local priests took up the mantle of community leadership. Ordinary people were far less educated when compared to our time, and people would often look to their clerics for advice and guidance. And while the Catholic hierarchy had often been associated throughout Europe with the rich and the powerful, in Ireland the opposite was true; a priest was one of the ordinary people. Of course, it certainly didn’t hurt that the Church often supported the nationalist movements, barring the more violent ones, while their control over the education system ensured a generation of Irish who viewed Catholicism as more than simply their religion, but an innate part of their Irish identity. With independence came the support from the Church of the Free State, and they condemned the rebellion of the anti-Treatyites, and excommunicated them from the Church. As the years passed, Catholicism cemented its position in the new nation. A narrow vision of the events of the previous decades was propagated with citizens celebrated the freeing of a Catholic people from an oppressive Protestant state, ignoring the fact of the involvement of many Protestants in the nationalist movements. In 1929, elaborate centenary commemorations were organised to celebrate Daniel O’Connell and the achievement of Catholic Emancipation, and in the same year, the Pope finally agreed to send a papal nuncio to Dublin, and to receive in turn an Irish ambassador to the Vatican. Following the establishment of the Free State W.T. Cosgrave presided over the Irish helm, alongside a relatively neutral Cumann na nGaedhael government. Protestants were by no means discriminated against, and indeed many were promoted to positions to ensure the views of the Protestant minority were well represented. In 1932, Catholic bishops received a cause for apprehension with the succession to power of Éamon de Valera, one of those who had been condemned for his part in the Civil War a decade previous. However, they need not have worried as ‘Dev’, as he became known, and his Fianna Fáil government were strongly influenced by the Church and their teachings. Fortunately for the man from Clare, one of the perennial Catholic events of his time would be held only three months following his election, cementing his and his party’s place in Irish political history.
Overall, around one million attended the ceremonies that took place during the week in June of 1932. Following the concluding procession through the streets of Dublin, the papal legate, Cardinal Lauri, sent a telegram to the Pope, Pius XI, declaring that the Irish people were uttering the “cry which sums up the tradition, the faith, the very life of the whole nation: God Bless the Pope.” Dublin’s Congress and its success were very clearly appreciated at the Vatican and the official state newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano featured a favourable account of the week’s events. “Everyone is at his post from the Bishop to the clerical student, from the President of the State to the policeman on the street…It is really nothing short of miraculous – for here we see, after a century and a half of attempted laicisation, an entire people proud of its name, but prouder still of its Roman religion.” Triumphalism has been the word used by historians to describe the display of power on the part of the Catholic Church during the Congress and here was clear evidence that the Irish Free State was a Catholic state, and proud of it. Even at the local level, ordinary people were as much a part as the clerics and politicians at the top. Masses of bunting were strung up across the country, and groups and choirs practised and rehearsed for a year to ensure perfection, culminating in the enormous attendance at the week’s events. One can only imagine how the exclusionary feeling of anyone who had the misfortune to belong to another religion, or to none at all. It is hardly surprising that between this power and their already close-knit relationship with the Irish people, the Catholic Church ensured its hegemonic position in the country for decades to come.
But the good news wasn’t solely for the Catholic Church; in the political arena too were the benefits felt. Despite having been excommunicated for his anti-Treaty Republican activities during the Civil War, de Valera had remained a good Catholic, and had retained friendships with various figures throughout the Catholic hierarchy in the country. An impressive speech given in English, Irish and Latin during the state reception for the papal legate at Dublin Castle benefitted his image favourably, and he kept a high-profile throughout the week’s events. Eventually this helped to win him political appeal and when he called an election six months following the Congress, he was able to transform his minority government into a majority, and he remained in office until 1948 while his party was the largest at each general election from that of 1932 until 2011.
On the more negative spectrum, partition between North and South was further entrenched, and it is easy to see why, contrasting the Catholic Free State with the more traditional Protestant Northern Ireland who had fought for so long to ensure the Papists never gained a foothold in their own country. Some Catholics travelling from North to South were the victims of sectarian attacks, perpetrated by loyalist mobs. For Protestant Ulster, the lavish celebrations commemorated an alien religion; they who elevated individual choice and a personal relationship with God above all. The events in Dublin showed a radically different outlook in the Free State, with a high value placed on community and access to God through the clerical hierarchy. While reports from 1932 suggested that Ireland had never been more unified than during those six days, the reality is that the split between North and South was possibly starker than ever before.
Some 300 people who witnessed the events of 1932 gathered this week in a hotel outside Dublin to reminisce over archive footage of the events which helped to define a generation. Now 92 Liam Cosgrave, son of de Valera’s predecessor W.T. Cosgrave, recalled the celebrations with pride. “It was important for the State that we could do it and do it well,” he said. “It meant an awful lot to the country,” he said. “Remember we were only 10 years with self-government. There was a great turnout of Army and Garda and helpers. It was very well organised.” The effects of the 2012 Congress will unlikely be as far-reaching, considering we live in a nation attempting, to an extent, to shrug off its Catholic past. Machiavelli wrote “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times.” In 2012, we are only now shaking off the legacy of the Catholic Church and the power Fianna Fáil held onto for so long. Hopefully, we don’t make the same mistake twice.