Tuesday, 1 July 2008

International Eucharistic Congress: you can meet some interesting people on a pilgrimage

There were times during the Congress - usually as the weather decided that it was going to pour down on us yet again, as it did with regularity and severity throughout the week - when the phrase "well, it is a pilgrimage" came resignedly to the lips. And part of being on a pilgrimage is that you can have some interesting encounters during the journey - regular visitors to Lourdes will probably be familiar with this experience.

I briefly met Fr Jean Picher, the priest who was the Secretary General for the Congress, as we registered at the beginning of the Congress. I realised I had missed a trick and decided that, if I saw him later in the week, I would give him a copy of the programme for our parish's Forty Hours Adoration (the theme was that of the Congress itself, and the sub-themes for each day were taken from the icons of the Ark of the New Covenant). I did get the chance to do this, and Father's response, slow and deliberate was: "I am glad to see that the English pray". It took me a few moments to think up a reply to this, and translate it into French: "We need to pray!".

On some days of the Congress I took part in the "ateliers d'approfondissement". These, in plain English, were the discussion groups on the themes of the catecheses - the French does sound more elegant, though. One lady in the group I was in is active in a parish in central Canada. During the discussions she started talking about work she does with children who have made their First Communion, trying to get them to come to Eucharistic Adoration. In other words, out of some 10 000+ Congress participants, I had ended up sat next to a lady who does exactly the same sort of thing with Adoration for children and families in her parish that I do in my own parish! A couple of others in the group had travelled from Vancouver to Quebec for the Congress - which is pretty much the same distance as from London to Quebec. What impressed me, though, was that they had taken that much trouble to travel to the Congress even when they were not able to stay for the whole week, needing to return home on the Thursday to be back at work on the Friday.

Our lunches were packed lunches that we collected from tents as we left the Congress Mass each day. Congress participants were then encouraged to scatter across the site of the conference venue to a number of different tents where there were tables and chairs to eat your lunch. [We did adopt the strategy of having emergency rations with us, as on one or two days the contents of the packed lunch were a little "unusual".] Each tent was named after an apostle - to help with setting up meeting points. On the Tuesday I ended up spending the second part of my lunch talking with a lady and a priest from a Ukranian Byzantine Rite diocese in Canada. There are five Ukrainian dioceses (in communion with the Pope, and celebrating the Liturgy according to the Byzantine Rite) in Canada. It was interesting to learn about how these communities first came to Canada around the turn of the 20th century, at a time when there was a great move to develop the agricultural potential of central and western Canada, a development made possible by the growth of railways. So central/Western Canada is where they settled, as farmers. The lady I was speaking to has kept the farm her parents owned as a kind of memorial/tribute to them, though she does not farm the land. By the time we got to the end of the conversation, I had worked out that the priest was in fact the Bishop of the diocese ... The following day, the Congress Mass was celebrated in the Byzantine Rite, apparently the first time the Byzantine Rite dioceses had celebrated in this way for a major Catholic event, and they were very enthusiastic about having the opportunity to do so.

I had a couple of conversations with people about Tony Blair, who seemed to be viewed quite favourably by Canadians, partly as a result, I think, of a rosy view of his reception into the Catholic church. I tried my best to disperse the aura of sanctity which seemed to surround him - it got a bit tricky trying to explain, in French, that fund raising for Stonewall wasn't a very Catholic thing to be doing.

At the beginning of the closing Mass, because I was near the front to do a reading, I was within 10 m or so of the dignitaries. The chief among these was the Governor General of Canada - "the representative of our Queen - and your Queen - in Canada" as one of the team looking after the readers put it to me. I am afraid I rather suffer from severe indifference towards the monarchy as an influence for good in our society, so I was quite surprised by this strong sense of the position of the Queen in relation to Canada and to me. Sadly, my relative indifference probably communicated itself to the priest who said this to me.

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