Catholic conference could help heal Church wounds
Alf McCreary sets the scene for next year's 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin
The Irish Catholic Church has been embroiled in so many bad headlines recently that there was an almost audible sigh of relief among the faithful at last week's announcement of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress which will be held in Dublin in June 2012.
There will a series of cultural and liturgical events centred on the RDS in Dublin, where thousands will take part in workshops, seminars and celebrations of the Eucharist.
An estimated 80,000 pilgrims will attend the week-long programme of events, culminating in a huge open-air Mass at Croke Park. This has already led to suggestions that the Pope may preside at the closing ceremony.
However, this possibility was quickly played down when the Congress was formally announced in Dublin by the Catholic Primate, Cardinal Brady, and the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Dairmuid Martin.
Archbishop Martin said firmly: "This is not a Congress about whether the Pope comes or not, it is part of the process of renewal. If the Pope does not come, the process of renewal goes on." The first Eucharist Congress was held in 1881 under the Pontificate of Leo XIII and the purpose of the regular international gatherings is to celebrate the Catholic faith.
A Eucharistic Congress was last held in Dublin in 1932 and it underlined the theocratic nature of the new Free State.
Not surprisingly, the Dublin government and the Irish Catholic Church made major efforts to make sure that it was a great success. There was even an Act passed by the government specially for the event.
The ceremonies at the Congress were spearheaded by the special Papal Legate Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri and on the final day - June 26, 1932 - there was a live Papal broadcast from Rome to a huge audience at Phoenix Park. The 1932 Eucharistic Congress led to the establishment of Radio Athlone, which later developed into Radio Eireann. Overall, the Congress had an enormous public impact, which may be difficult to surpass next year.
This is partly because the world has changed beyond recognition since then and new technology has made international figures like the Pope familiar to everyone.
Since Pope Benedict became Pontiff, there has been talk of a visit to Ireland - and especially to the north, which was ruled out of bounds to John Paul II by the Troubles.
He has already been invited to Ireland and when he decreed in 2008 that the 50th Eucharistic Conference should take place in Dublin, this further indicated his high regard for the Irish Church. However, the torrent of bad publicity about clerical sex-abuse which has overwhelmed the Church since then may have made the Pope's advisers nervous of accepting any invitation to Ireland in the near future.
The caution of Archbishop Dairmuid Martin is, therefore, understandable, but he is also right to claim that the Congress could in itself be the focus for a renewal in the Irish Church.
Economically, it could also help to boost tourism at a time when Ireland needs all the visitors it can get. There is little doubt, however, that the shadow of clerical child-abuse will continue to linger long over the entire Irish Church.
If the Pope decides to come to Dublin, and therefore almost certainly to Northern Ireland as well, next year, it will be taken as a sign that he believes that the worst of the Irish sexual-abuse scandal is over.
On the other hand, the Vatican may yet decide that a specially-relayed message from the Pope, but not his presence in Ireland, is the best that the Irish Church can expect next year.