Eucharistic Congresses are gatherings of ecclesiastics and laymen for the purpose of celebrating and glorifying the Holy Eucharist and of seeking the best means to spread its knowledge and love throughout the world. The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is one of the principal dogmas of the Catholic Faith and is therefore of paramount importance as the most precious treasure that Christ has left to His Church as the center of Catholic worship and as the source of Christian piety. The main advantages of these congresses have been in the concentration of the thoughts of the faithful upon the mystery of the altar, and in making known to them the means by which devotion towards the Holy Eucharist may be promoted and implanted in the hearts of the people. The promoters of Eucharistic congresses believe that, if during recent years devotion to the Holy Eucharist has become more widespread, if works of adoration, Confraternities of the Blessed Sacrament, and the practice of frequent Communion have spread rapidly and extensively, it must be ascribed in great part to these gatherings.
The first congress owed its inspiration to Bishop Gaston de Ségur, and was held at Lille, France, June 21, 1881. The idea at first was merely local and met with few adherents, but it grew from year to year with an ever-increasing importance. The second gathering was at Avignon, in 1882, and the third at Liège, in the following year. When from the 9th to the 13th of September, 1885, the fourth congress met at Fribourg in Switzerland, under the presidency of the famous Msgr. Mermillod, Bishop of Lausanne and Geneva, his influence and example drew to the platform members of the Cantonal Government, officials of the municipality of Fribourg, officers of the army, judges of the courts, while thousands of Catholics from all over Europe joined in the formal procession. Toulouse, in the South of France, was the place of meeting of the fifth congress, from the 20th to the 25th of June, 1886, and about 1500 ecclesiastics and 30,000 laymen were present at the closing exercises.
The sixth congress met in Paris, 2-July 6, 1888, and the great memorial church of the Sacred Heart on Monmartre was the center of the proceedings. Antwerp, in Belgium, entertained the next congress, 15-August 21, 1890; an immense altar of repose was erected in the Place de Meir, and it was estimated that 150,000 persons were gathered about it when Cardinal Goossens, Archbishop of Mechlin, gave the solemn Benediction. Bishop Doutreloux of Liège was then president of the Permanent Committee for the Organization of Eucharistic Congresses, the body which has charge of the details of these meetings.
Special importance was attached to the eighth congress, which went to Jerusalem to hold its sessions from the 14th to the 21st of May, 1893. Pope Leo XIII sent as legate Cardinal Langenieux, Archbishop of Reims. Here the reunion of the Orient was advocated, and an adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was preached on the very spot where tradition says the Agony in the Garden took place. Next year the congress was held at Reims, July 25-29, and the different churches of the East were largely represented. A place was given in the deliberations for the first time to the study of social questions affecting the working classes. Paray-le-Monial, the city of the Sacred Heart, 20-September 24, 1897, was the scene of the tenth congress; and the eleventh, the best organized and most numerously attended of the series, met at Brussels, 13-July 17, 1898. Cardinal Langenieux was again the pope’s legate at the twelfth congress which had Lourdes, the city of Eucharistic miracles, as its meeting place, 7-August 11, 1899. This gathering was notable for the number of priests who took part in the procession. When the thirteenth congress met at Angers, 4-September 8, 1901, a special section was formed for young men to read and discuss papers having reference to such works as young men ought to undertake for the promotion of devotion to the Holy Eucharist and the solution of social questions. Namur, Belgium, 3-September 7, 1902, was chosen as the location for the fourteenth congress, and the fifteenth, 20-July 24, 1904, went to Angouleme, where the operations of French law forbade the usual procession of the Blessed Sacrament.
Pope Pius X having expressed a wish that the Eucharistic Congress should be held in Rome, the delegates met there, 1-June 6, 1905. He added to the solemnity of the occasion by celebrating Mass, at the opening of the sessions, by giving a special audience to the delegates, and by being present at the procession that closed the proceedings. It was the dawn of the movement that led to his decree, “Tridentina Synodus”, December 20, 1905, advising daily communions.
Tournai, in Belgium, saw the seventeenth congress, 15-August 19, 1906; and the next one went to Metz, in Lorraine, 7-August 11, 1907. Cardinal Vincenzo Vannutelli was the pope’s legate, and the German Government suspended the law of 1870, forbidding processions, in order that the usual solemn procession of the Blessed Sacrament might be held. Each year the congress had become more and more definitely international, and at the invitation of Archbishop Bourne of Westminster it was decided to hold the nineteenth congress in London, the first under the auspices of, and among, English-speaking members of the Church.
In addition to these general congresses there had also grown up, in all countries where Catholics were numerous, local gatherings of the Eucharistic leagues which were potent factors in the spread of the devotion. These were held in France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Italy, England, Canada, Australia, and the United States. The first of these in the United States was at St. Louis, in September, 1901; the second at New York, in 1905; and the third at Pittsburg, in 1907. The presidents of the Permanent Committee of the International Eucharistic Congresses, under whose direction all this progress was made were: Bishop Gaston de Ségur, of Lille; Archbishop de La Bouillerie, titular of Perga and coadjutor of Bordeaux; Archbishop Duquesnay of Cambrai; Cardinal Mermillod, Bishop of Lausanne and Geneva; Bishop Doutreloux of Liège, and Bishop Thomas Heylen of Namur, Belgium. After each congress this committee prepared and published a volume giving a report of all the papers read and the discussions on them in the various sections of the meeting, the sermons preached, the addresses made at the public meetings, and the details of all that transpired.
As the most representative and important of all the congresses, the whole Catholic world was at once interested in the nineteenth, which was held in London, 9-September 13, 1908, and regarded as the greatest religious triumph of its generation. In an affectionate letter voicing anew his interest in these congresses, the pope once more designated Cardinal Vincenzo Vannutelli as his legate to attend the sessions. More than three hundred and fifty years had elapsed since a legate from the pope had been seen in England. With him were six other cardinals, fourteen archbishops, seventy bishops and a host of priests. No such gathering of ecclesiastics had ever been seen outside of Rome in modern times, and English Catholics prepared to make it locally even more memorable. The seeds of “the Second Spring”, one of them aptly said, awakened by the tears and blood of persecution, and strengthened by the prayers of the remnant of the faithful in the dreary years of the penal laws, bore flower and fruit.
A distinguished escort met Cardinal Vannutelli when he landed at Dover, and an enormous crowd assembled to witness the arrival of a papal legate in London for the first time in more than three centuries. On the next day, September 9, the congress was solemnly opened in the cathedral at Westminster, by the legate, supported by Cardinals Gibbons of Baltimore, Logue of Ireland, Sancha y Hervas of Toledo, Ferrari of Milan, Mathieu of France, and Mercier of Belgium. Bishops, priests, and laymen from all quarters of the globe were about them. The regular sessions began on September 10, Archbishop Amette of Paris celebrating the Mass. Two sectional meetings in English and one in French then listened to the papers and discussions. In the evening there was a great meeting of 15,000 people at the Albert Hall, to greet the papal legate, at which meeting resolutions pledging all to promote devotion to the Eucharist and unalterable fidelity to the Holy See were passed. The speakers included Archbishops Carr of Melbourne and Bruchesi of Montreal. On September 11 Archbishop Van der Wetering, of Utrecht, was the celebrant of the Mass, and the next day Mass was celebrated according to the Byzantine Rite by the Very Reverend Arsenius Atiych, archimandrite of the church of Saint-Julienle-Pauvre of Paris, assisted by several Greek Assumptionist priests from Constantinople. The Mass on Sunday, September 13, celebrated by the papal legate, and at which Cardinal Gibbons preached, closed the series of splendid ceremonies that marked the congress. Vespers followed, and then the solemn procession took place.
It had been intended to carry the Blessed Sacrament through the streets, but, owing to a protest and public clamor against this, made by the societies composing the Protestant Alliance, the Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith, sent a formal request to Archbishop Bourne on the part of “His Majesty’s Government”, for the abandonment of this program, and this was complied with. The legate, attended by a guard of honor headed by the Duke of Norfolk, Earl Marshal of England, and made up of eleven English noblemen and the Duke of Orleans and the Comte d’Eu and some members of the French Chamber of Deputies, after passing over the route, gave solemn benediction from the balcony of the cathedral to the multitude below. Telegraphing after the ceremony to Rome, Cardinal Vannutelli said to the Cardinal Secretary of State: “The Congress concluded with a great triumph today when the procession passed through the streets of London packed with crowds raising continuous cheers for the cardinal legate and the other cardinals and prelates. The Sacred Host was not carried in the procession, but I gave a final benediction with the Sacrament to the crowd from three open balconies on the facade of the cathedral. Members of the House of Lords formed an escort of honor for me. Perfect order was kept.”
The pope sent a special letter to the Archbishop of Westminster after the congress concluded, stating that, though it was the first of its kind in England, it must be looked on as the greatest of all, for its concourse of illustrious men, for the weight of its deliberations, for its display of faith, and for the magnificence of its religious functions. He thanked the archbishop and all who had taken any part in the proceedings. Before it closed the congress decided to have the session of 1909 meet at Cologne, and that of 1910 at Montreal.
Francois Désiré, Cardinal Mathieu, Archbishop of Toulouse, France, who had attended the Congress, was stricken with an illness that necessitated an operation shortly after his arrival in London. He died in London from the effects of this on the 25th of October following. Another great dignitary of the Church who was called to his reward shortly after assisting at this memorable congress was Ciriaco Maria, Cardinal Sancha y Hervàs, Archbishop of Toledo and Patriarch of the West Indies, who died at Toledo, February 25, 1909, in the seventy-first year of his age.
THOMAS F. MEEHAN