The Eucharistic Congress is a landmark event. But how many will be there to see it?
A major moment in the life of the English and Welsh Church will take place next weekend. An estimated 5,000 people will process behind the Blessed Sacrament through Liverpool’s streets, passing cocktail bars, cafes, a university and a recently closed Masonic hall. The procession will circle back to Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral, where Benediction will be given from the top of the steps.
The event is the culmination of Adoremus, the National Eucharistic Congress. The last time a major congress on the Eucharist was held in England was in 1908, when permission for a Blessed Sacrament procession was refused on the grounds that it was “provocative to Protestant sentiment”. (A procession without the Blessed Sacrament went ahead anyway, drawing 40,000 people.) This time, far from protesting, Protestant leaders will be part of the procession. Walking alongside Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool will be the city’s Anglican bishop and leaders from the Methodist, Baptist and Congregationalist churches.
The congress is the result of two years of planning. In the spring of 2016 Cardinal Vincent Nichols proposed the idea to the bishops’ conference. Eucharistic congresses happen periodically – the last one was in Birmingham in 2005, while he was the city’s archbishop – but in recent history they had been local, rather than national events. Cardinal Nichols, a Liverpudlian, specifically suggested that it be held in Liverpool.
(Some have wondered if this might be a way to banish the memory of a previous Liverpool gathering, the 1980 National Pastoral Congress, whose lay delega tes declared “we are the Easter people” and suggested the Church needed to review its teaching on contraception.)
Next weekend’s congress is spread over three days. The first day, on the Friday, is a symposium featuring talks on various aspects of the Blessed Sacrament – from teaching children to pray in front of the Eucharist to Fr Ian Ker on Adoration in the era of Blessed John Henry Newman and Blessed Dominic Barberi.
The second day is a larger event at the Echo Arena featuring Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and finishing with exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
Alongside this main programme are 27 “fringe” events organised by the archdiocese – including an invitation to silent prayer at a Carmelite monastery, and a youth congress organised by Cymfed, likely to draw 1,000 teenagers.
A panel comprising Archbishop McMahon, the Rt Rev Paul Bayes, Liverpool’s Anglican bishop, and Sheryl Anderson, the city’s Methodist district chair, will discuss the subject of the Eucharist. “They don’t believe in the same things as I do but they believe in the centrality of the Bread of Life in their lives,” Archbishop McMahon says. “They respect our beliefs.”
Some fringe events are less focused than others – one parish has organised a Beatles singalong evening, while another is hosting a discussion on the theology of creation.
But the core devotion is not neglected. At Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral there will be four hours set aside for Adoration on the Friday and Saturday. An exhibition on Eucharistic miracles will be displayed both at the cathedral and at St John the Evangelist church in Kirkdale. (The exhibition was designed by Carlo Acutis, who died in 2006 aged just 15, and was recently declared Venerable by Pope Francis.)
For Archbishop McMahon, the ecumenical dimension of the congress is important. Liverpool was once bitterly divided between Catholics and Protestants, and its churches have tried hard in recent decades to work closely together. Archbishop McMahon suggests that Protestant leaders taking part in a Blessed Sacrament procession is something that is unlikely to happen anywhere else in the world. Fifty years ago, he said, “it would not have been possible to even dream of that, let alone to actually have it.”
More than a century ago, the 1908 International Eucharistic Congress was hailed as “epoch-making” by Cardinal Francis Bourne, the then Archbishop of Westminster. Will Adoremus have an impact, too? One way of measuring the success of preparations is looking at the numbers. Gerry Kehoe, the bishops’ conference’s events organiser, says that more than 10,000 pilgrims will take part over the course of the three days. However, only 5,000 tickets have been sold so far for the Saturday congress at the Echo Arena – half of the initial 10,000 target. That doesn’t seem so promising.
Archbishop McMahon rejects the idea that Liverpool is “mission territory”. While Mass-going trends are not so positive, he said, smaller communities of faithful still demonstrate a “wonderful devotion to Christ”.
His hope is that Adoremus will draw attention to this, give the local Church some “zest” for the future, and “remind us how we all need the divine food to sustain us on our journey”.