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Online Edition - Vol. VII, No. 5-6 - July-August 2001

Saint Louis Eucharistic Congress Draws 32,000 

by Matthew Grantham

Throngs of Catholics celebrated the Vigil Mass of Corpus Christi at the America's Center in St. Louis, and marched in a mile-long Eucharistic procession to the Gateway Arch during a Eucharistic Congress on June 15-16. About 32,000 people participated in the events of the Congress, which commemorated the one-hundredth anniversary of a similar event in Saint Louis.

St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali stressed that the "focal point and theme piece for the Congress" were "the Gospel words of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, '...my flesh for the life of the world'".

The archbishop called the Congress in order to provide Catholics an opportunity to "give expression to our faith and love for our Lord Jesus Christ truly, really and substantially present -- body, blood, soul and divinity -- the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist" as well as to give witness to the unity of the Catholic Church "as the Body of Christ in the world". Auxiliary Bishop Michael Sheridan, aided by 1,400 volunteers, organized the event.

The Congress began with Exposition and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on June 15, which continued throughout the night. Special intentions were offered each hour, including prayers for the Holy Father and respect for human life. Many people knelt on the floor of the crowded chapel.

Cardinal Jan Pieter Schotte, Vatican Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops and Papal Legate to the Eucharistic Congress, along with Archbishop Rigali and other bishops and clergy, officially opened the Congress with a celebration of Exposition, Solemn Vespers, and Benediction in a main lecture hall of America's Center. Archbishop Rigali gave a homily emphasizing the mercy Catholics find in the Blessed Sacrament.

Cardinal Schotte urges fidelity, reverence for Eucharist
Cardinal Schotte, in his keynote address, described how Christ's presence in the Eucharist had influenced his life since he was a boy living in Belgium. He recounted that during World War II, he was instructed to carry the Eucharist from his village church (which Allied troops had to destroy as a security measure) to another church nearby. That event marked a significant development in his appreciation for the Eucharist, he said.

The Cardinal also observed how Church architecture can affect a Catholic's faith in the Real Presence -- for better or for worse. He recounted a visit to a Wisconsin church that had been built in 1846. What he found inside the majestic brick walls of the church disturbed him:

"[There was] no altar ... no crucifix ... I thought I had walked into a Protestant church", Cardinal Schotte said. He also lamented that the tabernacle of the church had been removed from view and that the pews and kneelers had been ripped out of the church, replaced by common folding chairs. The "altar", which was in the nave -- and not the front -- of the church, resembled a "dining room table", the cardinal said.

Cardinal Schotte reminded the audience that Catholics are not free to invent their own understandings of the Eucharist but must conform to the Church's teaching on the Real Presence. He also stated that the faithful need constant reminders of Christ's Presence in the Eucharist, which is why the tabernacle should be directly behind the altar, in plain public view, he stressed.

"It is not that we are lacking documents ... but what we need is to be reminded perpetually, constantly of this great mystery", said the cardinal.

He challenged the congregation to confront nagging problems hindering the Church in America, such as indifference toward the Faith, "cafeteria Catholicism", and lack of respect for Christ's Real Presence.

Cardinal Schotte also urged the customary practice of kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, observing that contemporary liturgical innovations that downplay kneeling have damaged the faith of Catholic youth.

"If you want to have a true relation to God, you have to go down on your knees before God", he said; and added that "we have to go through the gesture of kneeling" in order fully to appreciate Christ's Presence in the Eucharist.

Cardinal Schotte called for a re-discovery of traditional Eucharistic piety, saying that "in a certain way we have walked through a desert for the last ten years". He praised Archbishop Rigali for promoting Eucharistic Adoration in the Archdiocese of Saint Louis and encouraged those present to make the Eucharist the "source and summit of Christian life" (cf. Lumen Gentium, 11).

Speakers, special events
Participants attended sessions offered by noted Catholic speakers, including Father Benedict Groschel, CFR, Father Augustine DiNoia, OP, director of the Intercultural Forum at Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, Bishop Edward Braxton, Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, and others.

There were also special events for children and youth, and musical performances of all styles during the day-long sessions. Confession lines were long.

The Solemn Mass on Saturday evening began with a procession of young men considering priestly vocations and the seminarians, deacons and priests of the archdiocese.

Cardinal Schotte was the principal celebrant at the Mass, with Archbishop Rigali, Bishop Braxton, and other bishops and clergy concelebrating. The petitions for the prayers of the faithful were read in several languages, including Korean and Tagalog. The Archdiocesan choir chanted Lauda Sion, and sang Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus, and a Handel Offertory hymn.

In his homily, Cardinal Schotte encouraged the faithful to receive communion and to adore the Eucharist frequently, in order to recognize "our littleness" before God, who humbles Himself in the Sacrament of the Altar.

The priests and deacons administered Communion. As at the 1999 Papal Visit, bearers of gold and white umbrellas accompanied the Blessed Sacrament during Communion. An Apostolic Blessing, given to the people by Cardinal Schotte in the name of the Holy Father, concluded the Mass.

After Mass, the Corpus Christi procession to the Gateway Arch for Benediction began. Many genuflected as the Blessed Sacrament left the stadium. During the mile-long procession, the crowd talked softly or sang Eucharistic hymns. Some prayed silently.

The procession took nearly an hour to reach the riverfront where the people gathered shoulder to shoulder on the grass in front of the Arch. After Benediction and the Divine Praises, the congregation sang "Holy God We Praise Thy Name".

A grand finale in honor of the Eucharist was a spectacular show of fireworks, launched from a boat in the Mississippi River, that flashed reflections on the Gateway Arch.

In a later interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cardinal Schotte said that he was encouraged and impressed with what he witnessed during the Congress.

"After Vatican II, there was such a shift in emphasis to the Mass", he observed. "Now, there is more interest in other devotions like Eucharistic Adoration, Perpetual Adoration of the Eucharist -- and it is coming from young people".

***

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