Keeping Christ at the centre

Photo: Alphonsus Fok.

This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Mass of Corpus Christi, The Solemnity of the most holy body and blood of Jesus Christ at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 2 June 2024. 

It was probably the largest gathering ever held in Sydney. Half a million people packed the streets for a week. The opening and closing ceremonies gathered people of every stripe from all around our city, country and globe, ordinary people both young and old, and a “who’s who” of celebrities. Despite adverse publicity in the lead up, Sydney was a joyful host, and in the end almost everyone judged it a great success.

I’m not talking about the 2000 Olympics, not even the 2008 World Youth Day. No, what I have in mind is the 29th International Eucharistic Congress, held in the harbour city in 1928. It was a grace-filled week as Sydney became the backdrop for Masses, adoration, benediction, processions, consecrations, preaching and teaching. For seven days, the Eucharist was the only show in town!

The idea of a Eucharistic Congress originated in France five decades before. Following the upheaval of the French revolution and Napoleonic era, religious houses had been closed, Catholic institutions confiscated, the clergy were in a parlous state, and religious indifferentism was widespread. Calvinism and Jansenism had damaged eucharistic faith and practice. Many French Catholics had fallen away and many who remained were no longer gripped by Catholic truth, beauty and goodness.

Inspired by St Peter Julian Eymard, founder of two religious orders devoted to Eucharistic renewal, and with the blessing of Pope Leo XIII, a lay woman Émilie-Marie Tamisier organised the first Eucharistic Congress in Lille in 1881. The idea had come to her some years before, when she saw two hundred French parliamentarians kneel before the Sacrament to dedicate their hearts and nation to Him. Her motivation was the straightforward belief that “The Eucharist saves the world,” a sentiment that served as the theme of that first congress. In her estimation, it was only through the power of the Blessed Sacrament that France, “the eldest daughter of the Church,” would recover the faith of her ancestors.

If the Eucharist was the key to the return of many French Catholics to the faith, it was key to the survival of the faith here in Sydney in the same era. For thirty years the colonial authorities would allow no Catholic chaplain and so no regular sacraments. Then a renegade and about-to-be-deported priest left a consecrated host in a pyx to sustain the Catholic community. The shrine of St Patrick’s Church Hill is built at that site, commemorating the early lay faithful who prayed and taught catechism in the Real Presence of their Lord. Soon the cry of the faithful to the authorities to allow them a priest and Mass could no longer be resisted.

Historically, then, the church in Sydney hungered for the Eucharist from the get-go. No doubt this was a factor in its being chosen as the first city in the Southern hemisphere to host an International Eucharistic Congress. Now we have bid to host it again, here in Sydney, in 2028. We will learn in the coming months whether we have been successful. But besides the sentimentality of the approaching centenary, why seek to hold such a thing? What will be the gain of dedicating hours and resources before, during and after that exciting week?

Well, in 2022 the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia pointed out that “our communal worship witnesses to unity and hope in a fractured world increasingly hostile to public acknowledgement of God” (Decree 5.6). Echoing the Second Vatican Council on the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life,” the Australian Council acknowledged “the need for renewal in catechesis, formation, and devotion to this Sacrament.” To support this, it reverberated our request and that of the Bishops Conference to the Holy Father “that the 2028 International Eucharistic Congress take place in Australia.” (Decree 5.9)

This afternoon, thousands will march in procession through the streets, colourfully, perhaps a little wetly, but reverently, accompanying the Blessed Sacrament, singing hymns and giving public witness. We will conclude with Adoration and Benediction on the steps of the cathedral. And it all began, not at Sydney’s congress in 1928, nor Lille’s in 1881, nor in the Rocks in 1818, but way back at that first Eucharist in our Gospel today (Mk 14:12-26). Breaking bread He declares to be His body, Jesus tells the disciples to take and receive Him. The God who assumed our human flesh in the Incarnation and will surrender it in the Passion, now gives us His very substance in the Mass. Emmanuel (God-with-us) ensures His permanent presence, not just as a notion we might or might not believe or attend to, with fervour or without, but objectively present, in the Sacrament at the hands of every priest, in the tabernacle at the heart of every Church, in the mouth and being of every Christian. We can talk vaguely about encounter and communion with Christ, but here He is, real, substantial, tangible.

So, if the Holy Father grants Sydney an International Eucharistic Congress in 2028 what might our aspirations for it be?

Let me suggest three. First to deepen our understanding of the truth of the Real Presence, so we will value the Mass, Holy Communion and Adoration more than ever. Here Jesus is really with us and we with Him, and the more we appreciate this, the more we will be drawn to be with Him. In some parts of Sydney only 10 per cent or so of Catholics regularly attend Mass; that’s better than 5 per cent and I’m truly grateful for those who come. But it’s not good enough and we all have to do something about it! We must all do what we can to deepen our own and each other’s understanding of this gift, and be more invitational.

If my first hope centres around grasping the truth of the Eucharist, my second is to intensify our appreciation of the beauty of the Real Presence. If many Catholics miss Mass, many others come but do not really attend, do not recognise what a magnificent thing is unfolding before them. A successful congress will be one that sharpens our appreciation, and the witness of the entire Catholic community on its knees before Christ will surely be magnetic. It will convert hearts and stir fervour. It will be the catalyst for a renewed sense of solemnity, mystery, welcome and joy in the liturgical life of our city.

If a Eucharistic Congress helps us grasp the truth and beauty of this Blessed Sacrament, a third gift would be to make us more aware of its goodness and a provocation to ours. At the end of Mass the priest or deacon says Go forth, announcing the Gospel, Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life. A successful Congress will bring renewed vigour to our Christian lives, and to increase our outreach to those in need of our spiritual, emotional or practical help.

So, dear friends, let us pray that the God who gives us His Real Presence in His Body and Blood, will grant us a tidal wave of grace before, during and after 2028, that through His glorious presence in our streets, we might again make Christ the centre of our city, our world, our very being.

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