Bob Dylan, a new Catholic think tank, and twin killer earthquakes mark an eventful eight-day festival attended by hundreds of thousands
BOLOGNA, Italy—Church bells rang from every steeple in the Archdiocese of Bologna to mark the start of Italy's 23rd national Eucharistic Congress. The week long gathering Sept. 20-28 was aimed at fostering devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and was capped with a visit by Pope John Paul II.
Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, archbishop of Bologna, opened the festivities with a ceremony in the city's medieval square. Christ is “the only answer to the constant yearnings deep within the human heart,” he told the thousands of faithful gathered in the noonday sunshine.
“As Catholics, the world's emptiness and illusions must not contaminate us. We must find our strength in Christ Jesus and in the Gospel,” he said.
That evening, a torch-lit eucharistic procession moved through Bologna's cobblestone streets, winding its way to the Cathedral of St. Peter for the start of perpetual adoration that continued for the duration of the nine-day Eucharistic Congress.
Events throughout the week included conferences and conventions, round-table discussion groups, sporting events, and theater presentations. Tens of thousands of people from parishes and associations throughout Italy participated, including delegates representing the Charismatic Renewal, the Focolare movement, the Cursillos program, and the Neocatechumenate.
Each day's schedule had a different focus: youth, sports, education, vocations, missions, suffering, and the family. The atmosphere was decidedly festive, with notable Italian business leaders, sports figures, social activists, and religious leaders testifying to their Catholic faith.
A leading organizer of the event said the Eucharistic Congress tied-in with Church preparations for the year 2000, and was “a first step” toward the third Christian millennium.
The theme of the Eucharistic Congress, “Jesus Christ, our only Savior, Yesterday, Today, and Always” is the same theme the entire Church is meditating upon for 1997, Father Amilcare Zuffi, secretary for the Eucharistic Congress, told the Register.
“This year is dedicated to the rediscovery of Christ the Savior and of evangelization—the profound conviction of the necessity of faith in him for salvation,” he said.
Through the Eucharist believers are “nourished and strengthened,” Father Zuffi said, to accompany others along the journey of faith. “We are all called to be missionaries—to help our brothers and sisters open their minds and hearts to him who has the words of eternal life.”
One memorable event took place early into the Congress, whenaletter addressed to Cardinal Biffi arrived from Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She wrote him the day before her death to thank him for inaugurating a house of the Missionaries of Charity within the Bologna archdiocese. Her letter also contained her prayers for the success of the national Eucharistic Congress.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, also took part in the events and made an important appeal for the Catholic missions.
“All Christians must announce the truth revealed by Christ, whether we travel to a far-off land or do so within our own neighborhoods,” he said. “Christ calls us to make him known in the world, so that others may have the possibility to choose the Christian journey of faith.”
Cardinal Ratzinger said that missionary fervor has been declining within the Church due to the influence of modern skepticism. He also noted that other missionary activity—most notably among Islamic creeds—is advancing in the world.
Halfway through the Eucharistic Congress, twin earthquakes rocked central Italy leaving 11 people dead and some 5,000 homeless. Many pilgrims who had traveled to the northern Italian city of Bologna frantically tried to contact relatives and loved ones following the disaster. They offered prayers in city churches for victims of the quakes and collected money to help with relief efforts.
Pope John Paul II arrived in Bologna the following day, and his first appeal was for national solidarity in the face of the tragedy.
“May you be united in this difficult moment of suffering and trial,” he said in his opening address. “I express deep condolences for the victims and I join in the pain of their families.”
The earthquakes struck the central Umbria and Marche regions but were felt as far away as Rome. Dozens of smaller tremors followed for the next two days. The most serious damage to the country's vast religious and cultural treasures happened in the hill town of Assisi. Two large parts of the frescoed ceiling of the Basilica of St. Francis came crashing down, killing 4 people.
Pope John Paul sent a representative to Assisi to preside at a funeral Mass on his behalf.
The Pope's varied weekend schedule at the Eucharistic Congress included a beatification liturgy, a youth rally-rock concert, a private meeting with cloistered nuns, and an open-air Mass for more than a quarter-million people.
During the celebration of Evening Prayer, he beatified an 18th-century Italian priest. The Pope praised Bl. Bartholomew Maria dal Monte for his missionary zeal in spreading the Gospel throughout Italy.
That night at an outdoor concert, folk-rock legend Bob Dylan performed for the Pope and several hundred thousand young people. For many, it was a concert made in heaven, with their spiritual leader and musical idol together on the same stage.
The Pope seemed to enjoy the evening's program, which also featured a roster of Italian pop singers and the Harlem (N.Y.) Gospel Singers. And when he spoke to the sea of young people, the Pontiff used a classic Dylan song, Blowing in the Wind to make his point.
The answer, he said, is indeed blowing in the wind, “the wind that is the breath and life of the Holy Spirit, the voice that calls and says ‘come!’”
“You've asked me: ‘How many roads must a man walk down before he becomes a man,’” he continued, still quoting from the song.
“I answer you: One! There is only one road for man and it is Christ, who said ‘I am the life.’”
Yet the Pope's strongest message came the following morning during Sunday Mass. In his homily, he likened abortion to the killing of millions of people by totalitarian regimes during the 20th century.
“Millions of human lives have been sacrificed this century in the name of totalitarian ideologies and lies,” he said. “In the name of free choice, called ‘freedom,’ innocent human beings who are not yet born continue to be suppressed.”
The Pope, who lived through both the Nazi and communist regimes that ravaged his native Poland, said the century drawing to a close had been marked by numerous “dark shadows.”
Nevertheless, he said the 20th century “has preserved the faith of the Apostles,” and he called on all believers to dedicate themselves “to the defense of human life—the most fundamental of all human rights.”
Organizers of the Eucharistic Congress hailed it as a stunning success, pointing to the huge number of pilgrims who attended and the wide media attention given to the event. They also pointed to the inauguration of a Catholic cultural center in Bologna as a symbol the week-long Eucharistic Congress would have a lasting impact.
The Veritatis Splendor Cultural Center in the heart of the city was named in honor of the 1994 landmark encyclical (The Splendor of Truth) by Pope John Paul II. It will house a Catholic library and study center, and will serve as a leading Catholic think-tank in Italy—specializing in the study of philosophy, bioethics, and social economics.
Stephen Banyra is based in Rome.