From 1938 to 2021: The International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest Brings Hope to a Fragile West
Now, 83 years after the first holding of the Catholic global event in Hungary, on the verge of World War II, Western societies are facing new political and social issues, while de-Christianization is reaching new heights.
The 52nd International Eucharistic Congress (IEC), held in Budapest Sept. 5-12, was highly symbolic in more ways than one.
Originally due to be held in September 2020 and eventually postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the first large-scale Catholic event to take place since the beginning of the health crisis, offering a glimmer of hope to the millions of faithful worldwide who have seen the practice of their life of faith dramatically restricted over the past 18 months.
Initiated for the first time in 1881 in Lille, France, the Eucharistic Congress is a religious gathering of clergy and laypeople with the aim of evangelizing the world through the adoration of the Eucharist.
The importance of this 2021 meeting — whose theme was “All My Springs Are in You” — was made obvious by the presence of a pope at its concluding Mass, Sept. 12, which hadn’t happened for the past 21 years. It is also the second time in history that the Hungarian capital hosted the IEC.
“I think it was a great event for the Hungarian Church, but also for the history of Eucharistic Congresses,” Cardinal Péter Erdő, archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and primate of Hungary, said in an interview with Magyar Kurír, the news agency of the Hungarian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, following the closing ceremony, adding that the Hungarian Church was greatly strengthened by such an event, which will “leave a lasting value and memory.”
Hungary and Christianity: A Millenary Marriage
The cardinal also expressed appreciation for the fervor of the people, especially the youth, during the week of celebrations, noting that no less than 15,000 people participated in the youth prayer vigil on Friday, Sept. 10.
In the same way, the day before, the emblematic St. Stephen’s Basilica was completely full for the “Eucharistic Adoration of the Communities,” as well as the whole square surrounding the building.
Such record crowds, according to the cardinal, attest to the vivid religious feeling existing among the Hungarian population, as an integral part of its identity. Indeed, in his homily pronounced at Kossuth Square (in front of the Hungarian Parliament) during the Mass preceding the much-awaited Sept. 11 “Eucharistic Candlelight Procession,” he reminded the faithful that the country’s first king, St. Stephen, entrusted his crown to the Virgin Mary before his death in 1038. Having no heir to the throne, he feared for the survival of his people, who had hardly integrated into the community of the European people. “The Virgin Mary accepted his offering, and for almost a thousand years, Hungarians and Christianity have walked together along the path of history, through all possible temptations and difficulties, always renewed and reborn, even in situations when human eyes could see no hope.”
The faith of the Hungarian people, especially in the context of a generalized rolling back of the religious belief in most Western societies, also struck Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of the Maronite Church, who took part in the congress. “I saw a people who loves religion, the Church, who is persistent in prayer […] this is promising for the future,” he said in a Sept. 11 interview with Magyar Kurír. He also praised the government for supporting the Church and defending its values. “It was very touching that the president of the republic also gave testimony of his faith, which is not usual. I was moved.”
He added, “My message to the Hungarian people is to continue on the path of the Christian culture, because without these human values life has no meaning.”
Although people from more than 70 countries registered for this world event, the health restrictions that are still in force in many parts of the world prevented a significant number of faithful from traveling to Budapest, forcing them to follow the events and lectures remotely. EWTN provided live coverage on television and online.
Nevertheless, according to an estimate provided by various media, no less than 200,000 people took part in the candlelight procession on the eve of the papal Mass, which extended over 2 miles from the Parliament in Kossuth Square to Heroes’ Square.
Most of the attendees were Hungarian, or coming from neighboring countries (Austria, Ukraine, Poland or Romania), but the fervor was palpable. Gábor Szabó, a small-business owner living in the Hungarian countryside, walked for an entire day to reach Budapest and participate in the celebrations, considering it a pilgrimage. “Some of my Catholic friends walked three days to get here!” he told the Register while leaving Kossuth Square amid the candlelight.
In his view, these kinds of gatherings are vital for Catholics worldwide who are more and more faced with a loss of religious freedom and a growing climate of aggressiveness, especially in big cities. “It’s so unusual — we’re usually all on our own — and through these occasions, we can all express what Christ is for us,” he said. “I wish for every Catholic to get the chance at least once every year to gather somewhere in the world for a few days, so that people can come together that peacefully.”
Further in the procession, a man named Zoltán was holding the flag of the United Kingdom, together with a Hungarian flag. He made the trip from London, together with a few fellow parishioners, to represent the Hungarian community of the U.K. This occasion, he thought, was one of a kind for his homeland, due to its hosting the Eucharistic Congress for the first time in more than 80 years. His presence was meant to be a reminder of the fact that, although expatriated in a very secular Western metropolis, the flame of his faith, inherent in his people’s deep identity, continues to burn.
“This gathering also reminds us that in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, we are united to everyone, to those here on earth, but also those who are gone to heaven,” Sister Jacinta Vaokakala, a U.S.-born nun living near Budapest, told the Register, adding that the international event embodied the personal love of God.
“He comes to us in the Eucharist, and that’s the highest form he can present himself. And to be able to host him like that, in the most personal presence of his, it’s the greatest gift a country can have,” she continued. “God is coming to us here in Hungary, and it would almost be a sin to miss it!”
‘Bless This Earth With Peace and Honor’
The first time the Hungarian capital hosted the IEC, in May 1938, Europe was about to sink into unprecedented barbarism, threatened from all sides by the rise of atheist communism and neo-pagan Nazism. But despite the highly sensitive political context in which it took place, the event, whose theme was “Eucharist the Bond of Love,” is still remembered as a very intense moment of communion between the faithful who came from across the planet. Fifteen cardinals and 300-plus bishops took part in the celebrations that attracted, for some of them, half a million people.
The then-papal legate was none other than Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican secretary of state, who would become Pope Pius II a few months later, on the eve of the outbreak of World War II.
During a historic speech he delivered in front of 150,000 people in Heroes’ Square, Cardinal Pacelli called for a Christian front against the ideologies of the time, without referring explicitly to communism and Nazism because of the sensitive context. He nevertheless referred to those who were persecuting the Church, expelling transcendence and perverting Christianity. He concluded: “Let us replace the cry of ‘Crucify,’ made by Christ’s enemies, with the ‘Hosanna’ of our fidelity and our love.”
Now, 83 years later, as the West seems for different reasons to be at a turning point of history again, the hope aroused by this Catholic gathering was a much-needed message for the faithful worldwide, most of whom have seen their lives and societies completely turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is the reason why the very topical lyrics of the 1938 hymn, whose refrain was “Oh adorable Redemptor, Jesus in the Eucharist, bless this earth with peace and honor ...,” served again as IEC 2021’s official anthem.
“This hymn gave us, devout Catholics, Hungarians, strength during the war, as well as later in the decades of communism and oppression,” Cardinal Erdö said in a video introducing the hymn.
“This message is essential,” he continued. “Christ as a brother brings together all nations in love; he wants to unite all mankind in love and happiness.”
Solène Tadié reported from the IEC in Budapest, contributing to EWTN’s coverage.