The 2021 International Eucharistic Congress (IEC) kicked off last Sunday 5 September in Hungary’s capital, Budapest. This is the 52nd IEC, having gathered in countries all around the world. In 1973, the Congress came to Melbourne in what was hailed as the most ecumenical IEC to date.

Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, Cardinal Péter Erdő, described this year’s event as being a ‘sign of hope’: ‘an opportunity to recall the Christian roots of Europe and the ancient unity between the Churches of East and West.’

This year, however, also marks the year in which the Congress is not as internationally open as it used to be. Since the COVID pandemic began, our physical connection to the rest of the world has been in a state of limbo. Families wonder whether they’ll be able to see each other again. We might wonder, then, what relevance the IEC has for us this year, all the way here in Australia.

The first ever IEC

First, a brief history. The IEC was born in France. Émilie-Marie Tamisier (1834-1910) was a laywoman who helped establish the first Eucharistic Congress in Lille in June 1881. She was a woman largely unknown. Apparently the idea came to her in 1873 as she watched over two hundred French parliamentarians kneel before the exposed Blessed Sacrament, dedicating their hearts and the French nation to the Eucharistic Jesus.

The IEC was widely interpreted as being something of a reaction to theologies that had reigned strong in France for some years, one of the most noticeable being Jansenism. Jansenism was essentially Catholic Calvinism: it held a deeply pessimistic view of human nature and of who could be saved. The purpose of the Congress was to reignite a spirituality of love, grounded in Jesus present in the Eucharist. The theme of the first Congress was “The Eucharist Saves the World”.

The word congress means “coming together”. In the Catholic Church we are used to our committees and boards and conferences of people that come together, produce documents or laws, and then proceed to be swiftly forgotten about. In 1926, a writer called C.K. Kirkfleet wrote that the IEC was one of the few international congresses that was producing fruit. It was actually succeeding. The reason, he said, was because at its heart was what was most sacred of all: The Eucharist.

The Eucharistic Congress attempts to live out the true meaning of a congress: A true coming together in order to promote a Eucharistic spirituality and devotion to this sacrament that Benedict XVI referred to as ‘the sacrament of love’ (Sacramentum Caritatis).

Already, two days prior to the IEC, Hungary held a theological symposium to tackle an important question: How does the Eucharist come alive for people of the twenty-first century, living as they are in an ‘overtired culture’ beset by fear on all sides? The answer that comes to the fore seems to have been this: by keeping the sacredness of the Eucharistic celebration, the light of the Gospel can shine ever more fully.

Eucharistic exile

For many Catholics, the pandemic has been a time of being away from the Eucharist. Not everyone understands the extent to which this cuts us: The belief that Jesus is truly and sacramentally present under the guise of bread and wine, nourishing and sustaining his bride, the Church, is absolutely central to Catholic identity and theology. This isn’t just another ritual for us; it isn’t simply a religious act comparable to any other. Jesus becomes present in a way totally unique. The Second Vatican Council said that the Eucharist was the ‘source and summit’ of Christian life (Lumen Gentium §11). A deeper awareness of this is what the IEC seeks to foster worldwide.

For people unable to frequent the sacraments as much as they’d like, it might be worthwhile paying attention to this year’s Congress as more videos and news becomes available: For the renewal of our own belief and everyone else’s.

The 2021 International Eucharistic Congress is being held in Budapest, Hungary, from 5-12 September.