In February 1973, Melbourne hosted the 40th International Eucharistic Congress. It went down in history as one of Melbourne’s biggest Catholic events, attracting global media attention and respected international figures. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) and Mother Teresa were among the participants.

Fifty years on, we explore a few of the highlights of this significant event in the life of our city and the Church.

The importance of the Eucharist

The first Eucharistic Congress met in 1881 at the instigation of French laywoman Émilie-Marie Tamisier. Its purpose was to renew love for the Eucharist, promoting it as an essential feature of Catholic spirituality. ‘The Eucharist saves the world’ was the theme of the very first Congress.

The Archbishop of Melbourne in 1973 was the Most Reverend James Robert Knox, who recognised that a renewed commitment to the Eucharist was also one of the aims of the Second Vatican Council. In a letter to Catholics in Melbourne, he quoted Vatican II’s Decree on Priestly Life‘the Most Blessed Eucharist contains the Church’s entire spiritual wealth’ (§5)— and declared that Melbourne’s Congress would be a chance to realise this aim and put the Eucharist at the centre of Christian life. He hoped the many conferences, speakers and exhibitions in the Congress’s program would also ‘demonstrate the link between the Eucharist and life’.

Choosing the theme ‘Love one another as I have loved you’, the organisers wanted to show that the Eucharist, as the gift of Christ’s loving presence, should move us to be a loving presence to others. Though he wasn’t able to be there, Pope Paul VI made a similar point in his letter prior to the event:

Reviving the cult of the real presence of Christ, may they revive the generosity, the effort, the heroism of discovering Christ in the face and the sufferings of the poor, the needy, the immigrants, the sick, the dying, and of serving him with one heart in them, sustained by the strength that derives exclusively from the long habit of prayer and familiarity with him.

Eucharist and generosity

This theme carried through the Congress as people gathered to reflect on eight topics over eight days: ‘The People of Christ’, ‘The Life of Christ’, ‘The Personal Love of Christ’, ‘The Compassion of Christ’, ‘Unity in Christ’, ‘The Suffering of Christ’, ‘The Mother of Christ’ and ‘The Peace of Christ’.

On Monday 19 February, the second day of the Congress, Mother Teresa addressed a crowd at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl. One of her co-speakers was BA Santamaria, and they spoke on the topic of ‘Population and Ecology’.

Mutter Teresa von Kalkutta
St Mother Teresa of Kolkata.

Mother Teresa spoke passionately about the need to entrust the future to Divine Providence, and to care for those who are unwanted and unloved; through them Christ comes to us in a ‘distressing disguise’.

He has identified Himself with the hungry, the sick, the naked, the homeless: hunger, not only for bread but for love, for care, to be somebody to someone; naked, not of clothing only, but nakedness of that compassion that very few people give to the unknown; homeless, not only just for a shelter made of stone but that homelessness that comes from having no one to call your own.

‘Here also in Melbourne, we have people who are not wanted, who are not loved, and they are His, they are He,’ she said. ‘And they are ours. They are our brothers and sisters.’

‘Maybe here in Australia and in Europe and in America, we don’t have hunger for a slice of bread, for a piece of cloth, but there is that terrible loneliness, there is that terrible want, not being wanted, not being loved, having no one to call your own.’

The Eucharist expresses the very giving that is at the heart of God, one we are called to imitate in our own life: ‘The giving was from the Father, the giving was from the Son, and now the giving is from us.’

The Ukrainian presence

The Congress highlighted the rich diversity of ethnic and liturgical rites that exist in the Catholic Church. One of the most memorable expressions of this at the Congress was the strong Ukrainian presence. Not only were Ukranian Catholics heavily involved in the Congress, but Melbourne was also graced by the presence of His Beatitude Josyf Cardinal Slipyi, Primate of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. One Melbourne reporter at the time said his arrival ‘brought the international Airport of Melbourne virtually to a standstill’.

Cardinal Slipyi’s presence, and the enormous media coverage in Australia in response to his visit, highlighted the plight of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. At this time, Ukranian Catholics were being forced underground by a brutal Soviet Union, and they worried their church was on the brink of extinction.

A booklet titled Ukraine—A Christian Nation was distributed to pilgrims at the Congress, and two exhibitions were held, one highlighting Ukrainian religious icons, and another documenting the history of Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox persecution across two centuries.

The Ukrainian liturgy celebrated during the Congress was impressive. Joining Cardinal Slipyi was Patriarch of the Melchites, Maximos V Hakim, who preached on justice as the foundation of any lasting peace.

During the Congress, a council of Ukrainian laypeople also drafted a letter to Pope Paul VI. It was a plea for recognition; a passionate request for the Vatican to help Ukrainian Catholics in their plight. One specific request they had was for a patriarch to be established, helping to unite their scattered people around the world.

‘We, the Ukrainian Catholics, are dispersed all over the earth and separated from each other by vast distances and foreign cultural barriers, and yet we do not cease in our efforts to maintain the spiritual unity and integrity of our Church,’ they wrote. ‘We, the Ukrainian Catholic faithful, call on Your Holiness, the Vicar of Christ, with the plea to let justice prevail. We ask Your Holiness to restore the ancient rights and privileges to our Church and to crown her with a patriarchate.’

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Cardinal Josyf Slipyj of the Ukrainian-Greek Catholic Church.

The first Aboriginal liturgy

In a Mass that drew 30,000 people to the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, the Congress was the occasion of Australia’s first liturgy incorporating Aboriginal symbols, rituals and motifs. This Mass was so significant it even made the New York Times. A school student at the time, Vicky Clark shares her memories of the event with us and its importance for Aboriginal people.

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Australia’s first Aboriginal liturgy, Sidney Myer Music Bowl, 24 February 1973. Photo from the Archives of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.

Ecumenism

As well as highlighting the many ethnic rites within the Church, Melbourne’s Congress had a distinctly ecumenical flavour. Once again following in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the organisers agreed that the search for Christian unity should be a central theme. The Council’s decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, was widely hailed as a landmark document, articulating a Catholic vision of unity, and outlining the ways that Catholics can practically seek it.

Like now, Australian Christianity in 1973 was very diverse, and the Congress was seen as a chance to reach out constructively to Australia’s many Christian traditions and communities. For this reason, several ecumenical prayer services were held throughout the week. Significant figures from other traditions were also present, including Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne Frank Woods, German Lutheran theologian Professor Jürgen Moltmann, and the Rev Lukas Vischer of the World Council of Churches.

Other highlights

The Congress really spanned two weeks: a week of spiritual preparation and the week of the actual Congress. Part of the spiritual preparation was a ‘Triduum’ of Eucharistic Adoration: for three consecutive mornings, every church in Melbourne exposed the Blessed Sacrament for a time of prayer.

It was also during the 1973 Congress that the Clayton campus of Corpus Christi seminary was officially opened and blessed. It remained open until 1999, when it was moved to its current location in Carlton.

During his stay, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla ordained two Polish priests at St Ignatius in Richmond. One of them, Fr Wieslaw ‘Tony’ Slowik SJ remains there as chaplain to the Polish community.

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The day after Fr Wieslaw Slowik's ordination to the priesthood (Bishop Szezepan Wesoly, Fr Wieslaw Slowik SJ, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, Fr Leonard Kiesch SJ, and Fr Jozef Janus SJ). Photo supplied.

The Congress also packed out a few central Melbourne locations, including the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The concluding Mass, known as a Statio Orbis because of the global nature of those gathered, drew 120,000 people to the MCG.

An important part of our history

There is no doubt that hosting the 40th Eucharistic Congress was a privilege and an opportunity for Melbourne. It was a chance to witness to the centrality of the Eucharist in Christian life, and to inspire pilgrims to live in service of others because of it. In its expression and organisation, it was a uniquely Melbourne event, and uniquely Catholic.


The following historical footage of the event and its attendees provides a fascinating glimpse into an important moment in Melbourne’s Catholic history.

Banner image: A Mass for Italian Migrants was celebrated at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl on 18 February 1973 as part of the Congress. (Photo from the Archives of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.)