Everything is ready in Cebu, Philippines, for the upcoming 51st International Eucharistic Congress, scheduled to take place Jan. 24 to 31. Pilgrims and delegates from more than 70 countries worldwide are expected to attend the meeting. That in Cebu is the second International Eucharistic Congress hosted by the Philippines, after Manila in 1937. The theme chosen for this year, following the one in Dublin of 2012, is “Christ in you, the hope of glory”, taken from the Letter of St. Paul to the Colossians. Monsignor Piero Marini, President of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses, illustrated the importance of this event for the Church and for the Asian continent.
Your Excellency, Eucharistic International Congresses will be held again in the Philippines after 79 years. Then like today, the Church focuses her attention on Asia…
In recent years Asia has grown into a major drive of global growth. However, from the Catholic perspective it is yet to be evangelized since the Saviour, born in Asia, is still unknown by a large number of people living in this Continent. Apart from the exception of the Philippines, Christianity in Asia is represented by a “small community”, although its members are generously and actively engaged.
Recent figures released by the Vatican’s Statistical Yearbook show that Asian Catholics amount to 134 million, i.e. 3% of the inhabitants of their continent, representing 11% of world Catholics. But beyond the relatively small numbers, the Church in Asia embodies the challenge of living and recognizing Christianity in historical forms that are different from those we are accustomed to in the West.
Precisely because it has never experienced the dynamics – also at political level – characterizing the Empire of Constantine or that of Charlemagne, Asia is an immensely populated area where the Gospel can deliver new fruits for the Universal Church.
Is it difficult to propose an experience such as that of Eucharistic Congresses today? Especially when it takes place in a continent with a Christian minority?
The experience of Eucharistic Congresses consists in a deeply ecclesial experience of the Eucharist celebrated, prayed, lived, deepened, through various catecheses and testimonies with a specifically international feature. With this spirit, since 1881 Eucharistic Congresses have brought together large crowds of Christians, and they became – until the “invention” of the World Youth Days by Saint John Paul II – the only major occasion to summon the Universal Church in countries worldwide. Now, with the upcoming 51st Congress, International Eucharistic Congresses will reach the Philippines, the only Asian country with a Catholic majority population. In this archipelago that extends into the Pacific, the Christian religion brought by the Spaniards took roots within traditional cultures and religions, providing an example of inculturation that is unparalleled throughout all of Asia.
Out of a population of over 100 million, the percentage of Catholics exceeds 80%, with an annual number of new baptisms higher than Italy, France, Spain and Poland combined.
Besides the Philippines, the Congress extends to the entire Asian continent where the Christian mission necessarily involves the dialogue with the various cultures.
What are the expectations for the Cebu meeting?
In some ways Cebu City is the heart of Eastern Asia, and it will bring together especially those Christians who – for reasons linked to distance and costs – have often been excluded by major international events. Moreover, pilgrims and delegates from over 70 world countries will convene in Cebu despite the fact that the month of January in other areas of the world is usually a month of school and work. According to partial figures released by the local Committee, an organizer of the event in conjunction with the Pontifical Committee, more than 20 cardinals, some 200 bishops and thousands of priests, are expected to attend the Congress.
A Solidarity Committee was created for pilgrims who cannot afford the cost of a hotel. Hundreds of families will open the doors of their homes to host foreign guests.
Apart from organizational aspects, the fruits expected from the Congress are: increased awareness of the centrality of the Eucharist in Church life and mission along with greater attention towards the new behaviors that the Eucharist brings about in the social realm, aimed at the common good.
What does this mean in concrete terms?
Now that Asia is becoming the new center of history in the contemporary world, the 51st Eucharistic Congress held in its geographical heart is an opportunity to luminously convey the special vocation of the local Church in the continent as a Church of charity, communion and mission. Given the multi-dimensional context in which the Church fulfills her mission in Asia, the continent has become a fertile ground where the mystery of the Incarnation is accomplished through an authentic inculturation that leads to a real dialogue of Christianity with the various cultures, peoples and religions. The universal Church that will convene in Cebu to celebrate the Eucharist is called to make known the maturity of bestowal unto others, of mutual listening, of concrete forms of cooperation, so that the community of the faithful may become the house of God and of our brethren amidst the homes of humanity; in order to live the “dialogue of life” that is the starting point for a joyful witness to the Gospel.
Cebu is less than two hours away from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, and it’s relatively close to South Korea, Japan, India and Australia. To preside over the event Pope Francis has appointed Cardinal Charles Maun Bo, archbishop of Yangon (Burma), to represent him. These areas evoke serious sufferings for Christians…
Asia has been a “difficult” land for Christians since the first evangelizations by Syrian missionaries. Yet, in those countries where conflicts – and, sometimes, persecutions – were stronger, the Church today is experiencing an unexpected blossoming. So it was for Vietnam, with an exponential growth of Christians – from 1.9 million in 1975 to 6.8 million today -. The same can be said for South Korea, where the first evangelization was done by a group of Catholics. There, the Church was erected on the memory of her martyrs and has become one of the most significant phenomena in the country. Unfortunately, in the last 40 years, the continent has been trying to forge its own identity often based on a spirit of nationalism nourished by anti-Western sentiments.
Owing to her dependence on Western legislation, funding and authority, the Catholic Church is always associated with the Western world, and perceived as alien to the religious and cultural structure of the Continent.
There derives the need – which the Confederation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences is well aware of – for Christians and for her organisms to step up their inculturation process, strengthening their commitment through the fundamental path of dialogue.
Which message of hope does the event bring to Asian people?
There are many urgent issues on the Asian horizon. And much more than that: peace, justice, solidarity marking the mutual relations between peoples, the defense of human life. This is overshadowed by various contradictions. In fact, despite the phenomenon of globalization, the weakest, the poorest and the last, don’t have much to hope for. We will go to Cebu to celebrate the 51st International Eucharistic Congress, to remember that the Lord wanted to give Himself to us in the Eucharist, to offer us the promise of a humanity renewed by His love.
The variety of religious cultures and experiences, the wisdom of its peoples and their century-long traditions, the different, concrete ways of the human person, are elements of “richness” that Asia brings in the Eucharist.
Now, while preparing the Messianic banquet in which the community of nations will cross every human frontier, the Eucharistic assembly transforms the cultural, ethical, economic, political and social diversities into a thanksgiving that movew towards a new civilization. Here shines the hope of Asia and of the rest of the world.