Recalling the 41st International Eucharistic Congress in 1976

The focus of the entire Catholic world was directed towards Philadelphia in August of 1976. The 41st International Eucharistic Congress took place thirty-four years ago this week in the City of Brotherly Love and the world has dramatically changed since. For those that need a reference point in time, Paul VI was Pope, Gerald Ford was President of the United States, and Frank Rizzo was Mayor of Philadelphia. While for many, the events of 1976 were focused on the events of the Founding Fathers in 1776, Philadelphia Catholics celebrated their faith with the week-long Eucharistic Congress. The theme: Jesus, the Bread of Life.

Notable individuals from all over the globe attended the Eucharistic Congress. At the time, individuals like Cardinal Karol Wojtyla and Mother Teresa were not quite household names. People like Dorothy Day and Cardinal Leo Suenens were more commonly known, however the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, often preached by Cardinal Suenens, was diligently changing the face of Catholicism in both Philadelphia and the world. The weeks events included lectures, workshops, exhibitions, and of course Eucharistic liturgies. One of the most memorable events for this author was the Catholic Youth Mass, held at the Spectum with musical accompaniment provided by the priest musical group, The Damiens. Since 1976, the Damiens have disappeared into the obscurity of history. The Spectrum is destined for demolition and all of the individuals mentioned previously in this reflection have returned home to God. What has remained is the ever persistent and deeply held belief that Jesus is the Bread of Life.

Despite the adage quoted by the poet Virgil, “Tempus fugit,” the reality of the gift of Jesus’ Eucharistic presence still remains as the central focus of the Catholic life. Though so often translated “time flies,” Virgil more correctly wrote, tempus fugit to mean, “time flees:”

Sed fugit interea fugit irreparabile tempus, singular dum capti circumvectamur amor.

But meanwhile it flees: time flees irretrievably, while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail — Virgil, Georgics.

The great poet makes the reference to the manner in which we as human beings are sometimes consumed by unimportant details that are of no significant importance or meaning. Frequently, individuals spend their entire lives distracted by such details of little importance. However, Catholics are indeed called to transcend the nihilistic sentiments of Virgil’s, “tempus fugit,” and place our lives and aspirations in the Bread of Life, for our temporal and spiritual subsistence.

The sculpture of Jesus, breaking bread, that is situated outside of the Cathedral-Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul was commissioned for the 41st International Eucharistic Congress. The Eucharistic Jesus offers to all passersby the Bread of Life from Him.

Everything indeed besides faith in Christ and participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice arefleeting moments of chronological time and space. While the 41st International Eucharistic Congress was a great event in the spiritual and historical treasury of events for Philadelphia Catholics, its enduring legacy is indeed the theme of the week’s celebration: Jesus, the Bread of Life.

Most often we are attracted to events because of marketing efforts. In retrospect, the Eucharistic Congress, held during the monumental celebration of America’s Bicentennial were indeed, for this author, life influencing and spiritually pervasive even to this very day. Often we speak of historical events correctly as part of the past. However, when it comes to the 41st International Eucharistic Congress, it is more correctly an event of kairotic significance because it unties both the sacred and the secular events of 1976, with the entire Catholic community — the Body of Christ that transcends chronological space and time. The world has changed drastically since 1976; we have had quite a bit of chronological time pass since those events, however our Eucharistic faith gives us an alternative understanding to Virgil’s. Our, tempus fugit directs us not towards a dismissal of the events of the past, but rather an embracing of the Christ in the Present, with the joyful anticipation of Christ in the future.

Christ yesterday and today,
The Beginning and the End,
The Alpha and Omega,
His are the times and ages:
To Him be glory and dominion
Through all ages of eternity. Amen

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