QUEBEC,QC,CA — Yesterday, at the opening of the 49th International Eucharistic Congress (IEC), Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Archbishop of Quebec and Primate of Canada, and Papal Legate Cardinal Jozef Tomko, welcomed what may become an enduring symbol of the IEC for decades to come: The Ark of the New Covenant. The Ark is an all-Canadian innovation and a testament to the reverence this city, the first site of Catholicism in North America (outside of Mexico), still has for the Eucharist and the Gospel.
[Editors note: Kevin Whelan is the assistant coordinator of the new Catholic Exchange channel devoted to exploring the Theology of the Body. Click here to see this unique new part of Catholic Exchange.]
A year after the announcement that Quebec would host the Congress, the youth of the archdiocese were convened and asked for their input, “One young man stood up and suggested a symbol, like the World Youth Day Cross,” Sister Doris Lamontagne, Assistant Secretary General of the 49th IEC, explained in an interview with CatholicExchange.com. A group of young people and religious, commissioned by Cardinal Ouellet, presented the Ark the next year.
Quebec artist Alain Rioux to evoke the memories of the Ark’s of scripture: Noah’s Ark and the Ark of the Covenant carried by the Israelites. Both symbols point to the ultimate scriptural Ark: the Blessed Virgin Mary. “It is Mary who led us into faith by bearing the True Presence of Christ who is the New Covenant,” according to Sister Marie-Pierre Delorme, S.S.M.N., a theologian who worked closely with the pilgrims caring for the Ark. The top of the Ark was designed so that it could hold either a monstrance or the Bible. A full description of the symbolism of the Ark is available here.
In May 2005, the Ark began its journey to Quebec with a Blessing by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. With the support of the Knights of Columbus and parishes throughout Canada, it visited every diocese in every province of Canada and the Northwest Territories. “It was the way that the youth called the rest of Canada to come to the Eucharistic Congress,” explained Sister Lamontagne.
On a snowy Easter Sunday in March of this year, the Ark began its final 64 day walking pilgrimage as it traveled from Midland, Ontario to Quebec. “The 1000 kilometer journey is significant,” 28 year old, Jerry Grzadka, Pilgrimage Coordinator and one of the portaguers told CE, “because it back tracks the journey taken by the Canadian Martyrs who left Quebec to carry the Eucharist to the rest of Canada.”
Each day the portaguers pushed the Ark atop a two wheeled cart they called ‘The Ark Mobile’ which was actually the converted wheelbase of a World War II Army stretcher. “There’s a lot of coordination that goes on,” Jerry advised. “You can’t just go out into the street and start pushing an Ark. We had to get permits from Provincial and Metropolitan authorities along the way. Because we walked everywhere with a police escort, many people thought the Ark was very valuable.”
“Just as the Isrealites carried the Ark of the Covenant through the desert,” remembered Sr. Delorme. “We carried the New Ark through a spiritual desert. The secular world, especially French Speaking Canada, is in the desert thirsting for the spiritual, but it has forgotten its spiritual roots.” As she walked through rural Quebec awakening to its spring planting season, she was impacted by the connection between the farmers and the portaguers. “The framers had their farm truck, and we had our Ark Mobile. They were turning over the dirt to plant seeds for their crops, and we were turning over hearts and planting the seed of faith.”
The pilgrims were diverse individuals who felt called to join; they came from no single organization. Ranging in age from 18 to 62, they included grandfathers, students and mothers. There were 5 permanent members and others who would join as they could. Their stories are shared on this video blog.
A Tool for Catechesis
Each night the Ark and pilgrims stopped at parishes along the way where parishioners had planned liturgies. The Ark became a tool whereby the faithful learned about the IEC and its threefold mission aligned with that of the Congress: Catechesis, Liturgy and Commitment. “The first thing we saw was that people came out of curiosity to see the Ark. That extended to curiosity about the Congress,” remembered Sr. Delorme.
The faithful were invited to insert small pieces of paper containing their personal prayer intentions and commitments to the Blessed Sacrament into the hold of the Ark. This devotion was so popular that the contents were emptied five times. The papers are now kept at the foot of an altar in Quebec.
“The ark did not come alone,” reminded Sr. Delorme, “It came with people. The story of their conversions will be a lasting impression of the Pilgrimage. These pilgrims have been changed.”
“People were always lined up to greet us as we reached the Churches,” Jerry told CE. “Each night we stayed in their different houses and talked with them. By the next morning, we were very close.”
Jerry recalled one lasting impression that occurred on that first day in the snow. The route called for them to push the Ark up a two-mile hill on a road covered with snow. As they struggled up the hill, slipping and sliding, they passed a young man working at the front of his house. “He just started asking us why we were doing this crazy thing,” Jerry said. “We told him about the Ark, the pilgrimage and the Congress. As we continued the struggle, he started helping us. It took us two hours to get up that hill.”
“As we worked together, we asked him his name. It was Simon,” Jerry recalled in amazement. “We told him that he was just like Simon of Cyrene from scripture.” They told the young man the story of the Cyrenian from the synoptic Gospels whom the soldiers pressed into service to carry the cross for Jesus on the way to His crucifixion. The young man had never heard the story, but none doubted the special grace of the moment they were sharing. “He ended up spending two days with us,” Jerry concluded.
The Ark’s Next Destination
On Sunday, Jerry and artist Alain Rioux were among those who presented the Ark to open the 49th IEC. The Ark will remain in an adoration chapel at the site of the Congress in Quebec City for the duration of the IEC, but its next destination is uncertain.
Jerry admits, “It has taken on a life of its own. It is in demand from many dioceses throughout Canada and the U.S. Officially, request has been made to the Pontifical Committee [for the International Eucharistic Congresses] to make it a permanent part of future congresses.”
“There is some talk that it will go to the World Youth Day,” said Sr. Delorme. “It could just end up staying in Quebec. Whatever becomes of the Ark I hope (and am sure) great meaning will be given to it.”
For her part, Assistant Secretary General, Sr. Lamontagne laughed when asked by CE about the Ark’s next destination. “The future at the Ark? This is the secret of the Lord.”
Irrespective of its future, it is certain its message and the witness of those who accompanied it will endure in the hearts of those, like Simon of Midland, who were graced by an encounter with the Ark. Unquestionably, hundreds have been brought beyond the Ark as symbol to the Real Presence of Christ it so often enthroned: The Eucharist.