Antecedents of the Congress
The Eucharist (or the Lord's Supper) is a Christian rite in which Jesus' words and actions about bread and wine at the Last Supper are repeated liturgically. But what is the Eucharist? "The Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Altar, the sacrificial body and blood of Jesus in the scene of bread and wine, as he anticipated his crucifixion at this last supper in this symbol and left it as an eternal memory for the Church."
The Eucharist's own feast is the Day of the Lord (Corpus Domini), in which in many countries the body of Christ is worshiped in procession, at which point the priest places the converted wafer in an ornate monstrance designed for this purpose and carries it under a canopy with the worshippers.
Due to the secularization processes taking place in Europe, the reverence for the Eucharist has faded somewhat over time and regained strength only at the end of the 19th century. Countless organisations have been formed in honour of the Eucharist, but a devotional woman from the south of France, Maria Emilia Tamisier, initiated the congress as a movement. Thus, in 1874, the first Eucharistic pilgrimage took place in Avignon. The era is well characterized by the fact that it was not the French clergy but a French banker and an aristocrat who took up the cause. The first cross-border congress was held in Lille in 1881. The ceremony itself lasted for three days under a similar scenario as later.
The ultimate goal of the World Congress was to make clearer the sacrificial presentation proclaimed by Christ at the Last Supper and its importance.
Interestingly, further celebrations were also held in France, and the movement remained in the French-speaking world for a long time: the events took place in Belgium, Switzerland, and French Canada. In Central and Eastern Europe, only Vienna and Budapest were given the opportunity to hold celebrations.
Budapest is getting ready
The idea of organizing the Eucharistic Congress in Hungary was officially raised in 1929. Prince-Primate Jusztinián Serédi had been working for a long time to obtain the right to organize the event, but until 1936 he could not be sure that Hungary would receive it. The most likely applicants were Zagreb, Prague and Warsaw. Finally, in the spirit of the Polish-Hungarian friendship, the Polish capital withdrew in favour of Budapest; so on 17 November 1936 in Paris, the Hungarian capital was named as the venue of the next congress.
The International Eucharistic Assembly was usually mandated to countries where the event was related to some local factor: either local respect for the Eucharist or a Catholic anniversary.
The main organizer of the series of ceremonies was the Jesuit monk Béla Bangha, who also wrote the anthem of the congress. The main director of the organization was the Pontifical Committee, which included 14 committees that performed technical, financial, transport, and devotional tasks, among others. The patroness of the event was Magdolna Purgly, Catholic wife of Governor Miklós Horthy.
Although the event served spiritual purposes primarily, the emphasis on the close connection between Hungarian statehood and Christianity was inevitable, especially as the 900th anniversary of St. Stephen's death was also this time. They also wanted to illustrate the great relationship between the state and the church. The motto of the Budapest Congress borrowed from St. Augustine - “the Eucharist is a bond of love” – fitted to the 1938 European landscape in a particular way. As against an atmosphere threatening with another war, the Eucharistic Congress sought to interpret a message of love and unity that bridges differences between nations and strives for peace. In the shadow of Anschluss, which had been just a few months before the event, this motto conveyed a particularly important message.
The main venue of the event was the Heroes' Square, so it was first paved, then a temporary altar was erected behind the column of Archangel Gabriel, which was an exact replica of the high altar of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, and two temporary bell towers were built behind the monument. As hundreds of thousands of people were expected for the masses and processions, so it would not have been enough to put the benches on the Heroes' Square, the area of the city park lake was also needed, so the lake was temporarily drained.
„Az Eucharisztia a szeretet köteléke”
On 25 May 1938, at five o'clock in the afternoon, the bells rang simultaneously in all the Roman Catholic churches of Budapest, signalling the beginning of the 34th International Eucharistic Congress. Earlier that day, a fourteen-member pontifical delegation led by Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli arrived. The train arrived at the Eastern Railway Station, where guests were greeted by a saluting similar to that of rulers. After reading the papal bull, Bálint Hóman greeted the Congress on behalf of the state. The crowd watched the Latin speech of Cardinal Pacelli – later Pope Pius XII – with piety. The dinner given by the governor and his wife at the Buda Palace began at 8 pm, according to a strict protocol.
The next day, on Holy Thursday, 150,000 first communicants gathered on the Heroes' Square with their relatives to receive the Eucharist for the first time in their lives. Also on Thursday evening, worshippers could take part in a special procession that started from St. Stephen's Basilica. Under an ornate canopy, Cardinal Pacelli carried the gilded monstrance of the basilica. On one side of the canopy, there was the council of Pázmány Péter University with the rector, and on the other side the mayor representing the capital. They were followed by the cardinals, whose line was closed by Jusztinián Serédi. The procession reached Eötvös Square via Zrínyi Street, where nine ships waited for them, the flagship was the steamer St. Stephen.
The highlight was the closing ceremony. The festive Holy Mass presented by the papal legate was in the focus. Afterwards, half a million people sang the anthem of the Congress together. The closing chord of the event was the Sunday afternoon’s procession, which led from St. Stephen's Basilica to the Heroes' Square. The crowd flowed for more than four hours. The prince-primate's closing speech was only broadcasted on the radio, because the procession was washed away by the rain. What kind of international response did the Budapest Congress induce? It exceeded expectations. Most foreign believers came from Poland and Italy. However, Hungarians beyond the borders were also represented in large numbers naturally. German Catholics were not represented because of Hitler's ban, and with the occupation of Austria, this ban also applied to the Austrians.
Overall, the 34th Eucharistic World Congress was one of the most significant events in Hungary between the two world wars. This year’s 52nd Congress will begin on 5 September 2021, and it promises to be even bigger than before. The festive closing Mass of the event will be celebrated by Pope Francis on 12th September.
Translated by Zita Aknai
Gergely Jenő: Eucharisztikus Világkongresszus Budapesten, 1938. Kossuth Könyvkiadó, Bp., 1988.