20,000 at Catholic Festival in Ireland

June 10, 2012

Pope John Paul II (C) stands in the Vatican with those attending the 2002 International Eucharistic Congress

A man walks past the Papal Cross, which was built for the visit of the late Pope John Paul II

DUBLIN Around 20,000 pilgrims on Sunday attended the start of an international Catholic festival of faith and culture in Ireland where the church has been hit by child abuse scandals and falling attendance.

The 50th International Eucharistic Congress began with an open-air mass in the Royal Dublin Society on the southside of the city which has been transformed into a religious village for the week-long event.

Some 10,000 pilgrims from more than 120 countries are attending the Congress which is an international gathering held every four years.

However, there were also a number of protest pickets at the opening mass, including victims of child abuse.

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, who is president of the Congress, said the abuse of children by priests was a "travesty".

Mainly Roman Catholic Ireland has been rocked in recent years by the findings of a series of unprecedented state inquiries into child abuse by paedophile priests and attempts by church leaders to cover it up.

"The abuse that took place was very clearly a travesty of what the gospel is about. Jesus talked about the special role of children as witnessing to the kingdom of God," Martin told a press conference.

"On the other hand as you see here today there are people from all the world who have come here in solidarity with the Irish church, who have a great affection for the Irish church, who have a great respect for what the Irish church has done in different parts of the world."

The last time the congress was held in Dublin was in 1932 when the church was hugely powerful in Ireland and an estimated million people -- or about a quarter of the population -- attended a mass in the Irish capital.

Bishop Michael Smith told a mass on Sunday that pilgrim visitors would find in Ireland a church "whose proud history is tainted by scandal and sin" but also a vitality of faith in the parishes, parents, schools and volunteers throughout the country.

"I think our visitors will find a very different Church and country than the Ireland of 1932. The 1932 event was shaped in part by the confidence of the people in a newly independent State," he said.

Dublin is bedecked with flags and bunting but a blog on the Congress website points out to visitors that decorations are not all for the Catholic festival.

"Much of the bunting is support for Ireland's opening EURO 2012 group match against Croatia today in Poland. . . whatever, it all adds to the gaiety of all the festivities," the blog said.

About 80,000 are expected at the closing mass in Dublin's Croke Park sports stadium on June 17 which will be attended President Michael D. Higgins.


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