Manila, Philippines — When the 51st International Eucharistic Congress takes place in the central Philippines starting Jan. 24, organizers want the faithful to come away with at least two things: a deeper sense of Jesus and a lasting impression of Filipino hospitality.
The weeklong congress will be in Cebu, where Catholicism took root in the Philippines nearly 500 years ago.
"Cebu is a very logical choice because the faith of the Cebuanos is incredible," said Elvira Go, the candy magnate who chairs the event's publicity committee. "So you can really feel the ambience there, where the faith is really emphasized."
Go described to Catholic News Service the devotion of Cebu residents to the "Santo Nino" or the child Jesus, whose statue, resplendent in gold-threaded royal robes -- one of the country's earliest known such works of art -- is housed at the Minor Basilica of the Holy Child there.
But apart from showcasing their devotion, Go, who has long been active in the Catholic Church, said she is most concerned with getting the locals to dig deeper into their faith during the congress.
She said "it's very hard to sell Jesus" even in the Philippines, where an estimated 37 percent of the country's 80 million Catholics attend Mass regularly, according to a 2013 survey by the Social Weather Stations group. [Statistics compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University show 60 percent of Catholic adults in the Philippines said they had regular Mass attendance from 2010 to 2014.]
Go said the congress should open people's faith, especially for Massgoers, who, she said, "don't have a clear idea" of what the Eucharist is about.
"They are there praying, reading the novena, but they don't understand what is this novena all about," she said. "You have to have a personal relationship with Jesus through the Eucharist. This is his presence. His gift to us is there in the Eucharist. While we are going to the Mass, he is there listening and at the same time talking to us without our knowing it."
In travels throughout Asia to meet congress delegates, Go said she was struck by a strong devotion to the Eucharist with regular attendance at adoration chapels especially among young adults in Hong Kong. She said adoration devotees also were active in Myanmar, Malaysia, Vietnam and South Korea.
Congress organizers said half of the registrants were from countries outside of the Philippines, primarily in Asia. Msgr. Joseph Tan of the Cebu Archdiocese, congress spokesman, said as of Jan. 19, about 10,000 people had registered for the series of talks on the Eucharist and various faith-based cultural events.
Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron of Los Angeles is scheduled to give two presentations, including one for young people, while Manila Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle will speak on the "Eucharist and the Dialogue of Cultures." One cultural exchange includes visits to 14 parishes in Cebu and a first Communion ceremony will include scores of street children.
Tan said organizers expect to spend $630,000 on the congress excluding the building of structures for the gathering. The congress is attempting to raise $210,000 of the cost from small donations from regular Massgoers throughout the country.
Go developed the program called Piso Para sa Misa ng Mundo [A Peso for the International Mass] to get the ordinary laity involved and not just leave it to affluent and corporate donors. It will pay for travel costs and registration for about 1,000 delegates who otherwise could not afford to attend.
Tan expressed hope that this sort of charity would be apparent in the congress' Filipino hosts, whom he said would surely be ready to welcome delegates with their "classic Filipino smile." He told CNS about his visit to the 48th International Eucharistic Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2004 when a couple with modest means graciously offered him and companion bishops who were lost a ride back to their hotel and invited them dinner at home days later.
"For me that was the whole congress [in Guadalajara]," he said. "We hope ... our delegates will come back not just with theological input, not just with more knowledge of the Eucharist, participation in the sacraments. These are important things, but that they come out with something very human as well, that could be in their memory, that would last them a lifetime."