In 1937, the 33rd International Eucharistic Congress—billed as the greatest and most glorious spiritual event ever witnessed in the Orient—was held for the first time in Asia. It was a proud moment for the Filipino people when the Philippines, the only predominantly Catholic country in the Far East, was chosen as the venue for this world-renown gathering.
The idea of Eucharistic feast was conceived by a French woman, Emilie Tamisier, supported by the Bishop of Lille and a pious layman, Philip Vrau. These events were meant to inspire spiritual revival through a program of prayer, processions, religious assemblies, pontifical masses and other activities The original intent was to have a simple national religious affair, but the response was so enthusiastic, supported even by Pope Leo XII himself. And so, the First International Eucharistic Congress was held in the city of Lille, France in 1881, attended by an unprecedented 3,000 people.
The first editions of the Eucharistic Congress were held in Europe. In 1883, Ghent, Belgium hosted the event with 10,000 participants the world over. In 1893, the Congress was held in Jerusalem, the first to have a Papal Legate, Cardinal Gossens, in attendance. Rome was the fitting venue in 1905, and in 1910, the event traveled outside of Europe, to Montreal, Canada. For the first time, America hosted the event in 1926, with Chicago as the site of the 28th congress. In 1928, it was Australia’s turn and over a million devotees came to Sydney. Africa hosted the 1930 event and in 1934, pilgrims came in full force to the capital city of Argentina, Buenos Aires, the third largest city of the new world.
The idea of making Manila the seat of the next International Eucharistic Congress was launched by a layman, Benito Soliven during a sectional meeting of the First National Eucharistic Congress in 1929. (Kapampangans were avid participants of this national congress and a triumphal provincial arch was even erected for the said event). Met with approval, the members of the Philippine hierarchy brought the matter to Manila Archbishop Michael O’ Doherty who, in turn, submitted a letter of proposal to the Secretary of the Permanent Committee of the International Eucharistic Congress, Count d’Yanville. In 1933, the Archbishop went to Rome to plead before the Permanent Committee and soon after his return, he finally received a letter of unanimous approval for the holding of the 33rd International Eucharistic Congress in Manila, from February 3-7, 1937.
Committees were organized with Most Rev. Gabriel M. Reyes D.D., Archbishop of Cebu as Honorary President. The Auxiliary Bishop of Manila, Most Rev. William Finneman was named President. Manila gave a thunderous and warm welcome to its honored guests led by the Papal Legate, His Eminence Dennis Cardinal Dougherty, Archbishop of Philadelphia, who had first come to the Philippines in 1903 as the appointed Bishop of Nueva Segovia (Vigan) and later, Jaro. One and a half million Catholics from the Philippines and from 54 other countries—including Serbia, Malta and Yugoslavia-- poured into Manila for the event, and in one mammoth procession, 600,000 participated. Pontifical masses held in Luneta and especially the one celebrated by the papal legate on the last day of the Congress were swarmed with hundreds of thousands of devotees and communicants. A magnificent altar was constructed for the occasion and the tabernacle alone cost Php2,200 minus shipping expenses from Canada.
Of special interest to local pilgrims were the Philippine Sectional Meetings of the Congress. These were held in different Manila venues, officiated by eminent religious leaders of the region and conducted in Tagalog, Visayan, Bicolano, Ilocano—and Kapampangan. There must have been a large representation of Kapampangan delegates to merit a separate meeting at the San Agustin Church in Intramuros. Moderating the 2-day sectional meetings was Rev. Fr. Jose Pamintuan, a Kapampangan priest assigned to the Sampaloc parish. The speakers for the February 1 meeting were Frs. Vicente de la Cruz (parish priest of Mexico) , Esteban David (Minalin) and layman Marcelino Aguas of San Fernando, Pampanga.
On the second day, February 5, Rev. Cosme Bituin, then the cura of Guagua, gave his talk. He was followed by Mabalacat-born Rev. Jose Dayrit of Sapangbato. (Eventually, Fr. Dayrit would leave the priesthood and start a family.) The last speaker was Mr. Juan D. Nepomuceno of Angeles, a town leader, noted businessman and one of the founders of Holy Angel Academy (now a university, the largest in Central Luzon).
When the XXXIII International Eucharistic Congress came to a close, words of praise and acclaim for the Philippines and its people reverberated throughout the city and beyond. Rev. James T. Gillis, editor of The Catholic World, summed up his experience in these words: “ One who has not visited the Philippines and has not known the religiousness of its people will be awed to find that his conception of the spiritual life of this country has an estimation of it far below the real thing. The Eucharistic Congress just closed will live in my memory as an event which is exceeding in its manifestation of the consuming devotion of the people to Christ in the Holy Eucharist”.