The International Eucharistic Congress kicks off Sunday with an opening Mass with a 1,000-strong choir and First Communions in the center of Budapest.

The congress is a celebration of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist with participants from across the world.

The tradition began in France in 1881 and has grown into an international Catholic event, alternating host countries nearly every four years for the past 140 years.

The 52nd International Eucharistic Congress is taking place on Sept. 5-12 in the capital of Hungary. Here are some of the highlights:

Opening Mass in Heroes’ Square

The congress will begin at 3 p.m. local time on Sunday, Sept. 5, in Heroes’ Square with an opening ceremony including a performance by a choir of 1,000 singers.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco will then offer the opening Mass in the square starting at 4 p.m.

The Mass will be attended by students from Hungary’s Catholic schools, some of whom will receive First Communion.

Pope Francis greets Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco at the end of an audience - . Vatican Media / ACI Group
Pope Francis greets Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco at the end of an audience - . Vatican Media / ACI Group

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Exhibition on the persecution of Christians

An exhibition on the persecution of Christians around the world will also open in cooperation with the Hungarian National Museum and Hungary Helps, the country’s humanitarian assistance program for persecuted Christians.

Speaking ahead of the congress, Regina Lynch, director of projects for the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, said: “In many countries, the faithful have a genuine longing to receive the Eucharist and feel its presence, and together with others, they face many problems -- the lack of religious freedom, insecurity as a result of civil and military conflicts, long distances combined with a lack of transport, and also poverty -- many communities lack the resources to build a place of worship or even to support their priests.”

Cardinal speakers from five continents

More than 25 cardinals and bishops will take part in the week of events at the main congress venue, the Hungexpo Budapest Congress and Exhibition Center.

The event’s program lists cardinals from five continents as leaders of the congress’ morning prayers, catechesis, testimonies, and workshops. Scheduled speakers include:

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  • Brazilian Cardinal Joao Tempesta on Sept. 6

  • Canadian Cardinal Gérald Lacroix on Sept. 7

  • Iraqi Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako on Sept. 7

  • Burmese Cardinal Charles Maung Bo on Sept. 8

  • Nigerian Cardinal John Onaiyekan on Sept. 9

  • Czech Cardinal Dominik Duka on Sept. 10

Cardinal Robert Sarah will offer a Mass at the Church of the Holy Angels in Gazdagrét on Sept. 8 and Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg will celebrate Mass on Sept. 10.

The program also includes lay Catholic speakers such as Mary Healy, a professor of Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, and Barbara Heil, an American mother of eight who converted to Catholicism after serving as an Evangelical missionary in 55 countries.

New Mass setting in Romani language

Among its daily liturgies, the congress will also feature a Mass setting in Lovari, a language spoken by the Romani people in Hungary.

The new Mass setting, known as “Le Devleske,” will be heard at a Mass offered on Sept. 9 at the Hungexpo center.

Candlelight Procession

On Saturday, Sept. 11, Cardinal Péter Erdő of Esztergom-Budapest will offer Mass in Kossuth Square, home to the spectacular Hungarian Parliament Building, followed by a candlelight procession to Heroes’ Square.

The cardinal told CNA in February that he was convinced that the congress would be “a great sign of hope for the Catholics all around the world” following the pandemic.

A view of St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest, Hungary. Alexey Elfimov via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0).
A view of St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest, Hungary. Alexey Elfimov via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0).

Closing Mass with Pope Francis

The event will culminate on Sept. 12 with a closing Mass offered by Pope Francis in Heroes’ Square at 11:30 a.m local time.

Pope Francis will be the first pope to take part in an International Eucharistic Congress since the year 2000.

The 52nd International Eucharistic Congress was originally scheduled to take place in 2020 but was postponed to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The ongoing pandemic has also had an effect on the number of Catholics who are able to travel to the international gathering.

Bishops in the Philippines had intended to send a delegation of 500 Catholics to Hungary, but instead opted to hold an online national Eucharistic congress in solidarity with the Budapest meeting.

Archbishop José Palma of Cebu still plans to fly from the Philippines to attend the congress, making him the speaker who will travel the greatest distance to the event, according to organizers.

Heroes’ Square (Hősök tere), Budapest, Hungary. Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0.
Heroes’ Square (Hősök tere), Budapest, Hungary. Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Hungary has a population of 9.8 million people, 62% of whom are Catholic. The country, which borders Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Romania, Ukraine, and Slovakia, last hosted the Eucharistic Congress in 1938.

A hymn from the 1938 congress will be used again as the official anthem of this year’s event, according to Cardinal Péter Erdő, the archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest.

He noted that the hymn gave “devout Catholics, Hungarians, strength during the war, as well as later in the decades of communism and oppression.”

“The Catholic community is waiting for the arrival of the Holy Father in great joy and love. We are praying for his visit to be the sign of hope and a new beginning after the abatement of the pandemic,” Erdő said.

The International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest will be broadcast by EWTN.