By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published Thursday, June 6, 2013
COLLEGE PARK—Tens of thousands of people attended the 18th annual Eucharistic Congress, delving into the Catholic faith, praying for the needs of the world, and greeting nationally known speakers.
The Georgia International Convention Center became the mecca of the Catholic community for a day and a half on May 31 and June 1, as it hosted one of the largest gatherings of Catholics in the Southeast. Organizers estimate some 30,000 people attended.
“It’s like recharging your batteries,” said Janice Capano, a parishioner at St. Andrew Church, Roswell. “It’s that beautiful Catholic community.”
Believers speaking Spanish rubbed elbows with Vietnamese Catholics and people deepened their faith communicating in American Sign Language, as young adults explored what it means to be a Catholic saint through the eyes of an art historian.
Victor Pap, who runs the boutique marketing firm Little Flower Strategies and attends St. Michael Church, Woodstock, said the congress is a snapshot of the American Catholic extended family.
“It’s the most accurate cross-section of American Catholics under one roof,” he said.
Applause greeted Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory as he welcomed the crowd in the cavernous conference hall to the annual event. “It is a celebration that brings together our growing and diverse community,” he said. The experience of the congress is different for everyone as some listen to speakers, others reconnect with friends and others receive the sacrament of reconciliation, he said.
The theme focused on the Year of Faith, with an emphasis on the Virgin Mary and her words at the wedding feast of Cana: “Do whatever he tells you.”
Focusing his morning homily on the Virgin Mary, Archbishop Carlo Vigano, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, said she is the ideal model for believers. He spoke during the morning session Saturday morning, June 1.
“We show the world what is important. We follow Jesus,” he said. And Mary is the “greatest witness to faith-filled obedience to God’s will.”
Mary first allows Jesus to grow in her womb by saying yes to God’s will, he said. From the Annunciation to Jesus’ birth to his Resurrection, Mary is there devoted to her son, he said. She is “a witness to all generations of the importance of following Jesus,” he said.
Archbishop Vigano told the crowd that “Mary encourages us to put our entire lives—our past, our present, our future—into her son’s hands” to transform us “into something better.”
The faithful need to be attentive to the voice of God in their lives and “entrust our lives to Jesus,” he said. Jesus wants to be “always on the concrete path of our daily lives, so he can transform us. If we follow him, we will never be lost,” said Archbishop Vigano.
“Let us never forget whenever Mary is present among God’s people, the church comes alive and is cared for. She is the mother of the church,” he said.
In his welcome, Archbishop Gregory also spoke about the Virgin Mary, reminding the crowded room how Jesus performed his first miracle at her request at the wedding in Cana.
“She always intercedes for us and leads us to Christ,” he said.
The 2013 Eucharistic Congress, held during the Year of Faith proclaimed by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, is “a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord Jesus, the one Savior of the world,” Archbishop Gregory said later during the day.
The celebration began Friday evening, May 31, as people streamed to Mass with Bishop Luis R. Zarama. Afterward, young people ended up at Revive, in a ballroom at the nearby Marriott Hotel, to hear art historian Elizabeth Lev, Ph.D., speak on Sts. Lawrence and Agnes, while others joined in prayer for a healing service led by Father Tim Hepburn and Father Jacques Fabre.
On Saturday, June 1, the grand Eucharistic procession, including close to 100 parishes, schools, ministries, dancers and spiritual groups with banners held high, marched into the convention center. It took more than 45 minutes for the last marchers to make their way into the building.
Speakers during the day included theology professor and author Scott Hahn, musician and convert Collin Raye, Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle, Wash., and Msgr. Eduardo Chavez, a scholar on Our Lady of Guadalupe. Tracks were offered in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and American Sign Language, along with one for young children.
Two women from the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Atlanta, were attending for the first time, encouraged by their pastor.
Sandra Sellers, a retired Delta flight attendant, said she was relishing the atmosphere she’d experienced the night before, visiting exhibitors’ booths and information tables for religious congregations, receiving prayer cards and seeing the women religious in differing habits.
“I love being a Catholic, and I love celebrating that I am Catholic,” Sellers said.
Lori Bell-Montgomery, who was taking in the early morning panorama of colorful garb, dancers and musicians, said, “Even my first impression is—wow. A lot of people, very diverse.”
Having just taken on the role as stewardship chair for her parish, she said, “I wanted to come and be immersed in everything Catholic, to see what other parishes are doing and bring good ideas back.”
Marlena Martin, 21, a rising senior at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., said experiencing the Eucharistic Congress “is an awesome feeling.”
“When you come in the door, you leave your differences outside,” Martin said. “I don’t care how old you are, how young you are, everybody is ready to praise the Lord together.”
“I think this is an important event for people of all cultures, all ethnicities, all races, being able to come as one and praise the Almighty Father,” Martin said.
A member of St. Paul of the Cross Church, Atlanta, she’s attended congresses since middle school when she helped carry the St. John the Evangelist School banner and later with her high school, Our Lady of Mercy.
“This is my day to reflect with the Lord,” she said. “I love the whole Catholic environment.”
Many people were repeat visitors, coming back many times, in fact.
Tony Tramonte, 53, who works at Georgia Power and who attends Holy Trinity Church, Peachtree City, said the opportunity for confession is an attraction for him.
“It’s a great event. It involves hundreds of priests. They bring world class speakers,” he said. “It’s just a great Catholic gathering. I wish all Catholic dioceses could participate,” he said.
His son, Ryan, serves in the Army and was home on leave from Alaska. He along with friends attended the Revive program, which is always energizing, he said. “It was awesome,” said the young man. He was at the convention hall also Saturday with his family before his flight back to Alaska.
Vicky Palmertree carried about $30 worth of religious books and medals bought at the exhibitors’ hall. She was standing with her boys, Zachary and Andrew, who had more than $20 worth of merchandise between them. Zachary was going to be one of the altar servers during the closing Mass.
“We’ve been wanting to go for many years,” she said. “It’s nice to be around other Catholics and worship with them,” said Palmertree.
For those looking to the find the latest bestsellers or a souvenir, or even an heirloom, the vendors’ marketplace was crowded when doors opened at 11 a.m. There were more than 70 exhibitors set up, from Catholic schools to booksellers and from fairly traded coffee to colorful T-shirts.
Image Catholic Books, part of Random House, displayed everything from children’s cartoon books to the Catechism. It was the first time the publishers attended the congress.
Johanna Inwood, senior marketing manager, said Hahn’s new book “Consuming the Word” flew off the shelf and sold out by mid-afternoon. Another popular seller was the Catechism of the Catholic Church, especially the Spanish version. Not many people were going home with books by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI or Pope Francis’ “On Heaven and Earth” despite the media attention surrounding them.
Immaculata Designs is based in North Carolina. Betsy Shamine made her first appearance at the congress, with her heirloom rosaries, chaplets and religious jewelry.
“I believe in using sacred art to reclaim our Catholic identity,” said Shamine, a former engineer.
There wasn’t one piece of her art that was more popular, she said. Instead, “People come and the Spirit moves them to take what they need at the time,” she said.
“I want the rosary to be handed down as an heirloom for generations,” she added.
Little Flower Strategies, a marketing firm with a Catholic perspective, had a booth where people were handed roses and chocolates. Visitors were treated to a small concert by musician Tori Harris, who played a mix of her old songs and new releases.
Pap, the owner, said he could tell how happy people were to be attending the congress.
“People are genuinely excited about the Eucharist,” he said.
At the closing Mass following an afternoon filled with talks and music in the various tracks, Archbishop Gregory reflected on the story of the wedding feast at Cana since the congress theme came from Mary’s words there.
Those were the last words spoken by Mary recorded in Scripture, he said.
“That exhortation … is spoken to every disciple who has ever lived,” Archbishop Gregory said.
During the years when the Holy Family lived in Nazareth Mary came to know Jesus and “she learned to trust and believe in him,” the archbishop said. “Mary became the very model of faith in those hidden years.”
Her words at the marriage feast of Cana communicate her faith, he said.
“What is revealed is the great confidence Mary had in her Son, so much so that she could instruct the waiters—and all of us, in all of our cultural and ethnic diversity—‘Do whatever he tells you.’”
“And we all know,” he concluded, “that we ought to listen to Mom.”
Deacon Dennis Dorner, lead organizer, said the congress continues to evolve as the planning team works to attract newcomers with different speakers, music and vendors.
Deacon Dorner said he wished “more of our priests would participate in the congress.”
People love to see their priests at the liturgies and walking through the hallways and participating in general, he said.
“We were blessed this year with many visiting priests who assisted with confessions,” he said in an email, “but I pray that more of our diocesan priests could find the time to encourage their people to attend and to come themselves and share in the joy of our Catholics from this diocese gathered in community!”
The Spanish community at the congress has doubled in two years, he said.
“I am happy to see it so filled. I don’t know what we can do within the constraints of the GICC to make it any larger. We are hopeful that the city of College Park is able to expand the facility. We could certainly fill two additional exhibit halls,” he said.
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