By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special Contributor | Published June 17, 2004
Kindergarteners to middle-schoolers braved new territory at the 2004 Eucharistic Congress during a divinely scripted wild ride to encounter Christ. The journey culminated in the silence of more than 1,130 children and 250 volunteers kneeling before Jesus present in the Eucharist.
The room, which came alive with inflatable palm trees and over 1,300 square feet of paintings of jungle animals done by area teens over the span of two weeks, was a microcosm of the church and its many cultures. Surrounding a center stage, children formed color-coded teams of 10 with names such as “Zealous Zebras,” “Grateful Gorillas” and “Reliable Rhinos.”
To one side of the room and in the shadow of a volcano with flowing lava, the band “Barefoot Missionaries” led the children in songs that ranged from the high-energy “Yes, Lord” to the more meditative “Jesus, I Adore You,” which all sang during eucharistic adoration at the end of the session.
Anna Mazurek, of Pinecrest Academy in Cumming, guided the trekkers throughout the day’s activities, which included making bandanas and decorating team banners that participants later carried as they paraded around the room. Often Mazurek, using her gifts of wisdom and understanding, challenged the crowded room asking for self-control and “quick obedience” when children needed to sit down or be quiet. At times she broke into spontaneous prayer or called for a Holy Spirit cheer to the tune of “We Will Rock You.” One prayer came towards the end of the “long day.” Mazurek asked the Lord to be with those gathered. “Help us to focus,” she prayed. “When we are silent you speak to us and we learn things.”
Her husband, Paul, sometimes holding their 12-week-old baby boy, strode along the stage helping her keep a pulse on the goings-on. Cheryl DePalma, director of the KidTrack, who, along with Mazurek, has run a popular summer vacation Bible school for Pinecrest Academy, orchestrated the event from behind the scenes.
“God is unbelievable,” DePalma said. “Where else can 1,500 people be put in a room and it not be chaotic? It was joyful.”
Michael Klooster, 12, played Frankie the Turtle as part of a hunt to find the three keys that would unlock the treasure chest and disclose the secret to having a personal relationship with Christ.
“My character could have gotten into a lot of trouble, but he started to read the Bible, which helped him to stay away from crime,” explained Michael, dressed as a tough talking tortoise with a red cap. He enjoys being on stage and being “goofy,” but never forgets his responsibility to “help save souls.”
“We need to give our help, to help kids learn about Jesus and everything.”
Joined by his mother, Mary Claire, playing Jane, and “Holy Hunter” Steve, played by Danny Gonzalez, along with other furry friends, the actors set off on an adventure to help the children discover the three keys to a relationship with Jesus: prayer, Scripture and Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist.
The day was not without its bumps: an occasional child wanting his or her parents, a picky eater here and there, the unknown arrival times of special visitors to address the children, and volunteers challenged with breaking through language barriers.
Paul Giles was one such volunteer who found himself the leader of a tribe of 10 Spanish-speaking children.
“I don’t speak Spanish,” he confessed, “but they’re busy. They understand enough . . . and they’re working really good.”
Giles, a senior citizen who appeared to be a natural with the children lined up for help in fastening their newly made rosaries, had volunteered to help at the congress but needed to find a spot where he would not have to stand for long periods of time. He appeared somewhat surprised to find himself in the sea of the fledgling faithful.
“They’re wonderful kids,” he said.
Haley O’Jeda, 11, opted to volunteer as an aide to one of the many teams of children. “I could be in here doing this, but I felt I wanted to help somebody else,” she said. Wearing a beard of brown-painted tape stretched across her chin, holding tubes from paper towel rolls pushed together to make a saw and layered in newspaper fastened to her clothes, Haley beamed her amusement with the imaginative approach her team took to dress her as St. Joseph. Children had free rein to decorate one of their team leaders as the saint assigned to them. This was Haley’s favorite moment of the track so far.
“I think it’s important when the kids hear the talks,” she explained, as she pondered the day’s significance. “They’re having fun and learning about Christ.”
Nearby, Artemisa Gonzalez wore an armor of newspaper and carried a cross fashioned out of cardboard tubes. Team members giggled as they put their finishing touches on their saint, Joan of Arc. Across the room St. Francis of Assisi, today played by team leader Paul Kassalen, stood stoically with a blue bird colored on a paper plate attached to his shoulder. The father of four children, ages 3, 5, 7 and 10, described the importance of children seeing that others their age have similar morals fashioned with the help of their parents. “They’ll go back to their neighborhoods and won’t think that they’re the only ones going to church.”
He called the day a focused effort through which adults, teens and children can learn about their faith. “It’s all focused on the Eucharist but on different levels.” He spoke of the need for faith formation when raising children. “The number one thing is to give them your faith,” he said. The parishioner of Prince of Peace Church in Buford spoke of his oldest child who was attending the teen track. “We’re challenging him and he’s at the transition stage of reaching the point where he can take ownership of his own spirituality.”
Volunteer Christie Thomas of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Atlanta watched as her daughter, Niya, age 4, and other children in her group colored flowers that would become part of a spiritual bouquet presented to Archbishop John F. Donoghue. Any anxiety Thomas had over her daughter’s participation in the day faded, she said, as the activities kept the children engaged. “It’s good for children to start, especially at a young age, to know who Christ is and that he’s important in their lives,” she added. “Any parent wants to get their child on the right track so that as they get older they will make good, conscious decisions with spiritual backing.”
A volunteer and the parent of teenagers, Archie Dean had already uncovered some of the many talents children on his team possessed, explaining how one little girl, Mary Bui, was incredibly focused. He was volunteering with his wife. “My belief is that if you can’t explain the concepts (of the faith) to kids at this level then it’s hard to do it when they get older.”
He remarked that it is much easier to help shape your own children’s faith by addressing issues as they arise, praying together, reading the Bible and through discussion.
Madeline Flanagan, leader of the “Careful Chameleons,” appreciated the emphasis on developing a relationship with Jesus.
“It’s an excellent way to help children begin to understand Christ . . . Christ is our friend and we can know Him,” she said.
Learning about the Eucharist is an essential element of children’s faith lives as it is “the most important part of our faith,” said volunteer Liz Mullen.
“We’re a church for the family, and we need to include kids,” added the fifth-grade teacher at Pinecrest Academy. “Start young. It helps in the middle-school and teen years. The younger you start the better.”
Close by, Kelly Cashin strung beads for her rosary. She was skeptical of what the day would bring but said it was “pretty interesting so far.” As an upcoming seventh-grader attending public school, she knows of a few Catholics and some Christians at school and seemed relieved to find others her own age whose parents brought them to the congress “to be closer to God.”
“I was kind of surprised in a good way when I looked out and saw so many kids,” she said.
Seven-year-old Oswaldo Lozano found that making new friends was “very cool.” He had attended previous congresses and hoped to come again because he has fun. He said he realizes that it is important to participate in events like this to learn more about Jesus “because He’s our God.”
Children were treated to special guest visits by Father Scott Reilly, LC, chaplain at St. Pius X High School in Atlanta, who led the session’s opening prayer, by Father Ricardo Bailey, parochial vicar at St. Joseph Church in Marietta, who told the children that it is OK to “get crunk” for Jesus, and Archbishop Donoghue, who was joined by Savannah Bishop J. Kevin Boland. The room erupted in “BOOM-dynamite” cheers for both men. Archbishop Donoghue said how pleased he was to see so many people and the variety of the people who came to “learn more about Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist.”
“I hope to do this every year for more years to come,” he told them.
Bishop Boland told all the children that they were “dynamite” and he expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to come to the congress, which was “helping all to love God better.”
Toward the end of the session and arriving earlier than planned, Deacon Lloyd Sutter processed in with the Blessed Sacrament as the children and volunteers fell on their knees. Silence came easily then as all encountered the reason for the outpouring of energy and love needed to pull off such a tremendous event. Once on center stage, Deacon Sutter placed the monstrance on a cardboard treasure box, which, still unknown to the audience, held inside an empty monstrance that the actors were to use to explain adoration before the children were to experience it. In those quiet moments the lesson seemed to be taught; no words were needed.
“God, in his humility and his plan, used a simple kid’s treasure box as an altar,” DePalma recalled.
One volunteer leader, Mary Williams, wiped tears from her eyes during the eucharistic adoration. “To me, it’s just the thought about how much God loves us—it’s just overwhelming,” she recalled later, and added that one of the children on her team prayed intently during adoration for her aunt who has cancer. “God knows our needs without us saying them.”
Williams said she and her 13-year-old daughter look forward to helping with the children’s track each year. “I think it makes it fun to be Catholic.”
Williams was impressed to see many men participate as volunteers. “It’s wonderful to see men who are so active, and they are really excited to be here, as excited as they would be at a Georgia football game.”
The grandfatherly Giles made sure to mark each of the children from his team with the sign of the cross and ask God’s blessing on them before they left.
“I think every one of the kids has been touched in one way or another,” he said. “There was the language barrier at times, but they understood enough English and tried to participate.”
He paused for a moment, and then continued with a quiver in his voice. “I think they are going to remember this day—I definitely will.”