By MARY ANNE CASTRANIO, Staff Writer | Published June 17, 2004
A record number of people—over 23,000—thronged to the Georgia International Convention Center on Saturday, June 12, to participate in the ninth annual Eucharistic Congress, a daylong event sponsored by the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
The day, which was dedicated to the Eucharist, the central sacrament of the Catholic faith, brought together the faithful from all over North Georgia and beyond, from the cities to the suburbs, to the mountains and the rural areas, from large metropolitan churches to the smallest of missions, all brought together to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi (literally, the “body of Christ”) and the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
This Eucharistic Congress in Georgia, attended by thousands from as far away as Florida, Alabama and Pennsylvania, was held just two days after Pope John Paul II declared 2005-2006 to be the “Year of the Eucharist.”
The excitement and devotion of the people attending the event was palpable. And although they spoke a variety of languages—English, Spanish, French, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog and others—all spoke the language of God in their prayers of thanksgiving for the gift of Christ in the Eucharist.
The theme of this year’s congress was “To Live in Christ Jesus,” the motto and prayer taken directly from Archbishop John F. Donoghue’s coat of arms.
“Today’s activities and thoughts, today’s sharing and fellowship, today’s happening has been for this: that we who attend may become alive, by the grace of our Lord’s sacrifice—His giving to us, His precious Body, His precious Blood,” Archbishop Donoghue told the gathering.
“May the light of the Holy Eucharist swallow up the shadows that surround us, and may our beloved Church live anew, filled with the life of Her Bridegroom, our Lord and Redeemer, Jesus Christ.”
A slate of nationally and internationally known speakers edified and challenged attendees with talks throughout the day in simultaneous tracks, which included a general program, a Hispanic program attended by about 6,000, a teen program attended by about 2,000, and a children’s track that served over 1,100. A Vietnamese program was offered during the afternoon. REVIVE! III, a program for the young adults (ages 18-40), was held at the convention center on Friday evening, June 11.
The schedule included the opening Benediction in the morning following a procession into the venue and a homily by Savannah Bishop J. Kevin Boland and ended with a moving celebration of the Mass in the evening, celebrated by Bishop José Gomez, auxiliary bishop of the Denver Archdiocese, who substituted for Bishop Joseph Galante of the Diocese of Camden, N.J., who had had unexpected knee surgery. The closing Mass was concelebrated by numerous priests from the Archdiocese of Atlanta, as well as Archbishop Donoghue, Bishop Boland and Bishop Felipe de Jesús Estévez, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Miami.
Speakers included Catholic apologist Jeff Cavins, author and commentator Deal Hudson, Ph.D., a convert to Catholicism, and Alan Keyes, Ph.D., a strongly pro-life Catholic and conservative observer of American cultural and public life.
As the Eucharistic Congress commenced, the diverse crowd, singing and bearing vivid banners, gathered in the early morning for the long, colorful procession into the convention center. Groups included parishes, religious organizations, schools and employees of the archdiocese.
“I think this is a tremendous way to bring the church together—for Catholics to see other Catholics—and it is a tremendous faith tool,” said Crickett Aull standing beside the banner of St. Philip Benizi Church, Jonesboro. “When you are with that many thousands of Catholics worshiping God, it is contagious.”
The quality of the speakers each year has inspired her to invite “my Protestant friends to come. ”
“It is a great witness to why we (Catholics) do what we do. The speakers explain things well and they are inspiring,” Aull said.
Joseph M. Thorpe, a former color sergeant in the U.S. Army, held the banner of St. John the Evangelist Church in Hapeville for the fourth year in a row and expressed satisfaction over the turnout of 20,000 or more people. “It’s excellent. One of the reasons I came today is because I want to hear Alan Keyes, a very good speaker. We’re glad to spend a whole day here.”
Twenty-year-old Donna Do from the youth group at Our Lady of Vietnam Church in Riverdale looked forward to the opportunity to meet with a variety of Catholics her age.
“It’s great because it shows that there are a lot of other Christians having strong faith. It is a good chance to interact and to know people from other churches,” she said.
Father Rafael Castaño, pastor of St. Bernadette Church, Cedartown, brought a busload of 60 people from the parish. Looking around at the mass of people in the opening procession he said, “It is an encouragement to me as a priest.”
He tells his parishioners that this pilgrimage reflects the spirit of the whole Christian life. “It is a walk in faith. It is the life of Jesus.”
David Fox, who became a Catholic in 1992, volunteered to head up his parish’s involvement in the Eucharistic Congress as soon as he heard about the event several years ago.
The parishioner at St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Dahlonega said, “I look at this archbishop. I see all these people and I say, ‘Praise God. The Catholic Church is alive and well.’”
Jason Rohan carried the banner from Our Lady of the Assumption Church, Atlanta, with pride at the end of the procession, although he was accompanied by only one other person from the parish. He noted that quite a few people from OLA were inside the convention center and that others would arrive later. Rohan shared that he had “heard a lot of stories” from his fellow church members about how wonderful the event is and that he had asked for the time off work well in advance so that he could attend.
At the head of the procession was the monstrance holding the Blessed Sacrament, held reverently by Bishop Boland and surrounded by priests and deacons of the archdiocese.
As the priests, deacons and the monstrance entered the main floor of the convention center, a wave of excitement and sound swept across the crowd inside.
Bishop Boland was the homilist for the adoration and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. He likened this huge gathering to a recent family wedding to which members of his family had flocked from all over the globe, because they “wanted to be really present.” And, he said, “Jesus, in the Blessed Sacrament, is always present. The reality is in our midst.”
Bishop Boland challenged the crowd by saying, “We ourselves are called to be a real presence of Christ to each other.”
This special day, he said, is “set apart for all the diverse members” of the church, “to take time out and let God lead us in ways that will strengthen the body of Christ.”
“To be present to each other is one of the myriad gifts of the Spirit,” he added.
Noting the size of the crowd, Bishop Boland said, “Your presence here in such vast numbers is also a sacrament. You are a sacrament to each other.”
Ending with a thoughtful question, he said, “Who are we that the Lord Jesus is with us always through the end of time?”
Rev. Mr. Neil Herlihy, a seminarian from Atlanta, carefully carried the monstrance to the adoration chapel set up at the convention center, where it would reside, surrounded by prayer, for the remainder of the day.
Father Kevin Peek, former pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Decatur, and now chaplain of Blessed Trinity High School, Roswell, spoke to the crowd, mentioning that 80 percent of Catholics don’t understand church teaching on the Eucharist.
“Right here in Atlanta,” he said, “we have events that protect, preserve and celebrate the central truth of our faith.”
The leadership of Archbishop Donoghue, who established perpetual adoration in the Atlanta Archdiocese and who established the first Eucharistic Congress nine years ago, he said, has helped to “to spark a revolution in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and across the United States” as we “gather to listen.”
Archbishop Donoghue welcomed the people to this special event, “to honor the Lord . . . for the food He gives by His death and life, the food of His body and blood.”
After the archbishop welcomed visitors, speakers and participants to the Congress, he said, “This day, and its many events, both liturgical and informative, I am sure, will bring to your minds and hearts a rich sampling of what the Church has gleaned from the great mystery of Faith which supports all our belief, all our hope, and all our love for one another—the mystery of how Christ died for our sins, offering himself as the Perfect Sacrifice, and how His Sacrifice continues in our midst—a Sacrifice from whose bounty the Church calls us all to the adoration of God and a life of grace.”
With the blessing of the archbishop, the crowds separated to attend the sessions of their choice or to shop in the vendor area where Catholic goods of all kinds were available for purchase.
As the Babecka family stood in the conference center hallway, the priest passed by them carrying the Blessed Sacrament to begin the morning adoration, and they knelt in reverence.
“This is good, guys, we have a front row for the procession,” Bob Babecka said to his five children, including two daughters participating in the first Communion procession and one in a stroller, as they waited for the Congress to begin.
He and his wife Cyndi, members of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Dallas, first attended the annual event at Holy Spirit Church in 1999, which spurred them on their journey towards Catholicism. Babecka said he was “looking for a miracle,” when, then a Buddhist and agnostic, he went to Holy Spirit to talk with the speaker Father Benedict Groeschel, CFR. He was particularly struck by Father Groeschel’s mention of a cathedral in Lugo, Spain, where perpetual adoration has gone on with few interruptions since the year 706.
Babecka had become interested in Catholicism through the pro-life movement, and met with Father Tom Hennessy, who thoroughly discussed his questions and concerns.
“His answers were so strong. I pounded him for two and a half hours,” he recalled. “He was ready to talk and grapple with these things and so from that point on I took the Catholic Church real seriously, but I wasn’t convinced.”
Babecka, an engineer in the nuclear power industry, eventually attended an international conference on the Shroud of Turin and spoke with researchers who pushed him to take a leap of faith.
“I’m feeling much better now. The faith has been a real blessing, a real gift to our family,” he said. “Now there’s a reason for what we do. There’s a reason we have for living our lives. My wife and I know we were made to know, love and serve God . . . I don’t think you can have a sense of direction if you don’t know where you’re going. I’ve got something important to share with my children and that they and I are enthusiastic about.”
Father Hennessy, pastor of St. Patrick Church, Norcross, was the priest assigned to plan and coordinate the opening eucharistic procession. He said that he’s always encouraged parishioners at the churches where he’s served to attend the Eucharistic Congress. People “who’ve never gone before and finally go, regret that they didn’t go before,” he said. “Now they would never miss it for the world.”
He said that the Congress is “really a Catholic event—you don’t see anything this large in the United States. It’s not just you and your parish—it’s people from all over.”
Mike Gozdick, who came from St. Mary’s Church in Jackson, said he had gotten “goose bumps” at last year’s inspiring event. Standing by his parish banner before the opening procession, he said he is grateful for Archbishop Donoghue’s focus on eucharistic renewal and respect for the Mass.
“He’s helped bring us back to focus on what we’re to be doing. We got at a point where in the Mass people weren’t paying attention to the details—a lot of people standing during the consecration. There was a recent letter about being quiet before Mass, more concentration on the Blessed Sacrament and the Eucharist. It got for a while where you felt like when you went into the church you . . . were walking into a meeting room,” he said. “The Eucharist is the church . . . If we didn’t have the Eucharist we wouldn’t have the church.”
The closing Mass came at the end of a full day of speakers, prayer, activities and fellowship. Once again the priests processed into the church, preceded by the children who had made their first Communion during the Easter season, dressed in their finery and excited to be a part of the Mass.
Bishop Gomez presided over the liturgy and gave a powerful homily in both English and Spanish. “What a wonderful way to celebrate the solemnity of the body and blood of Christ,” he said.
He shared that he is from a small parish of about 150 in Denver, and this gathering was thousands of times bigger than his usual audience. He gave thanks to God for the “wonderful gift of the Eucharist and the opportunity to be together for the celebration of holy Mass.”
Bishop Gomez offered the Mass for the intentions of Archbishop Donoghue, who had dedicated the Mass to the men and women of the armed forces serving overseas, and for the intentions of the archdiocese.
The Eucharist, he said, “is a daily blessing . . . Communion changes us,” and we “become passionate witnesses” to the fact that “Jesus is not just an idea, a thought, a symbol,” but a “perfect man who came to earth.”
Once again, the people were challenged with the idea that “we can’t be content to just stand still . . . we need to pray for faith.” The bishop asked that “we examine our conscience, cleanse our souls, and keep in a state of grace” so that “our lives are a continuing preparation for holy Communion.”
“Eucharist is a sacrament of joy,” he said.
The Catholic scholar and author J.R.R. Tolkien told his son to memorize the words of the consecration of the Mass, Bishop Gomez said. “Learn these words by heart because they are words of joy.”
Acknowledging the diversity of the crowd, the Prayers of the Faithful were presented in English, Spanish, French, Vietnamese and Korean by seminarians and Religious of the archdiocese. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, Tenn., brought up the gifts to the altar.
Father John Shramko, parochial vicar at St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell, organized the closing Mass at the end of the Congress. He was thankful for the “incredible display of faith . . . that people would take time out of their busy schedules to come and celebrate Jesus in the Eucharist.” Father Shramko also noted “the expressions of the visiting bishops . . . they were in awe at the number of people in attendance.” He said that looking out on “the sea of people during the Mass” was indeed awe-inspiring.
Mary Elkins chaired the steering committee for the event for the archdiocese this year and will again next year. The committee spent months throughout the year planning the programs, getting speakers and organizing the many volunteers that make the whole thing happen—and did it gladly for the people of the archdiocese. She said, “At the end of the day, after all of the work and all the hours, you can only say, ‘What a blessing.’”
Jane Block, a member of St. Brigid Church, Alpharetta, said in an interview following the congress that although she’s a cradle Catholic she had never been to such an amazing event, and that she left feeling enriched and strengthened.
“I think it was a fantastic experience, very encouraging, educational, informational, spectacular. You have to be in the right space for it to make that impact. I had things I needed to hear, things I am handling in my life…It really helped me in my own spiritual journey. It gave me some direction and energy,” she said. “I was so proud to be a part of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.”
Priscilla Greear and Gretchen Keiser also contributed to this story.